One Book I'll Keep Forever
“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.
8/7/2014 10:53:25 am
I still have my 1980 edition however its missing some pages which can be a pain at a strategic moment in the cooking process...
8/8/2014 09:19:43 am
That's when you get creative in the kitchen! Adds a little suspense to the process...
8/7/2014 11:24:10 am
My mother gave my wife and I the BHG cookbook for our wedding in 1969 (I was hoping for a house) We still dig into it when we want wonderfully, simple food. I forgave my mom for not throwing ion the house.
8/8/2014 09:21:10 am
Look at it this way, Duane. You would probably have sold that house by now but you still have the BHG cookbook! And if you're like me, you'll have it forever...
8/7/2014 12:34:53 pm
I have the 1968 Edition which is the year I got married in Julian California (east of San Diego in the Hills) I would not part with that for all the world. Another great 'keeper' is Mrs Beeton's All About Cookery. Oh, and both books are covered with food particles!
8/8/2014 09:23:20 am
I've heard about Mrs. Beeton's and have been meaning to check it out. Any cookbook that gets itself covered with food particles is a proven veteran and worth getting to know!
8/7/2014 01:04:16 pm
Love to hear stories of that book. Never a willing or tidy cook, my mother used her edition loyally. It was covered with stains from foods our family loved.
8/8/2014 09:24:57 am
These cookbooks are like part of the family, aren't they? And you can tell which recipes are the best because those pages are the most stained and crumpled.
8/7/2014 08:46:34 pm
Definitely buy the Kindle version (in case you were wondering!). Each year I start a file of newly found and tried recipes on my computer and, at the end of the year place them into master files of "Soups" "Salads" "Main Dishes" etc. and send the files to my Kindle. Since I take the Kindle everywhere, I always have my recipes at the ready, including in Italy where we spend a month each year. It's also great to have them handy in case someone is interested. Congratulations on keeping your older cookbooks for so long. You're a better woman than I!
8/8/2014 09:26:53 am
Nancy, that's a brilliant idea about creating your own recipe file on Kindle! I download a lot of recipes from the Internet, and then I can't always find them again. Even a list of links would be useful. Hmmm, you've got me thinking!
8/18/2014 01:29:27 pm
Wish I could send you a picture of my BIG cookbook. We had a very small kitchen so the cookbook sat on stove part of the time. The family joke was 'my wife can even burn the cookbook.' Very wide electric burner marks on the front. I still light the wrong burner sometimes and know it is not my age. I've always done it.
8/19/2014 06:30:25 pm
Carolyn, I'd love to see this historic book. Can you post it on my Facebook page? I have such a rich visual from your description!
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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