As you may know, I love food history. That love is manifested in my extensive collection of cookbooks. If I had to estimate, I’d say I have more than 3,000 cookbooks, spanning from 1854 (Miss Leslie’s New Cookbook) to present day. When people find this out, they usually ask about my favorites. We don’t have enough time here to go through my entire list (how could I even choose one?), but one certain book does hold a special place in my collection with more editions represented than any other series – The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.
This series of cookbooks dates back to 1930. They were simply My Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book until 1935, when the name officially changed to The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. If you were to ask me what would be the one cookbook that:
- Could get a cooking novice up to speed the fastest;
- Represents the best collection of the tastiest foods;
- Is the most tried-and-true, go-to recipe book and historical food record
… my answer would be the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.
Besides being extremely useful, these books (especially the early versions) can be fun. Really, in what other cookbook would you find a serious recipe called “Irish-Italian Spaghetti?”
Local readers can take pride in knowing this iconic series of cookbooks originated in Des Moines and is still produced here. In 1928, Better Homes and Gardens built a tricked-out test kitchen here for their culinary investigations; prior to that, recipes were tested in the home kitchen of Genevieve Callahan, the households editor for Better Homes and Gardens magazine, according to a timeline at www.bhg.com. When these cookbooks first came out they had some features that were considered revolutionary at the time. For example, they had ring bindings so that they would lie flat on a counter top. They also had tabs to make it easier to find recipe categories.
It is nice to know that I am not alone in my appreciation of this cookbook. The book conjures up plenty of memories for Des Moines’ Wini Moranville, author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook. More than that, she has actually worked on the book, which she tells me is commonly called the “red plaid” cookbook around Meredith (the media corporation that owns the Better Homes and Gardens brand). Wini adds:
“I truly learned to cook from that book. It was my Mom’s ‘go to’ book in the ’60s and ’70s, and she taught me to cook from it when I was little. I especially remember making brownies for the first time and on rainy Saturdays, we’d make yeast donuts from the cookbook – glazed with an orange glaze. Gosh they were good. When I moved to NYC in my ’20s, I brought my own copy of the cookbook with me, and it got me through many a meal when I had to live cheaply, and bring something gratifying and quick to the table at the end of those crazy-busy NYC office days.”
Of course, Wini branched out over time. She bought all kinds of cookbooks, she recalls. What she discovered is that some times recipes from celebrated cookbooks just did not work. “Such a thing won’t happen with the ‘Red Plaid’ – every recipe is tested again and again. They work,” Wini says, adding “They leave nothing to chance for the home cook.”
When she wrote her own cookbook a few years ago, Wini used cooking charts in the later editions’ meat chapters. “They were invaluable to me as I was developing recipes. As in “hm… how long should I test the pork roast for? Oh, ‘Red Plaid’ says ‘X minutes’ at ‘X temperature.” Those charts were never wrong.”
Editions change over the years, she points out, “But I swear the lasagna recipe from my mother’s edition (which she got in the early ’60s) was the best.” Wini even wrote about that lasagna in her own blog.
My friend Sam Auen of Tacopocalypse can also wax nostalgic with the best of us about this book. He tells me that some of his earliest memories go back to his childhood fascination with his grandmother’s cookbook shelf. He says:
“Even before I could read I would take out The New Better Homes And Gardens Cookbook from its roost and flip through its pages. I remember spying the red tartan-ish cover, the silhouettes of pots and pans overlaying its tablecloth motif. I have been told by my mother that I spent hours as a child banging on pots and pans like they were part of a drum set while sitting on cookbooks as my throne.”
Later, when Sam joined the ranks of readers, he would sit at the table and memorize recipes for pancakes, roasts and gravy techniques while he waited for everyone in the house to fall asleep.
Then, he recalls, “I could turn on Little Rascals at 4am and try out some of these dishes (a.k.a. make huge messes). I cooked from it, and its peers, throughout my teen years, learning to use book recipes as a basis for creating my own. When I moved out and got married, that book came along with. I guess I have always had The New Cook Book in my life, and even years later as I have moved away from using books, this old friend sits proudly on in my cookbook library.”
My 1945 edition is certainly one of my favorites; you gotta check out the gems in the “casserole and one dish meal” section. The recipes include “Rice with Almond Sauce,” “Rice Croquettes” (which some of you bon vivants might recognize as an American version of Arancini), “Chicken and Rice Casserole,” and the previously mentioned very-tasty-but-not-at-all-Italian “Italian Spaghetti.” Perhaps my favorite though is the not-really-Irish, not-really-Italian “Irish-Italian Spaghetti!”
The wheat bread recipe is one of the best I’ve seen; then, there’s the meat section. I am rather fond of the “Chicken Fried Round Steak,” the solid “Everyday Meatloaf” recipe, “Swedish Ham Balls,” “Ham Loaf” and a better-than-your-penitentiary “Savory Chipped Beef on Noodles.” There’s also a recipe for “Chili Balls.” You should make this recipe just because it’s fun to say!
There are 10 – yes, 10 – pages dedicated to all sorts of tasty pies. There’s also an impressive section on candy featuring butter toffee, black walnut taffy and a time-tested recipe for peanut brittle. The recipes go on and on; it’s easy to see why this book is one of the favorites in my collection!
The new books have some great features (I enjoy browsing their diagrams of mushrooms, chilies, beans and olive varieties as well as up-to-date takes on meat, fish and poultry dishes). But personally, I love the older versions full of culinary gems. Since there was no food TV networks or recipe websites back in the day, home cooks heavily relied on cookbooks, newspapers and magazines for new culinary inventions. A cook might make a recipe and move on, or perhaps the recipe would be given to someone else who would make minor variations before passing it along again. These books were truly the blueprint for American home cooking!
Combing through the the older editions of cookbooks can be like going through a happy time warp full of dishes that have fallen out of mainstream favor. Breads, wilted spinach salad, beef cubes in sour cream, savory chipped beef and even hamburgers are delightfully frozen in time.
Both my grandmothers were born in Italy, so I did not grow up with what I call good old-fashioned midwestern cooking. I’m not sure if it’s because I am getting older or if it’s just my love for food history, but I can’t resist the nostalgia of this book and the old midwest and regional American cuisine it contains. This book has become the American grandmother I never had. So this summer, I suggest going to a few garage sales and finding your own “American Grandmother” by picking up a vintage copy of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book!