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'I Hate to Cook': Kitchen companion to 'Mad Men'

Mmmm. . . beef a la king. Doesn’t it summon more 1960s’ food cred than the mention of chicken kiev during “Mad Men’s” season premiere?


(James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

For me, it does. I’m old enough to remember several kinds of a la kings landing on the family table. Plus, I recently made the Peg Bracken dish, overcome with curiosity – as in, what were we thinking, tastewise? The recipe’s in the 50th anniversary reissue of “The I Hate to Cook Book” (Grand Central, $22.99), and I would be happy to point you in the direction of just about any other goop-on-a-shingle instead.

I'll get to that in a bit. Bracken begins her introduction with: "Some women, it is said, like to cook. This book is not for them." This could be one of her few pronouncements that didn't hold up over time. I enjoyed the read, for its nostalgia and a high quotient of grinning while turning pages. Dried onion soup mix on a pot roast – yep, my mom made that. Truth be told, I even served it (just once) to the man I married.


Author Peg Bracken. (undated photo by Erika)

Bracken, who changed her name from Ruth just because she felt like it and was married four times, had newspaper and magazine columns, legions of devoted fans and a total of nine books to her credit by the time she died in 2007, at age 89. Her daughter Johanna is my age. For the updated edition, she wrote a lovely foreword about her mom, who left this world with “her razor-sharp wit intact.” I’m glad for that; it’s nice to know the voice stayed constant, and even in a few pages it appears the mother’s no-nonsense charisma lives on in her daughter’s prose.

Some Peg Bracken dictums from the book:


  • “Though I don’t like to pick on something so much smaller than I am, it is hard to think of a kind word to say about the canapé.”

  • “These recipes have not been tested by experts. That is why they are valuable.”

  • “Never feel guilty about serving a last-minute supper….Sometimes it is comforting to reflect that you didn’t spend a bit more time making it than it took the family to dispose of it.”

“I Hate to Cook” was published a year before “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”; there’s some cosmic irony that those two were published back to back, especially since Bracken’s book came first in an age of already-convenient TV dinners.

More ironic, though, is the fact that Bracken was an accomplished cook who was forever in the kitchen, testing recipes. Jo reports that while her friends’ mothers served white-bread sandwiches and iceberg lettuce salads, the Bracken household ate romaine lettuce with oil and vinegar dressing and lots, lots, lots of meals built with frozen vegetables (as mom became a spokeswoman for Birds Eye Foods).

In fact, American women who hated to cook would log considerable kitchen time when they followed Bracken’s chapter of “30 Day-by-Day Entrees.” (For the months with a 31st day, Bracken said, “you eat out.”)

There was plenty of chopping. Recipe directions were downright breezy, without stove temperatures or pan specs. Bits of green bell pepper and chopped pimento made way too many dishes “festive.” And many cans of condensed cream of mushroom soup were emptied.

What really sold the book – more than 3 million copies – was its attitude, of course. Bracken was able to sneak in helpful tips and techniques because they were sandwiched with bon mots and great throwaway lines. She understood what busy was, and spoke for those who valued the cocktail hour at home.


Chicken-Rice Roger, a classic. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

Some of Bracken’s creations have good bones, so to speak. Daughter Jo is still a fan of Chicken-Rice Roger, one of those magic baked casseroles. This one has browned chicken pieces, uncooked rice, a little grated onion, canned mushrooms, bouillon cubes and water. Admittedly bland. But if you go boneless-skinless on the poultry, add fresh herbs or one of a zillion spice-sauce options, substitute freshly sautéed mushrooms and homemade stock, you’ve got a classic chicken-and-rice dish whose permutations can be found the world over.

The beef a la king, not so much. Bracken the good cook even began the recipe headnote: “Don’t recoil from the odd-sounding combination of ingredients….”

For the record, they are:


  • Cans of condensed soup (mushroom and chicken)

  • Sliced hard-cooked eggs

  • Chipped beef

  • Chopped green bell pepper and pimento

  • Minced onion

  • Grated cheese

  • Canned mushrooms

Chop and heat; the gloopy glop turns a grayish brown, is off-the-charts salty and, these days, is not even as economical as a smart shopping run to a farmers market in the suburbs.

I made it and brought it to the office. No one dared to put a spoon in, and my newsroom colleagues will eat anything. I’ll always respect the Bracken franchise, but some food fads should not be recycled -- even if they do show up in Don Draper's ad agency chafing dishes on Sunday nights.

-- Bonnie S. Benwick

By The Food Section  |  August 6, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Books  | Tags: Bonnie S. Benwick, Books  
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