Peg Bracken

'The I Hate to Cook Book' author


Ruth Eleanor (Peg) Bracken, writer: born Filer, Idaho 25 February 1918; married first Mike Smith; second Roderick Lull (one daughter); third Parker Edwards (died 1988); fourth 1991 John Ohman; died Portland, Oregon 20 October 2007.

Almost 50 years ago, Peg Bracken used her skills as an advertising copywriter, her good nose for trends, her trenchant wit, and her well-hidden knowledge of food and cooking to write The I Hate to Cook Book. First published in 1960, it hit a nerve in America and Britain and sold three million copies world-wide.

The book's success came partly because it did not look forward to the renewed interest in food and cooking exemplified in the late Sixties and Seventies by Julia Child and James Beard, but backwards to the 1950s. It appealed to women who ought to have been liberated from kitchen slavery by the Second World War, but instead found themselves expected by their husbands and children to cook every meal, and to serve it looking like Doris Day in a particularly cheerful movie.

The only way to accomplish this was by massive cheating, using packaged ingredients (often intended to produce quite a different dish) or by cutting several steps out of the method of a recipe. She was in the opposite camp to Irma Rombauer, whose The Joy of Cooking had been in print continuously since its publication in 1931. Their differences lay not just in the matter of their titles, but also in their underlying attitudes. "Some women, it is said, like to cook," Bracken wrote. "This book is not for them."

She had no sympathy for the sort of book that made cooking seem an agreeable way to spend time, titles she caricatured as "Eggplant Comes to the Party" or "Let's Waltz Into the Kitchen". Speed was the chief desideratum of any Bracken recipe – the virtue of a dish was measured by how little time the cook had to spend in the kitchen to prepare it.

This applied to rounding up the ingredients as well: they had to be common, convenient and (as a bonus) cheap – frozen, tinned, or in a resealable packet were best. Condensed soups were essential, as was Spam (and other tinned-meat products), crushed cornflakes (to replace breadcrumbs) and powdered onion soup (used as is, not rehydrated). She used plenty of alcohol, but often recommended taking a shortcut and just drinking it. Her book, after all, was meant to appeal to "those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder".

The method for "Skid Road Stroganoff" was typical:

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the noodle water. Brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

In the same vein, she gave the reader Stayabed Stew, Sole Survivor and Spinach Surprise. Her flair for language went beyond a gift for alliteration, and she made frequent appearances on radio and television in the 1960s. To their shame (because her brief was to encourage housewives to save time, not to encourage them to put wholesome meals on their families' tables), but to her profit, she also became a spokesperson for Birds Eye frozen foods.

However, as Laura Shapiro shows, in her scholarly and entertaining book Something from the Oven: reinventing dinner in 1950s America (2004), Bracken was only able to simplify recipes and shopping because, underlying the facetious instructions and the sometimes shocking substitutions of ingredients, there was a real knowledge of cooking and a lot of covert good taste. She notices, for example, that in Bracken's world, the greatest pleasure to be had in a kitchen "lies mostly in the painless execution of the task". She quotes Bracken's introduction to her recipe for cookies: "When you hate to cook you ask a lot of a cooky recipe. It must call for no exotic ingredients. It must be easy. It must not, above all, call for any rolling out and cutting. It must produce extremely good cookies. And quite a lot of them."

Bracken knew what would work. Though rapidity and simplicity of preparation are her summum bonum, and though she encouraged the use of some convenience foods, she did not confine her ingredients to these. Shapiro has done the sums: of Bracken's recipes,

a large handful of them list all fresh ingredients, a smaller handful rely on packaged ingredients almost exclusively, and the greatest number call for both. That is . . .the way millions of women were cooking in the 1950s: they used one or two shortcut ingredients in otherwise standard preparations.

Bracken never claimed to have originated a recipe and confessed she has no idea who did. She got the recipes from "batter-spattered file cards belonging to people who had copied them from other batter-spattered file cards". She also skewered the clichés of food-language in a way I wish writers would heed today. Her guide to being pretentious included the advice never to describe something as "browned" when it could be " golden," and (my own bugbear) never to call anything just plain " crisp" when you can get away with "crispy".

Ruth Eleanor Bracken (she chose her nickname, Peg, herself "out of thin air", she said, when she began to look for work) was born in Idaho and brought up in Missouri. She got her BA from the progressive Ohio liberal arts college Antioch in 1940. She found a job writing fashion-advertising copy in Portland, Oregon, where she settled; and she also published light verse in magazines and newspapers.

The cookery-book idea came when she pooled recipes with a group of professional women, who called themselves the "Hags". Bracken compiled and edited the recipes and wrote the overall text. However, she had difficulty finding a publisher. "Male editors were afraid of it," she said in a New York Times interview in 1964, "because they were convinced that women regarded anything that had to do with cooking very seriously and would not stand for an attitude that was the least bit flippant."

At the time of I Hate to Cook she was married to a writer, Roderick Lull (having divorced her first husband, Mike Smith). When she showed Lull the manuscript, he said, "It stinks." This led, said their daughter Johanna, to divorce number two. Lull having been "totally discouraging," said Bracken, "when the first royalty cheque came, he had to eat a huge platter of crow – French-fried or oven-baked – because that's the easiest". Her third husband, an artist named Parker Edwards, died in 1988, and three years later she married again.

She tried to follow her initial success with The I Hate to Housekeep Book (1962), and an etiquette manual, I Try to Behave Myself (1964); there was also a memoir, A Window Over the Sink (1981), and a collection of essays called On Getting Old for the First Time (1997). Always the ready wit, she listed for this volume a fictitious co-author, Emily Bracken, whom she identified as her "verse-addicted companion".

Paul Levy

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