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Billions of Bettys!: 'Born' in 1921 and never advancing a day over the mythic domestic perfection of age 32, Betty Crocker remains an inspiration.

Takin' It Good and Easy

My weeklong date with Betty Crocker

By Sara Bir

'Are you ever going to stop looking at that book?" The book Mr. Bir Toujour was referring to was Betty Crocker's New Good and Easy Cook Book, and the answer was no, I was never going to stop looking at it. It had been sitting on our coffee table for months, and I'd taken to absent-mindedly flipping through its full-color pages instead of reading magazines or watching television. The book, which was published in 1962, had come from some long-forgotten used book sale a number of years ago to join our armada of hopelessly hideous old cookbooks. It sat on our bookshelf between Betty Crocker's Hostess Cookbook and Betty Crocker's New Dinner for Two Cook Book for years, individually ignored but coveted as part of a larger collection.

Then one day I pulled it off the shelf. Maybe the most recent issue of The New Yorker was late, or maybe I'd just finished a really good novel and wasn't ready to commit to another just yet. But once the book came down from the shelf, it stayed down. After my usual gawking at the dated food and prop styling in the rainbow-bright photographs, I started reading the recipes. Most of it was stuff I'd seen before--pot roast, pork chops, Spanish rice--but some of the dishes were so outlandish that I couldn't get them out of my mind. Hamburger patties baked in cheese sauce? Frankfurter Creole? Golden fish puffs? Their imagined awfulness captivated me, as did the idea that anyone ever considered eating such culinary disasters.

Mr. Bir Toujour's question made me realize that I'd never stop looking at the book until I knew what those recipes tasted like. That's when I got the idea: I'd make nothing but recipes from Good and Easy for one week.

There would have to be rules, of course--we have other things going on in our lives besides making recipes from a cookbook that's over four decades old: (1) dinner would be our sole Good and Easy meal each day; (2) there would be no alterations to recipes; (3) we'd have as many dinner guests over as possible, in order to gather a diverse pool of feedback; and (4) as the cookbook's desserts tend toward dressing up cake and frosting mixes with instant coffee or canned fruit, we exempted ourselves from making these.

I pored over Good and Easy's spiral-bound pages and carefully composed a week's worth of balanced menus, most of which pivoted around meat as the central ingredient. There'd be some pork, some beef, some fish and even some offal thrown in for variety.

Then I wrote the mother of all grocery lists.

Good and Easy is organized by meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner and what it curiously terms the "fourth meal." Throughout the book, homemakers can utilize suggested menus for ease in meal planning. This format is nothing too groundbreaking, but there is something nearly utopian in Good and Easy's tone that seems so spiffy, so logical, so effortless. You sense it right in the introduction:

Dear Friend,
Several years ago we compiled an entirely new kind of cook book, the Good and Easy Cook Book, to help homemakers speed up their cooking by using convenience foods. . . . Now when you ask yourself, "What can I serve that my family and friends will enjoy?" we hope you will turn to this book for good foods that are easy to prepare.
Cordially,
Betty Crocker

 

Betty Crocker is, of course, not a real person. In Susan Marks' new "biography," Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food ($23; Simon & Schuster), Betty's true identity as a brilliant marketing campaign comes to light. She was invented in 1921 by the Minneapolis-based Washburn Crosby company as a way of signing mass correspondence "personally" in response to homemaker's questions. Washburn Crosby evolved into General Mills, and Betty Crocker's simple signature evolved into an entire franchise--most notably tied to Gold Medal flour--that included a radio show, boxed cake mixes and scores of cookbooks and cooking pamphlets. Women (and men) came to trust Betty as an approachable but authoritative friend and guide. Her oft-made-over image, replete with red blazer and a becoming but practical hairstyle, represents a sort of comfy 20th-century American kitchen deity.

The sole preparer of home cooking often encounters fatigue in the endless cycle of planning, shopping and cooking. Granted, cooking for two is no huge challenge, but the idea of Betty Crocker removing some of the pressure from me and placing it on the shoulders of Campbell's and Kraft seemed appealing, like a vacation. Like a vacation back in time.

 

Day 1: Southwestern Chili Bake and Corn Sesame Sauté: Right after work, I stocked up on ground beef and condensed cream of mushroom soup at the grocery store. The mother list had me crisscrossing all over the aisles for soda crackers, canned shoestring beets and lemon jello. Typically, our grocery cart is laden with fresh produce, offset by a few dairy items and sundries (sugar, flour, rice). Today, I had a single green bell pepper, three parsnips and about a dozen cans of processed crap.

Southwestern chili bake began, as half of the recipes in the book do, with the browning of ground beef. In go chili powder, a can of tomato sauce and one small clove of minced garlic. Rule number two about not tampering with the recipe immediately went out the window as I sampled the simmering mess and thought, "Whoa, this is boring." Instead of tomato sauce, I used a can of diced tomatoes with chilies, browning an onion along with the ground beef.

Meanwhile, it was time to prepare Southwestern chili bake's cornbread topping. Good and Easy had kindly provided a recipe, but I'd anticipated a time crunch and instead opted to purchase a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix. Feeling naughty, I drizzled a few tablespoons of beef drippings into the batter in lieu of melted butter. Then I tasted the ground beef mixture again, deciding it was still boring and too dry. At a loss, I squeezed in a good blob of ketchup and about 15 dashes of hot pepper sauce. Into the casserole went the beef, followed by the cornbread batter, and then the whole works went in the oven.

Then came corn sesame sauté, a simple dish that is basically a can of corn with a perplexing garnish of sesame seeds. Once again, I couldn't leave well enough alone and sprinkled in a little spicy dry rub left over from a pork roast a few nights ago. Realizing our dinner palette was shaping up to be somewhat monochromatic, I steamed half a head of broccoli and tossed it in with the canned-corn pan juices.

The Verdict: "This one's really good," intoned a ravenous Mr. Bir Toujour. By that time, it was quarter to eight, and he was so hungry I think any food would have elicited a similar reply. Southwestern chili bake, we decided, was a close cousin to Sloppy Joes, only spicier and with cornbread on top. Corn sesame sauté gave me the happy realization that I really like canned corn. It's the candy of vegetables; Jiffy corn muffin mix, the cake of savory breads.

How can you beat cake and candy for dinner?

Day 2: Tuna Puff Casserole and Mixed Green Salad with Ruby Red Dressing: To prepare tuna puff casserole, open a can of cream of mushroom soup. Plop it in a bowl, stir in chopped celery and onion, plus a little lemon juice and Tabasco. Now add your standard can of chunk light tuna packed in spring water and a few cubed slices of white sandwich bread. Stir it all together. Assess. Ew. Looks gray and devoid of nourishment. Now throw in recipe deviation of diced carrots, chopped fresh parsley and frozen peas. That's better.

Separate four eggs, stir the yolks into the glop and beat the whites. Combine into a fluffy mass of . . . stuff. Bake.

I figured a green salad dressed with a recipe from the book was not cheating. Of all the dressings, ruby red had the fewest ingredients: currant jelly, vegetable oil, vinegar, salt and onion juice. Darn--how could we be all out of onion juice? And we didn't have currant jelly, but we did have a dusty jar of pomegranate jelly somewhere in the back of the cupboard. After a two-second zap in the blender, the garnet-hued, sticky-oily liquid tasted fine. Sweet and tart, it reminded me of the Cumberland sauce that I'd had with charcuterie platters. Salad greens, fatty cured meats--what's the difference?

Tuna Puff emerged, golden and indeed puffy, from the oven. I was starting to dig canned food.

The Verdict: Tuna puff entertained us all through dinner as we came up with better and better ways to describe it. We finally settled on "like a savory bread pudding made into a soufflé." Ruby red dressing gave our green salad a pink tinge. Mr. Bir Toujour really liked it, but I was left craving a fat slice of country pâté.

Day 3: Individual Muffin Pizzas: Trader Joe's was out of English muffins. Nothing was going to plan. A lack of available dinner guests and Mr. Bir Toujour's band practice left me solo, so preparing an elaborate multican dinner seemed excessive.

Happily, Good and Easy is more than prepared for such eventualities; in fact, it was made for them. There are plenty of quick-fix meals in the book's most high-concept section, the fourth meal. What, you may ask, is the fourth meal? Here's what Betty has to say: "It is the meal that people eat for fun. We eat things we think we should eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner--but in between, we eat the things we like."

Right on, Betty! To me, that means: disgusting food that's bad for you. The wide-ranging recipes in the fourth meal section--peppy potato chips, clown cupcakes, Franko corn thins--only serve to reinforce this point. The fourth meal was to be my savior this evening. With it, I could adhere to the master plan without having to make jello molds or whip salad dressing out of fruit jelly. Individual muffin pizzas to the rescue! All I had to do to was to buy the ingredients.

And there was Trader Joe's, out of English muffins. I debated using crumpets instead, but got a package of mini pitas. I also bought sliced pepperoni, canned pizza sauce and grated part-skim mozzarella cheese for the first time in years.

The Verdict: English muffins would have been better. However, I apparently still liked the pizzas enough to wolf down four for my first course and three for my second course.

Day 4: Sweet Lemon Spareribs, Creamy Coleslaw, and Hurry-Up Potatoes: Sweet lemon spareribs are attractive because of the shock value. The main ingredient, other than pork ribs, is a can of frozen lemonade concentrate. This has been done before in the annals of American cookery. Think cocktail meatballs in a sauce of grape jelly; cakes made with tomato soup; ham braised in Coca-Cola. (I am especially fond of the latter, so repeating the pork and junk-food-beverage concept held promise.)

The method calls for simmering the ribs in water, draining them and then putting them back in a pot with the lemonade concentrate, assorted tablespoons of catsup (sic), soy sauce, vinegar and more water. Simmer again.

Meanwhile, I made the coleslaw. It was a normal, Mom-style, mayonnaise-based coleslaw, very reassuring and comforting. I was much more skeptical of the Hurry-Up potatoes. The recipe calls for paring potatoes, slicing them thinly, brushing them with melted shortening and broiling them for about six minutes a side. This sounded like a shortcut to bland, semi-raw potatoes, so I par-baked them skin-on, imagining the crispy potato skin to come first, then I thinly sliced the potatoes and brushed them with melted butter. (Shortening is good for some things, but melting and brushing across potatoes is not among them.)

Not long into the broiling process, glowing red embers of fiery potato skin led me to understand the need for peeling the potatoes.

The Verdict: Our dinner guests were pleased by all items on the menu, but sweet lemon spareribs were clearly the hit; the slow-cooked, melt-in-the-mouth porky richness really came through. "These taste like lemonade" was a common pronouncement. Hurry-Up potatoes were also well-received, despite the flaming bits of potato skin. Their surfaces were a wonderfully crisp golden brown, and their interiors had a hint of fluffy, floury baked-potato flavor. Creamy coleslaw tasted like coleslaw. We all had seconds.

Day 5: Beet and Horseradish Molds, Hazel's Baked Fish, Carrots au Gratin, Asparagus with Bacon and Double-Quick Dinner Rolls: Early stages of meat fatigue were setting in. We're a beans-and-tofu house much of the time, and part of me was dreaming of a huge, crisp, fresh salad. There would be no such thing tonight. Carrots au gratin called for three cups of diced carrots, six soda crackers and a few ounces of grated sharp cheddar cheese. We had a nearly empty carton of heavy cream sitting in the refrigerator which fortified the carrots au gratin, along with a few tablespoons of melted butter.

Hazel's baked fish called for frozen pike fillets. Recalling with horror the pallid, mushy orange roughy fillets my mother used to bake with bottled lemon juice and a dusting of paprika, I instead purchased fresh halibut. The gap in wisdom of purchasing fish that costs $18 a pound only to crucify it Good and Easy-style made me flinch.

At the grocery store, 99-cent bundles of asparagus caught my eye. Asparagus! Impossible to resist! I bought three bundles, knowing full well that Good and Easy's only asparagus recipe called for the use of mock hollandaise (whose base, bafflingly, is a can of condensed cream of chicken soup). So I strayed from the plan, instead browning about three slices of cut-up bacon and pan-steaming the asparagus spears in a greasy slick of bacon drippings. Shortly before serving, I doused the works with a sprinkling of apple cider vinegar. If not by the book, it seemed in the spirit of Betty's ways.

The Verdict: Good and Easy hit another homer. We entertained once again, providing a wonderful opportunity for commentary on the beet and horseradish molds, little more than gussied-up lemon jello rendered purplish from beet juice and placed on beds of lettuce with little dabs of leftover coleslaw dressing. They were adorable, and I was delighted to finally use the individual fluted gelatin molds I'd purchased for a dime over six years ago. One guest was put off by the dominance of beet flavor, while the rest of us negotiated our way through the curious lack of distinction between sweet and savory flavors. The mayo melded with the gelatin to produce a mouth-feel not unlike some kind of mutant marshmallow/jello dessert--but then there was the horseradish flavor and the crunch of the celery. The long-lost appeal of such delights slowly began to reveal itself. "This is like dessert!" cried Mr. Bir Toujour.

The fish--halibut steak topped with thinly sliced onions, a can of diced tomatoes and a heap of buttered croutons--was moist and filling without being heavy. Carrots au gratin were perhaps the biggest hit. Both the cream and the soda crackers had vanished, dissolving into the carrots. The bubbling and browned blob of cheese on top disguised the taste of the carrots; the dish amounted to a mass of fat-cloaked vegetables. (Sara's good and easy tip: Serving vegetables in a manner that totally negates their nutritional value always goes over well.)

Day 6: Nameless Assemblage of Corn and Franks, and Greens with Ruby Red Dressing (encore): Good and Easy had finally penetrated my logic. It is less a simple collection of convenient, time-saving recipes than a state of mind. Why can't I extend the same philosophy--a little diced this, a little frozen that, a can of soup for good measure--to my own pantry, my own tiny family's wants and needs?

Sure, I could stick to the multicourse menu planned earlier in the week, but suddenly that did not seem to make much sense. I decided to make a simple meal that would require minimal effort but produce abundant leftovers. That's how I came to combine two cans of corn, one egg, four sliced frankfurters, two scallions, one red pepper and six crushed soda crackers into one glorious, golden yellow casserole. It emerged from the oven with light browning on top, and it emerged from the casserole dish somewhat soupy, but as a perfect vehicle for hot sauce. While eating, I mused over the unharnessed potential of frankfurters as an ingredient, and how odd it is that we call them hot dogs when a hot dog is merely a very popular preparation of frankfurters.

The Verdict: I like corn and hot dogs.

Day 7: Liver and Bacon Patties, Brown Butter Parsnips: Liver is badly maligned. I think people shudder at the thought of offal ("variety meats" in Good and Easy-speak) because the concept of eating components of an animal's digestive or glandular system is off-putting. My philosophy is that wherever the flesh comes from, it's all animal. Discriminating is hypocritical. Betty's liver treatment seemed more like fried charcuterie, and it calls for grinding beef liver (cooked) with bacon (uncooked) and onions, kneading this together with an egg, rolling patties in crushed-up Wheaties and pan-frying them.

The last time I cooked liver was years ago, and it was veal liver. How different could beef liver be? I put a pan on the flame to sear the slippery maroon liver slivers. Seconds after the first atom of flesh hit the pan, I nearly gagged.

Dude, liver stinks! How could this have escaped my memory?

Despite the stench, I persevered, chopping the liver and the remaining ingredients in the food processor to make a brown-gray sludge. We didn't have Wheaties, so I coated the pasty "patties" in crushed-up corn flakes.

I made it as far as taking one bite before I tossed the whole works out. Every millimeter of the house reeked of liver. The brown butter parsnips were disgusting, too, though it probably had to do with the bad taste of utter failure that the liver experiment left with me.

The Verdict: A disaster. It was bound to happen eventually.

 

That was it. The experiment was over. The next night, we went out for sushi.

Good and Easy raised more questions than it answered. Sometimes I wonder if cooking has become more convenient, or if it's only the shape of the convenience that has changed. What makes food fashionable? What makes food go out of fashion? Is a quasi-home-cooked, hearty and fatty dinner better for you than dining out on veggies prepared by strangers?

The least expected outcome of the Good and Easy week was how a 1962 cookbook designed to utilize convenience foods connected me to the roots of modern Western cuisine: aspic, dairy-rich gratins, vegetables swimming in animal fats. I felt invigorated, enlightened, a medium channeling a chain of culinary heritage reaching back to the 18th century.

Good and Easy also reconnected me with my love of casseroles. Probably the first time I ever made dinner, it was a casserole. They are so simple, so make-ahead, so thrifty, so familiar.

Even so, I finally put Good and Easy back on the shelf. I won't be cooking from it anytime soon. It taught me all it can, and now it is my turn to take that knowledge into the kitchen, the grocery store, the world. Making food the Good and Easy way is just as realistic as the way we cook now, perhaps more so.

I can't wait for the day when our reliance on jarred pesto sauce, premarinated tri-tip and frozen diced onions seems hopelessly dated and comical.

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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