'The I Hate to Cook Book': Relic of an era holds up well

ATLANTA - Would you rather fold your dishwater hands around a dry martini or a wet flounder, come the end of a long day?

If you recognize that paraphrased line, then I know you are a woman, and I know not to ask your age.

This witty nugget is the opening gambit of The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. Written in 1960, this slim collection of recipes seems, by today's standards, a prime example of midcentury food skeeze. It wallows in cream of mushroom soup, tinned smoked oysters, store-bought desserts spiked with harsh booze, and various perversions of cream cheese.

And yet, The I Hate to Cook Book also qualifies as some of the most delightful and influential food writing of the last 50 years. Bracken's often hilarious commentary about the rules of entertaining, the language of food, and the gender roles imposed on women stays fresh. Relevant, even.

I rediscovered the book in my mother-in-law's cookbook shelf. Her copy was split along its spine and heavily stained on Page 70, where the recipe for lasagne casserole headlined a company menu that included green salad with mandarin oranges, French bread, and Irish coffee.

The latter is the only finale Bracken served her Kennedy-era guests. She called it "the triple threat: coffee, dessert and liqueur all in one," adding that one is, thankfully, enough. "It serves as a pleasant punctuation mark to the evening, and, because it also has a slight somniferous effect on many people, your guests may eventually go home."

Beneath the chatty, breezy irony of Bracken's prose lies the irksome truth - for women of her generation, cooking conferred status. She came of age as a homemaker during the first wave of postwar food aspiration. It was a time when cookbooks and magazines depicted fulsome home-cooked meals in lavish, color-coordinated spreads. Bracken, in turn, moaned that she "wouldn't cook that much for a combination Thanksgiving and Irish wake."

The idea for the book came out of a luncheon with girlfriends ("We decided to pool our ignorance"), that regarded cooking as a chore and entertaining as something that demanded time-saving strategies rather than grandiose ideas.

A chapter titled "Good Cooksmanship" advises readers on how to discuss cooking to make it look as if you really care: Instead of "cold," use the word "chilled"; instead of "top with bacon," say "garnish with crispy bacon curls."

She may have talked the talk, but Bracken clearly hated the growing food snobbery among the middle class. "You watch your friends redoing their kitchens and hoarding their pennies for glamorous cooking equipment and new cookbooks called Eggplant Comes to the Party or Let's Waltz Into the Kitchen, and presently you begin to feel un-American."

Don't, said Bracken. When the "haute cuisine crowd" comes over, serve plain vegetables as a side dish, dressed with butter, salt and pepper - always making sure the latter is coarse ground "because a lot of people feel that anything peppered should look as though it had been fished out of a gravel pit."

Volunteer friends to bring the main course to a potluck with a shallow compliment ("Ethel, would you make that marvelous goulash of yours?") and then promise to bring your "delectable" Left Bank French Loaves - a kind of garlic bread made with onion soup mix and butter slathered on baguettes.

For a ladies' luncheon, Bracken wrote, you should prepare a light fruit dessert to appease dieters, but also set out store-bought chocolates, and cookies for those with a sweet tooth but occasion no offense to the hostess if declined. She used social convention to reduce her own stress as a hostess.

Hers was a frugal voice that saw no need to waste money on expensive almonds for green beans, which will still taste like green beans in the end. But she also encouraged women to throw away leftovers rather than put time or effort in the losing prospect of renewed palatability.

Bracken worked full time as an advertising executive - a fact she never mentions in the book. Even as a working woman of her era, she still had to do all the cooking and cleaning. (The I Hate to Housekeep Book soon followed.) She accepted this onus with great good humor, even if she didn't particularly like it.

Looking through The I Hate to Cook Book and its headlong dive into the world of convenience foods, it would be easy enough to see this book as the beginning of the end. Bracken paved the way for such modern-day horrors as The Dinner Doctor and the whole "semi-homemade" enterprise. But Peg Bracken was more than her generation's Sandra Lee. She was also its Jane Austen.