I grew up baking cookies out of the Betty Crocker cookbook. It’s a large, orange covered binder full of recipes for making everything from vegetable sides, to jams, to cookies, to meat-based main dishes. The edition my mom has is copyright 1969 and is from the third printing in 1974. As a kid I would flip straight to the sugar cookies section to make treats for various holidays—Christmas, Valentines Day (heart shaped, dyed pink), and St. Patrick’s Day (Shamrock shaped, dyed green). This Thanksgiving I reacquainted myself with the cookbook searching for simple recipes for corn bread and basic piecrust. These both turned out beautifully. I became curious to explore the cookbook beyond the basics to see what kitchen wisdom Betty Crocker could offer me.
While we think of Betty Crocker as America’s staple, looking at this cookbook from 40 years ago really tells us how much ideas about eating have changed, but social expectations and roles have not. For example the “Main dishes” section features all meat-based dishes besides three measly been concoctions. Some of the recipes are just gross. Here are some of my favorites:
“California Cream Soup,” a “colorful tribute to the west coast,” which features two kinds of canned, condensed cream soups, heavy cream, avocados, olives, and pimentos.
“Barbequed Lima Beans and Ham,” made with ½ a cup of ketchup (or catsup as its called in the book).
“Galaxy Cookies,” which are “as varied as the stars,” and feature suggestions for fillings such as candied maraschino cherries. Far out.
My favorite part of the book are the introductions to each chapter that offer advice and encouragement to the home cook. This is where Betty Crocker truly reveals her objective: to support the 1950’s style, white, middle class housewife in providing meals day-in, day-out for her family and help her be a pleasing hostess and community member who makes food for church bazaars and neighborhood coffee-klatches.
Here’s some of the best advice
Main dishes: “Meal-planning starts with the main dish. But it doesn’t have to be steak or chops—not when you can choose from the great cuisines of the world. Main dishes that are fun to make, easy to serve. Obliging dishes that will stand and wait.” I get the feeling it’s not the dish that is supposed to be obliging but our (female) chef.
Vegetables: “Eat your spinach! Eat your carrots! East your lima beans! How many of us are haunted by memories of the vegetables we had to eat? Not today! Not when you can have your favorites all year long. And with candied carrots, bacon-flavored beans, quick toppings, seasoned sauces—you can hardly wait to zip up to the vegetable corner of your dinner plate.” I love the nod to industrial agriculture (your favorites all year long) and the idea that vegetables are gross unless they are candied or bacon flavored. If that’s the case, I’ll skip them.
Pies: “What’s America’s all-time favorite choice for dessert? Most people agree—it’s pie. And heading the list is apple pie. Followed closely by cherry pie and peach pie and lemon meringue and a lot of others. So if you care about pleasing—bake a pie.” I thought pie was gross until I was an adult. I guess that makes me not only a bad American, but also a woman who couldn’t care less about pleasing. And cherry pie? I won’t touch it.
Quick breads: “The nicest quality about quick breads is that they are just that—quick! A quick way to make any breakfast Sunday-special. Something quick to pop in the oven when a new neighbor drops in for coffee. A quick treat to bake and share with a friend who has a problem. And a quick way, any time, to say with out words to anybody, ‘I ‘specially wanted to have something nice, for you!’” The implication that you are living in a suburban development where a new neighbor will “drop in for coffee” (also meaning you are not at work) is priceless. Further on in quick breads under “breakfast specials” is one of my favorite introductions, “Mary’s sleeping over! Jim’s bringing a girl home from college! You’ve asked friends to come for brunch after church. Or you just woke up this morning so full of goodwill that you wanted to make the day special.” Oh, the urgency.
Cultural Studies scholars would agree that what is fascinating about Betty Crocker is “her” ability to reinvent herself to fit in with the times. Her objective is to be ubiquitous, as that’s what sells her products. She is the “any woman” American cook. What’s frightening is that a big part of Betty Crocker’s platform is still dispensing advice for homemakers, even if they are now homemakers with full time jobs. A cursory glance at Betty Crocker’s website, which is full of endorsements for industrial food products, shows how little she’s actually changed. So my advice: pull out the cookbook to remind yourself of the basics (the ratio of flour to shortening in pie crust, for example) and skip, or take with a grain of salt, everything else.
Betty Crocker’s Corn Bread, circa 1974
Betty says, “Breads like these go ‘way back into American history—back to the first settlers who learned from the Indians the good things you can do with corn…” American mythos tied in with cooking advice, indeed.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk, water, or soy milk
¼ cup shortening (we prefer Earth Balance)
1 egg (or egg replacement equivalent to 1 egg)
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Grease square pan, 8x8x2 or 9x9x2 inches. Blend all ingredients. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown.
Betty suggests serving it with fresh asparagus and cheese sauce, Canadian bacon and melon salad, but I’ll skip that.
Betty Crocker’s Pie Crust, circa 1974
For 10-inch Two-Crust Pie
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening (we used Earth Balance)
7 to 8 tablespoons cold water (though I ended up using 9 to 10)
Measure flour and salt into bowl. Cut in shortening thoroughly. Sprinkle in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing until flur is moistened and dough almost cleans side of bowl.
Gather (ie. Squish) dough into two equal sized balls, shape into flattened round on flour covered board. Roll (middle and out) dough 2 inches larger than inverted pie pan.
Using a spatula to help you, ease crust into greased pie pan. Fill and bake as desired or directed.