I'm trying to figure out why a 50th anniversary edition of The I Hate to Cook Book (Grand Central Publishing, $23) was published. It wasn't just to hold it up as an historical artifact, apparently. The back jacket copy announces, "Fifty years later, times have certainly changed -- but the appeal of The I Hate to Cook Book hasn't."
Um... it certainly has. Most of TIHTCB is downright frightening. Take, for instance, Clam Whiffle: soda crackers, minced canned clams, and eggs.
I could picture Betty Draper of Mad Men throwing together one of the casseroles, seething, and then standing guard while she forced Sally to eat it. (Except that Betty Draper has a cook -- Carla. Well, maybe on Carla's night off).
Originally published in 1960, TIHTCB had frustrated housewives like Betty Draper in mind as an audience. It eventually sold over 3 million copies. We didn't have a copy of it in my house when I was growing up, but the dishes in it are representative of what we did eat. Vegetables came out of a can, and almost everything calls for the addition of a can of soup. Even recipes for soup are based on adding more ingredients to a can of soup. This was the food philosophy of the middle class -- why toil away in the kitchen if it can be done faster and easier with a mix/box/can/other shortcut?
Author Peg Bracken has a kind of dry, self-deprecating tone throughout, supposedly groundbreaking in her assertion that not all women like to cook. Somehow TIHTCB is supposed to be conveying the message that all these shortcuts will make cooking fun, but viewed from 2010, that idea doesn't compute.
Bracken is the anti-Julia Child. Child encouraged U.S. housewives to try their hands at Sole Meunière and Beef Bourguignon; Bracken's not interested in such things, unless you can make them with a can of cream of mushroom soup. If Julie & Julia got you thinking that everybody was emulating Julia back in the sixties, TIHTCB will set you straight. "French beef casserole," which involves cooking beef shoulder with a can of tomatoes, a can of mushrooms, and fresh carrots and peppers and celery (!), is introduced with the apology "This recipe looks pretty disastrous at first, with all those ingredients and instructions." Yikes. Sole, on the other hand, is gussied up with a can of "frozen shrimp soup."
Speaking of Julie & Julia, the idea of cooking one's way through TIHTCB seems funny at first but then frankly impossible, closer to Morgan Spurlock's experiment of eating at McDonald's for a month.
It would take too long to cite every recipe here that would make a MACSAC member run screaming from the room. A recipe called "The solution to canned peas" does not offer the suggestion "grow fresh peas" but instead calls for the cook to take onions, saute them in olive oil and add that to the canned peas. Broiled onions, on the same page, calls for "a can of small cooked onions." Was this really what a world pre-Alice Waters was like?
So TIHTCB is best perused as a time capsule, and like watching Mad Men, that's fun, appalling, and instructive. The food landscape has changed in many other ways. Lamb, for instance, is called for almost as often as ground beef. Who buys lamb shanks? The chapter on children's birthday parties is also a trip down memory lane in a sedan with no seatbelts. (On the menu? Scrambled eggs and peas. And potato chips.)
Admittedly, if you grew up eating clam whiffle, it probably qualifies as comfort food. Speaking as someone who does like a nice tuna casserole, or creamed whatever on toast, I can understand that. But looking for new comfort classics here? I don't see it happening.