When Peg Bracken wrote The I Hate to Cook Book back in 1960, the former advertising copywriter's admission that she'd rather enjoy a drink and good company than trim toast points was considered radical.
"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," Bracken wrote in the book's most-quoted passage, a recipe for "skid row Stroganoff."
As culinary historian Laura Shapiro pointed out in a 2008 essay for Gourmet, Bracken's embrace of canned crab meat and bouillon cubes was hardly evidence of her distaste for cooking, since recipes in the most respected contemporary publications routinely began with onion soup mix. What Bracken really hated was the humorlessness that surrounded food, and the guilt that plagued women who couldn't make a cake to match what emerged from their neighbors' ovens.
Bracken told women it was OK to take shortcuts, to pour Irish coffee instead of making dessert and to slice up a melon instead of baking a chocolate torte. She gave her blessing to "easy cheese sauce," "fake Hollandaise" and cream cheese dips. She urged her anxious readers to relax.
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Bracken's book is slated for re-release next week, and the timing couldn't be better. The official occasion for the printing is the book's 50th anniversary, but Bracken, who died in 2007, surely wouldn't have minded sharing her advice with the current crop of oh-so-serious eaters who insist upon food free of preservatives, pesticides, gluten and white sugar -- often at the expense of taste and enjoyment.
Local, organic and sustainable are all good, of course. But the culinary climate's lately become so didactic that a Portland chef who had the temerity to serve Iowa pork at an event this spring was beaten up by another chef, who told The New York Times he was standing up for Oregon's own red wattle pigs. And, unlike 50 years ago, it's not just women who are stuck fretting in the kitchen: Men and women alike are increasingly bashful about admitting they shop at conventional supermarkets, sometimes eat tomatoes out of season and can't taste the difference between a free-range chicken and a bird raised in a cage.
Bracken knew just what to tell cooks worried they couldn't keep pace with cultural expectations:
"Keep a few bottles of red wine stashed away somewhere," she advised wives who feared their husbands' judgment. "You can bring forth a bottle with your supper, and this may lead him to think he's going first class. It can be a whimsical little $4.95 bottle or a downright comical 59-cent vintage; it's the principle of the thing that counts."