Open Letter to Peg Bracken


Dear Peg,

I am writing to thank you for saving my mother’s life, not in terms of death and dying, but in the sanity sense of the word.  She clung to your 1960 cookbook, The I Hate to Cookbook like a life raft, that slim volume always right next to the kitchen telephone.

The recipes in your book were beside the point.  I don’t think she every made your “Hurry Curry,” or “Clam Whiffle (a soufllé that any fool can make)”  It was your irreverent tone that let her know someone out there was like her, chafing at the limitations of the stereotypical housewife – in her case a woman who had given birth to six children in ten years.

The I Hate to Cookbook treads lightly, made it possible for my mother and her friends to laugh at their predicament and acknowledge the unspoken truths about the dreariness of the relentless obligation of three squares a day.

 “…never compute the number of meals you have to cook and set before the shining little faces of your loved ones…”

“…the average man…wants to see you knead that bread and tote that bale, before you go down to the cellar to make the soap.  This is known as the Woman’s Burden.”

“As we slog our way through the month…”

“Your husband won’t take you out for enchiladas if he knows he can get good enchiladas at home.” (A variation on the sage dating advice to the buxom farmer’s daughter, “Why buy the cow when he can get the milk for free?)

Your cookbook positions a hatred of cooking as a small blemish in a housewife’s repertoire, similar in concept to an otherwise excellent batter who just can’t hit a curveball, a flaw that could be corrected with some coaching.  But it was more than that, wasn’t it?  It wasn’t just the cooking you were referring to, it was the whole package of housewifery.  That was my mother’s interpretation.

She was a bright woman whose senior college thesis explored the boot and shoe industry in the 1800s, charting the movement of the profession alongside westward expansion.  Post-college, her intellectual life stagnated midst the piles of diapers and the daily grind of preparing meals, first for her growing family, and then a separate meal for my father who came home later.

She found release in writing humorous ditties for special occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, good-by parties, and I remember a couple of lines that she sang as she went about her household chores:

“What happened to that priceless precious knowledge

I learned at Vassar college.

I spend my days washing sinks filled with grit,

Old toothpaste, crud and slimy spit.”

She had some irreverent pet phrases, which I now realize came directly from your book, including “fur-bearing” to describe a moldy leftover languishing in the back of the fridge.  She would refer to our  “shining faces,” as she set yet another dinner in front of us, but “shining” was a generous description.  We were a bunch of snot-nosed bickering kids with muddy shoes and smudged cheeks, wolfing down a meal and bolting out of the kitchen in less time than it took her to cook it.

Was my mother a budding feminist, flailing against her sanctioned role as “just a housewife?”  Some cite Betty Friedan’s tome, The Feminine Mystique, as the seminal book kicking off the women’s lib movement.  The book demolishes, demeans and destroys the 1950s era housewife, a brutal assault on my mother’s identity.  Friedan describes the housewife as an unwilling dupe, sucked into servitude by a patronizing, sexist and staunchly male-dominated society.

“The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying billions of American women alive.  There is no way for these women to break out of their comfortable concentration camps except by finally putting forth an effort – that human effort which reaches beyond biology, beyond the narrow walls of home, to shape the future.”

Did my mother think she was in a concentration camp?  Was she itching to respond to Friedan’s strident call, take to the streets and join a vindictive mob of ball-busters?

No, she loved her family, loved being a mother and recognized that parts of my father’s job were dreary and boring.  She wanted the same recognition.  Like you, Peg, it was enough to approach the housewife’s role with wit and irreverence.  Both of you weren’t afraid to laugh at yourselves; that was ample antidote for her.

Peg, you also showed my mother that a cottage industry was a viable alternative to a salaried job.  My father did not want my mother to work; a wife who worked suggested her husband was not a “good provider.”  Even the traditional jobs of  teacher or realtor carried the whiff of desperation.  The idea that a job could provide women necessary intellectual or personal satisfaction was a ridiculous notion.  Her family should be enough.

Your cookbook started as a cottage industry, didn’t it?  I imagine you laughing together with your friends, sharing stories of life in the trenches and planning the work-around cookbook.  I see you waiting by your mailbox as the orders started to trickle in, then swelling to success beyond belief.  Birdseye asked you to endorse their frozen foods.  If you could find validation on your own with a cookbook, then why not her?

My mother threw herself into serial cottage industries, each one as quirky your cookbook.  She published musical plays for children, a sing along book for senior citizens, and finally the most creative, Olé, a Spanish-English dictionary of landscaping terms to help suburban housewives communicate with their landscaping crews.  Phrases included “There’s a bathroom inside the back door if you need it.”

The project didn’t have to make money, it didn’t even have to break even.  My father figured the psychiatry bills would be more costly.  He was pleased that his wife found an outlet for her energy.

Like you, every day she rushed to the mailbox to check for Olé orders; the initial flush diminished to a steady trickle.  Olé did not sweep the country; she received no offers from John Deere to endorse their lawn mowers, but it didn’t matter.  On her own she had conceived and birthed a creative idea.  The trickle was enough validation.  She had followed in your footsteps.  Thank you for being her mentor.

Best Regards,

Liza Blue

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