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Books

Ways and Means

January 16, 2012 | by

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
Rolls        Butter
Strawberry Preserves
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.

24 COMMENTS

20 Comments

  1. Joe Carlson | January 16, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Great article. There’s a theatrical piece crying out to be developed from this material, perhaps somewhat in the vein of Sarah Ruhl’s IN THE NEXT ROOM. Had a great-grandmother who always served me “graham bread” (i.e., crackers) and a glass of milk. Claimed it was “good for what ails you.” Nothing ailed me when I was five but I figured she knew something I didn’t.

    Wikipedia’s entry for Thousand Island Dressing lists ATWtPaH as a source for the recipe: “Its base commonly contains mayonnaise and can include olive oil, lemon juice, orange juice, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, vinegar, cream, chili sauce, tomato puree, ketchup, or Tabasco sauce.”

    Wikipedia remains mysteriously silent on “Prune Whip.”

  2. N S-H | January 16, 2012 at 10:29 am

    This was just the biggest delight to read, Sadie! White sauce forever.

  3. Sadie | January 16, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    So glad you enjoyed, friends! As re: prune whip, Joe – Bettina’s recipe is a sort of meringue mixed with stewed pureed prunes…I think there are a number of variations from the era, though!

  4. Sarah B. | January 16, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    Hilarious. I totally see this as a movie, alternating between scenes of you in your life cooking from the book and the fictional couple in the book doing their thing. I assume if you have photos of some of these meals you would have shared them? If you love this sort of thing, you’ll flip for this: http://yuckylicious.blogspot.com/search/label/Betty%20Crocker

  5. Irene | January 17, 2012 at 5:21 am

    A lovely post. I assume you know Bonnie Slotnick’s second-hand cookbook store? It’s at 163 West 10th Street (212 989-8962) and you just might find Bettina there, looking for something dainty to make for supper.

  6. RB | January 17, 2012 at 8:15 am

    A real treat, Sadie! Hard to imagine a time when women looked to cookbooks for marital advice.

    In addition to Bonnie Slotnick’s excellent store on West 10th, there’s also Joanne Hendricks’s vintage/antiquarian cookbook shop at 488 Greenwich Street:
    http://joannehendrickscookbooks.com/index.html

  7. Sadie Stein | January 17, 2012 at 10:22 am

    @Irene, RB – Yes, Bonnie and I have talked Bettina at length! She actually found me a copy of the sequel…she’s wonderful. As is Joanne H’s. As, for that matter, is Kitchen Arts and Letters! We really are spoiled.

    @Sarah. Plotting who should play me…

  8. Robin | January 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Sadie, this reminds me of another Bettina, Betsy Ray–couldn’t she have used this book in her first little home with Joe?! The only things I remember about her first year of housekeeping are that she learned one company dinner and that when Joe worked nights at the newspaper, she kept house at night and slept all day.

    Anyway, thanks for this wonderful piece. I have always wondered whether I dare try boiled dressing.

  9. Sadie Stein | January 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    @Robin – I have scoured ATW for Betsy’s company dinner menu – the chicken and marshmallow pudding that she tests out on Margaret and Louisa — and can’t find an exact facsimile, but the similarity in era has always been part of the intrigue! What I wonder is, what is the big, businesslike cookbook that Tib gives her??

  10. Sarah McCoy | January 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks for introducing me to Bettina, Sadie. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay! I did a piece for The Millions awhile back and it seems we have a common love for the bizarre and beloved stories behind cookbooks.

    http://www.themillions.com/2010/02/joy-of-cooking-a-novel-experience.html

    I believe you’ve inspired me to scour the used bookstores for more of these cookbooks… not that I need an excuse to dally away in an antiquarian shop.

    Thanks for another great post!

  11. Matt Sherman | January 19, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act weren’t instituted until 1919, so it wouldn’t have any relevance to a cookbook from two years earlier.

  12. Sadie | January 20, 2012 at 8:51 am

    @Matt Sherman That’s a good point – I wonder if this edition came out a little later? On the other hand, I can’t imagine that people did a great deal of wine drinking etc. anyway (at least, the demo. at which this was aimed.) And the prohibitive movement would have had quite a popular foothold by this time…

  13. gwern | January 23, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    > 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.

    But I bet their waistlines met modern standards of beauty and health…

  14. Cate Holst | January 28, 2012 at 3:53 am

    White sauce, coffee, thriftiness and romance…who could ask for more? Fabulous read

  15. Marian | March 18, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    This was fun to read, especially since I own the 1941 Edition of this book that my 88 year old Mother gave to me when I married in 1978. I remember reading this book as a child and “dreaming” of the day I was to marry. (I am 61 so a 50′ child). It truly is an accurate step back in time for Women’s History.

  16. Leslie Louise George Marshall | August 24, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful musings. Enjoyed your article. ‘A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband’- was co written by my grandmother, Louise W. George. I never got to meet her, as she died before I was born. (I was born in 1956, & named after her.) From what my Dad has shared with me, his Mom, was a kindly person, he (called her homely) who married late and had her only child at age 39. She was Universtity educated, liberal minded, and a serious ‘career’ woman. Her husband, Alexander George was a Washington based syndicated newspaper columnist, and so was she. In her scrapbook from 1940′s, she kept a note one of her book buyers sent her. It was the ‘return’ receipt & a note that says …”I had no I idea, that ‘A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband’, was a cook book! I sent it back immediately!” . (she got good mileage out of naming her book that, and they all had a sense of humor about it– there was irony involved.)

    One of her jobs was with Washington, DC, where she was the menu planner & dietician for the public schools. She really did care about feeding the kids well. My dad always had a smile on his face when he remembered his mom in the kitchen, trying out new recipes, and he really laughed when he remembered their ‘live-in’ housekeeper, was the one that actually fed the family.

    When my Mother was married to my Father, she was given, of course, ‘A Thousand Ways to please a Husband’ by her new Mother-in-Law. My mom [by her own admission-not much of a cook at all] could have felt intimidated marrying into the family, but Mrs. George would have none of that. Also, it helped, that my Dad, liked, very simple, plain food, and he was easy to please. Growing up with my Dad, he was the one that remembered some of her recipes, and showed us (well, actually, told us) how to make them. Yes, the food was very rich, but you have to remember that they didn’t always eat that way, and also the portions were so much smaller then. Something we would do well to emulate today. (I agree, too much pimento, I think it was their ‘modern’ (now quaint) way to ‘add color’ & interest to the dish). Now that my Dad is gone, I’m enjoying a chance to reminisce. Thanks again. – Leslie Louise George Marshall

  17. Wendy | November 29, 2012 at 11:57 am

    I love A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband! It’s a “cosy” book, and compared to some contemporary books it is quite forward-thinking. Bob actually comes into the kitchen and helps out on (rare) occasion! After looking for it for years, I was tickled to see a facsimile copy of the second book show up on Amazon, and I expect it for Christmas. I just hope they did a decent job of it.

  18. Sadie Stein | November 29, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Yes! It is Bob’s “innovation” to slice the lemon into wedges!

  19. Corinne | October 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    A great review of my favorite book! Thank you for such a wonderful piece.

  20. Heather Culley | February 5, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    I have loved Bettina since my grandma gave me a copy of Bettina’s Cakes and Cookies she found in an antique store. When A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband came out in reprint, I snapped it up! Just as good as the cake book! They do mention the War though, in that Ruth and Fred have to wait to build their house because the war disrupted business. Just that. Lovely comment by Leslie Louise George Marshall too.

4 Pingbacks

  1. [...] I enjoy the gentle irony of the suffragette brunch. Also, it’s 1917 and apparently there’s no war. Lucky! This sort of How-to-Life manuals are a bit like ‘top’ lists, we feel safe with them. A smidgen of order in an otherwise oddball world. Plus, pleasing a husband is something I worry about constantly. White sauce! White sauce is the answer. Finally, history tells me something useful. Strange though, we look back at characters such as the manic Bettina and feel smug about how far we’ve come. A Bob-type would no longer be tolerated and our brunches are so much more light-hearted these days. But. Have we come that far? Have we Ellen and Sherrie, you stupid creatures unlike any others? Give me Bettina’s house keeping any day. [...]

  2. [...] The Paris Review: Cooking from a 1917 cookbook: escalloped oysters, home-ground meat and breadcrumbs, “white sauce” on just about everything — and the comfort that comes with vintage food. — Patrick Farrell [...]

  3. [...] “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!”   More… [...]

  4. [...] Cooking from A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband (with Bettina’s Best Recipes), published in 1917. [...]

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