“There is no home repair,” an old friend used to say, “that I can’t take care of with three simple tools: the yellow pages, a telephone, and my check book.” Luckily for me, Rich is considerably handier around the house, thanks to his capable father and the wisdom in the Better Homes and Gardens Handyman’s Book, which he bought decades ago along with his first house. Last week, I was shocked to discover that Rich, who is far less sentimental about his stuff, had placed this venerable volume in a pile going to charity.
Rich might be ready to part with his Handyman’s Book, but I’ll never let go of its counterpart in my own collection, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. My mother taught me the basics from her 1953 edition and presented me with my own copy when I went away to college. That book guided me through countless birthday cakes and Christmas cookies, helped me stretch budgets in lean times, showed me how to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey, and – thanks to the table setting diagrams – resolved a few spirited debates over the correct placement of salad forks back in my early days as a bride.
The BHG cookbook has been hugely successful; launched in 1930, it sold its millionth copy by 1938, and has survived countless social and culinary changes since then. The ultra-simple instructions and explanatory photos are a big factor. But on a deeper level, this cookbook is a great equalizer. For 84 years immigrants pouring into the US have used it to cook American-style meals that they feel comfortable serving their new friends and neighbors. After World War II, countless young brides like my mother, who grew up with a housekeeper but certainly couldn’t afford one herself, used this cookbook to come up to speed in the kitchen fast. Girls who came of age in the sixties could learn to prepare granola and trail mix from its pages, although BHG wisely stopped short of providing us with marijuana brownie recipes.
Later, as more sophisticated cuisine came into vogue – Joy of Cooking, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse cookbooks – millions of Americans still kept the BHG classic for making essentials. I bought a new edition in 1996 that was updated to include microwave instructions, low-fat recipes, and speedy meals for working women. Ten years ago, even though I was sourcing most recipes from the Internet, I considered bringing the cookbook to Seville, but in the end I settled for copying my favorite recipes. Now, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Rich and I unearth the grease-stained photocopies in the happy confidence that our turkey and stuffing will once again taste just like the ones our mothers used to make.
I'm in California for the summer, and last week, finding myself confronted by overripe bananas, I quickly hauled out my old cookbook and got to work on some banana bread. This uniquely American sweet loaf was invented to avoid wasting bananas past their prime, allowing us us to feel thrifty, guilt-free, and well-fed all at the same time. Nowadays, the humble banana bread recipe can be found everywhere, adapted by such high-profile sources as Bon Appétit, the Food Network and the BBC. BHG tweaks the recipe with every edition, but I'm sticking with my tried-and-true 1996 version.
I’ve just learned that the 16th edition of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book is coming out in a Kindle edition next month, and I’m conflicted. It would be great to have all 1200 recipes when I’m in Seville or on the road, but do I really want to risk having my Kindle covered with the gravy smears, chocolate stains, and bits of banana that all good cookbooks acquire? If I do, I’m sure there’s a home maintenance book out there somewhere that includes do-it-yourself methods for cleaning the household electronics. Hmmm, maybe Rich is due for a new handyman’s guide when the holidays roll around in a few months…
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I never obtain free or discounted books or anything else in return for promoting stuff on this blog. I'm just telling you about things I love and find useful, in case you'd enjoy them, too.
PS: After reading this post, Rich has decided to keep the Handyman's Guide.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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