Monday, October 29, 2007

Peg Bracken Stirred Up The Sixties And Beyond

The news last week that noted cookbook author and humorist Peg Bracken had died at the age of 89 in Portland, Oregon might have escaped my notice, as I wasn’t even born when her best-selling The I Hate To Cook Book was released in 1960. But two facts in the NPR report caught my attention. First, that she hoped her book would afford women more time to smoke cigarettes and drink cocktails, not because I’m a big fan of either one. I don’t smoke, and only rarely drink anything harder than a glass of wine. But any woman in the Ward and June Cleaver era who would espouse such rebellion was somebody I wanted to know more about. Secondly, she began her career as an advertising copywriter, my line of work. These facts made me sorry that my introduction to such a funny and fearless woman was her obituary.

In the uptight context of the early sixties, her recipes like Skid Row Stroganoff, which instructed the cook to "add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink,” must have been shockingly liberating to some, and just plain shocking to others. But despite the initial reactions of the male publishers who turned it down because they feared women would be offended by the lack of sanctity for the sacred rites of the kitchen, the book quickly sold more than three million copies.

It may not seem surprising that Ms. Bracken was married four times. It was while she was married to her second husband that she wrote The I Hate To Cook Book. When she showed him the manuscript, he told her, “You’re wasting your time. Who’d want a book like that?” It wasn’t long before she was on to husband number three.

Before she found her voice as a spokesperson for an emerging anti-drudgery movement, she worked as an advertising copywriter at a Portland agency. It was there that she began to unleash her gin-dry wit. She co-wrote a syndicated cartoon called “Phoebe, Get Your Man” with co-worker Homer Groening. Yes, that Homer, the father of “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening.

The I Hate To Cook Book is currently out of print, but I’ve tracked down a copy on I plan to check out her other books, I Hate To Housekeep (1962), her guide to etiquette, I Try To Behave Myself (1964), and her memoir, A Window Over The Sink (1981).

Just for the record, I don’t hate to cook. In fact, I enjoy it most of the time. But I am not above opening a can on those off nights, and I’m grateful to this woman who helped usher in the era of convenience foods while showing America that humor and intelligence are as important to a happy home as a hearty meal.

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