We’ve forgotten about the 1960s cookbook The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book and Peg Bracken’s voice, which is a shame. This book sold more than 3 million copies, and now you can now buy it used for as little as $2.50.
And I recommend you do so, immediately.
If you wonder what differentiates you from every other food writer or blogger in the universe, the answer is waiting for you in this cheeky, chatty cookbook that women bought in droves. It’s Peg Bracken’s voice.
I came across a used copy of I Hate to Cook at a flea market. (It cost far more than $2.50, if you must know.) So if I suggest you read something, I should be willing to do it myself, right? And what a pleasure it was to dip into this marvelous cookbook.
You might wonder why this book succeeded. Because you’re right, we didn’t need another general soup-to-nuts cookbook, even in the 1960s. Apparently four or five male editors passed on it until a female editor bought it.
But that’s not the point. The point is Peg Bracken’s voice. You will laugh at her irreverence and be taken in by her practical advice. What also sold people on this book, besides Bracken’s wit and practicality, was the length of her recipes. They are mercifully short and speedy. By writing such short recipes, she squeezed 443 of them into one slender book.
A former copywriter, Bracken was 40 years old when she wrote I Hate to Cook, her second book. She died in 2007 at 89. The New York Times began Bracken’s obit with this method from her recipe for Skid Road Stroganoff:
“Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the noodle water. Brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. 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.”
By now it’s just killing you to read more examples, right? But don’t do it just for your amusement. Notice how strong her voice is, and how original. You can’t mistake her writing for anyone else’s.
That’s your goal as a writer.
You’ll love these 5 samples of Peg Bracken’s voice and humor:
- “The next three hors d’oeuvres are for those rare occasions when you feel you must be teddibly teddibly (read with a snobby British accent -D). The rest are for any time when you feel duty-bound.”
- Headnote for a meatloaf recipe: “A good different meat loaf. When you slice it, don’t be upset if it falls apart a bit, for that can happen to anyone. It does so because it’s tender and 2-layered.”
- At the end of a recipe for Indian Fry Bread: “I can’t think precisely where it would fit into a menu, or, for that matter, where it wouldn’t. It is good with soup, salad, chicken or ham. Or wherever you need ballast. Or just to eat.”
- From an intro to a chapter called Luncheon With the Girls: “First, a general word about DESSERT. It is wise to keep in mind that in any group of two or more women, at least one is on a diet, and several others think they ought to be. If you serve them a rich dessert which you spent considerable time making, they will probably eat it, but they will be annoyed with you. If they do not eat it, you will be annoyed with them. And, on the other hand, the non diet-minded ladies will look at you squint-eyed if they have dutifully ploughed through the main part of the luncheon only to find that there’s no dessert at all. This poses a petty little problem, best solved by a fruit dessert…plus a plateful of store-bought petit-fours, or a dish of good chocolates, or a bowl of nuts and raisins, or all three, herinafter known as the Oddments.”
- Finally, a chapter title: “Last-Minute Suppers, or This is the Story of Your Life.”
By now you must be in love with Peg Bracken. You want to go to her house, cook with her, hang out, laugh and joke. But she’s gone. And while I can’t reprint her recipes here without permission, you will find some on Pinterest.
So, let’s go back to voice. You get my point here, right? It’s not about copying hers, but about finding yours.
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You might also like:
- Why the ‘I Hate to Cook Book’ Stands the Test of Time, from Bon Appetit.
- This video of Bracken doing a commercial for Bird’s Eye.
- The Liberated Chef, a profile of Bracken in the New York Times.