Ways and Means
January 16, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Many people engage in dubious experimentation in their youth. Some get involved with intravenous drugs. Others sleep with problematic men. A few tattoo their faces. I, for my part, went on a spree when I was nineteen of cooking exclusively from a 1917-era cookbook.
The book, A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (with Bettina’s Best Recipes), might sound vaguely titillating. It’s not. ATWtPaH, by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles LeCron, is the story of Bettina and Bob’s first year of marriage. The fictional, surnameless couple, who populate a series of domestic vignettes (with menus and recipes), seems to live on the outskirts of an anonymous American city where Bob does … well, some kind of office job. It’s 1917, but apparently no need at all to mention the War. My copy is a yellow hardcover I acquired at a long-ago church sale; it’s illustrated liberally with images of mischievous chef-cupids and periodic thumbnail sketches of the newlyweds. By the time we meet the pair, on their first night in their brand-new, cozy brown bungalow, the honeymoon is over—literally.
When the happy-go-lucky Bob suggests dinner out, after they disembark from the train, he’s treated to the following:
“I’m ashamed of you! We’ll take the first car for home—a streetcar, not a taxi! Our extravagant days are over, and the time has come to show you that Bettina knows how to keep house!”
Home again, and swathed in a trim percale apron, Bettina turns to her “Emergency Shelf,” which will become a recurring character, along with the word “economical,” her energy-efficient fireless cooker (a slow cooker of sorts), and the budget notebook that is her preferred topic of dinner-table conversation.
“That was fun,” Bob says of the day they assembled the shelf.
“Yes, and work, too,” said Bettina, “but I’m glad we did it. Do you remember how much I saved by getting things in dozen and half-dozen lots? And Mother showed me how much better it was to buy the larger sizes in bottled things, because in buying the smaller bottles you spend most of your money for the glass. Now that you have to pay my bills, Bob, you’ll be glad that I know these things.”
In case you’re wondering, that evening Bob sat down to:
Creamed Tuna on Toast Strips
Canned Peas with Butter Sauce
Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows
(This being Prohibition, coffee also figures heavily in all meals, summer or winter. And when two characters—the frivolous Alice and the “woman-hater” Harry Harrison—become engaged after a very sketchy courtship, Bettina and Bob pop open some grape juice.)
“Bettina’s Best Recipes” would be enough to send Alice Waters into paroxysms of terror and pain. There is white sauce—never béchamel!—in everything. What doesn’t have white sauce has mayonnaise (which the thrifty Bettina makes in bulk, needless to say) or the boiled dressing (a sort of cold, vinegary white sauce) at which, when I embarked on my youthful cooking spree, my college boyfriend drew the line. “Salads” are liberally strewn with pimiento, while seasonality doesn’t seem to trouble anyone: summer’s a time for apple pie and “veal loaf,” while peach cobbler for some reason shows up in January.
Of course, it’s not all gloom and economizing! To make up for that first meal, Bettina prepares a steak dinner. But don’t get too excited: as she tells Bob, “Steak is expensive, dear, and you’ll not get it often, but as this is our first real dinner in our own home, I had to celebrate. I bought enough for two meals, because buying steak for one meal for two people is beyond any modest purse! So you’ll meet that steak again tomorrow, but I don’t believe that you’ll bow in recognition!”
(Presumably not—unless, that is, he’s already on terms of some intimacy with “Boubons with Tomato Sauce”—the next evening’s iteration.)
There are also parties—lots of parties. There’s the pink and white luncheon for Bettina’s bridesmaids; the motor picnic; the porch breakfast for a bunch of suffragettes; a Halloween party; a fondant-log-bedecked Washington’s Birthday tea; a particularly grotesque children’s luncheon; and, of course, the wedding festivities—rainbow announcement luncheon, kitchen shower, pair shower, et al.
The cast of characters cannot be called well-rounded. In addition to Alice (frivolous) and Harry (“woman-hater”), there are Ruth and Fred (no distinguishing characteristics) and the Dixons, who are having domestic troubles due to Mrs. Dixon's terrible housekeeping. Don’t worry: Bettina gets their marriage back on track by teaching her how to make coffee and making her rent a house—they’re “boarding,” you see. As Bettina diagnoses their marital problems, “Your husband is just hungry—that’s all!”
Although Bettina boasts that Bob “doesn’t like to be away from home at all,” one wonders if he doesn’t just fear retribution. Bettina seems to spend the bulk of her time lecturing Bob, reveling in the superiority of her own housekeeping and her impeccably ordered world, and making all her friends feel inadequate. After only a few dinners in her company, the reader is prepared to reveal state secrets of a sensitive nature rather than listen to a single additional lecture on the economic marvel that is the fireless cooker.
The cookbook—as well as the others it spawned, Bettina’s Salads and Bettina’s Desserts—has a loyal following amongst collectors, and it took me several years to lay my hands on the immediate sequel, A Thousand Ways to Please a Family. I had filled many hours envisioning just how insufferable a mother Bettina would make, how bossy, how high-handed, how smothering. I was both relieved and slightly disappointed to find that, by the time her kids Sue and Robin are of school age, she’s chilled out somewhat. Indeed, by first-book standards, she’s practically laid-back. Sure, there’s plenty of talk about nutrition and “digestible” foods, but to her credit Bettina places a high premium on her childrens’ independence and doesn’t knock herself out over their meals. (On the contrary: if memory serves, their weekday lunch is “graham bread” and a glass of milk.) It’s a good read, but it simply can’t compare with the frenetic oddity that is A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband.
ATWtPaH’s appeal as a cultural artifact is obvious: the menus are like time capsules. And while it would be a stretch to call the books actively progressive, the emphasis on modern methods, labor-saving devices, and the science of housekeeping—not to mention that suffragette brunch!—is clearly intended to inspire the young bride not just with confidence but with a sense of the importance of her role. As Bob observes over ham (after a scintillating discussion of the accounts book), “Some men seem to think that it doesn’t take brains to run a house well, but they don’t know. It requires just as much executive ability and common sense as it does to manage a big business.”
None of which, of course, really explains why I felt so compelled to cook exclusively from Bettina’s dossier. I justified my youthful experiment on vague grounds of historical research and sociological study. But the appeal was more elemental than that: like any young bride of 1917, I wanted to enter into Bettina’s perfectly ordered existence. (Besides, I was curious about just what those boubons would taste like.) Bettina was a martinet, no question—and yet she kept her husband so pleased! Were the recipes good? Could the prescriptions delight a twenty-first-century man? I’ve always had a fascination with period cooking; the units in elementary school where we replicated pilgrim meals and medieval feasts are amongst my happiest memories. Unlike other forms of historical recreation, when you eat vintage food there is no pretending involved.
And so I started cooking. Every meal, every day, for as long as I could stand it. I remember that, at the time, I was house-sitting for one of the university’s deans and so had access to a grown-up kitchen. The dean and his wife, enthusiastic and ambitious gourmets, would doubtless have been appalled to see the use to which I put their batterie de cuisine. Never, I am sure, had their kitchen seen so much white sauce. I turned out popovers and waffles, prune whip and “Spanish Buns,” escalloped oysters and chicken croquettes. With every unseasonal meal (it was a warm May) my friends were forced to drink cup after cup of weak coffee.
While simple by haute standards, the cooking demanded a ton of time in the kitchen. By the time I was done with the grinding of meats and bread crumbs, the melting of butter for said crumbs, and, of course, the inevitable white sauce, every dish in the kitchen had been used. I found myself resenting the lack of a fireless cooker. The food was rich, but the portions 1917-tiny; probably a quarter of the standard contemporary size. My boyfriend, unlike the complacent Bob, routinely required additional snacks (and not least because, in a spirit of verisimilitude, I insisted we dine at six P.M.). For my part, I started sneaking in fruits and vegetables between meals. Economical Bettina’s recipes may have been, but they did not meet twenty-first-century nutritional standards. The experiment broke down on my birthday; I simply couldn’t bring myself to celebrate with the festive, prescribed menu of tuna loaf and marshmallow cream.
Although I’ve not since been tempted to replicate the food, the book has remained one of my chief comfort reads, a bastion of make-believe order in a scary world. As an adult with a home of my own, I may fall far short of Bettina’s standards—certainly my gas bill would appall her—but her lessons have stuck with me. “Romance is in everything we do lovingly and intelligently,” she observes in the book’s final chapter, “The First Year Ends.” And while our definitions of “romance” may differ, that’s advice that crosses the generations.