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Articles / Raise Your Hand if You Hate to Cook

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Raise Your Hand if You Hate to Cook

Published April 4, 2024

Peg Bracken’s 1960 masterpiece still reminds us to lighten up in the kitchen

Photo: Tucker Shaw

Reader, I was not the intended audience.

Peg Bracken would agree. As she wrote in the introduction to her blockbuster 1960 bestseller, The I Hate to Cook Book:

Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them. This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.

I was fifteen and unkempt in 1983, a boy unburdened by the challenges of childbearing and taxes and flounder-grasping. As for cooking, the jury was still out. And although Bracken’s book had been a cultural juggernaut for nearly a quarter century, I’d never heard of it. But I was hungry, so I kept reading.

Teen Tucker. Photo courtesy Tucker Shaw

These recipes have not been tested by experts. That is why they are valuable. Experts in their sunny spotless test kitchens can make anything taste good. But even we can make these [recipes] taste good.

Even we, I remember thinking. She means even me! Yeah, I’m a semi-delinquent rat-boy a generation removed from Bracken’s imagined hat-wearing 1960s housewife, but she’s clearly talking to me. With her conspiratorial prose, she’s unclasping the velvet rope and ushering me into her club. Peg and Me. Me and Peg. We.

And what a club. Subversive and surprising, the I Hate to Cook Book stood in stark, defiant contrast to contemporary television ciphers like June Cleaver, and to Serious Culinary Tomes like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which followed Bracken onto the shelves by just a few months. Bracken and Child both sold millions of copies.

But Child’s sprawling, excruciatingly detailed book terrified teenaged me; Bracken’s slim volume captivated me. It was funny. Her written wit made me laugh. And because it made me laugh, it made me want to cook.

Peg Bracken in a 1968 commercial for Bird’s Eye.

One of the core tenets of humor, insofar as I understand humor (or, insofar as humor is understandable), is to welcome your audience into the joke. To join forces in observation. And to have the courage of clarity, and enough of it to say the thing everyone else is only just thinking — that the emperor has no clothes. In Bracken’s case, that emperor was an entire postwar homemaking complex. Her slaying sword was her gimlet tongue. She told the truth.

From her recipe for Skid Road Stroganoff, this often-cited quote: Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms and stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

Yes, I thought, turning another page. I see myself there at that sink. I know just how she feels.

(Did I? Of course not. I was pubescent and pimpled. But I was very good at lighting cigarettes and staring sullenly back then, so I was certain that Peg and I had common ground.)

Humor, that eternal secret sauce, is hard to find in corporate-backed food media these days. You rarely giggle at a food magazine or cooking competition show. You’ll do much better on platforms like YouTube, or especially TikTok, where creators like @applesauceandadhd instruct millions of followers to stop being so precious, have a guffaw, and most importantly, to put down the phone and go cook something.

Maybe that something will be a Bracken recipe with a signature clever name. Perhaps Stayabed Stew (a simple beef stew), Old Faithful (lamb chops baked over rice), or Something Else to do with New Potatoes Besides Boiling Them and Rolling Them in Melted Butter and Parsley (fried spuds with scallions). Or maybe it will be Cockeyed Cake, a brilliant recipe that appeals to two of my innate dispositions — an incessant sweet tooth and a violent aversion to using too many dishes. Here is the recipe in full, complete with headnote.

Photo: Tucker Shaw

This cake, dead easy and best snacked on unadorned, is my madeleine, though unlike Proust I’ve had it a thousand times over by now. When I miss it, I make it again. It is, as promised, “dark, rich, moist, and chocolatey,” especially on the second day. And it always works, even when I don’t bother with the sifter. (I think Bracken would appreciate this.)

And that’s the thing. It works. For all of Bracken’s rebellious style and snarky sense of humor, the sneaky secret of The I Hate to Cook Book is the recipes. They work.

Maybe she had access to a spotless test kitchen after all, or maybe she didn’t. Either way, producing the book was, for Bracken, another arduous chore. “You’ve no idea how hard it is to organize a cookbook, with all the different things in it,” she wrote with a wink. “Next time, I’m going to write a hair-pants Western with just a horse and a hero.”

In other words, she did this for you. For us. For we.