Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Guilty Pleasure #1: Peg Bracken

Exhibit A--Isn't it cute?
Originally uploaded by Trilby.
I've put off talking about Peg Bracken until now. I don't know why, exactly. When it comes to horrifying foodstuffs, Peg is a seminal figure. She's right up there with C. W. Post, Clarence Birdseye, and Lucretia Borgia. How can I have avoided her this long? She's like the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody is talking about.

Now, this is the point where the astute essayist gracefully inserts some useful background information, since not everyone remembers eating "Sweep Steak" (pot roast made with cream of mushroom soup) or saw the advertisements where Peg talked our mothers into buying Bird's Eye frozen vegetables. Lucky stiffs.

Well, Ms Bracken--whose name, funnily enough, sounds a great deal like "brackish," although I believe there is no etymological connection--but I may be wrong--was essentially a humorist who chose to hand out advice to housewives. She was sort of an Erma Bombeck figure, if that's helpful. (But it probably isn't.) Or a Helen Gurley Brown, if Helen had written about the kitchens of respectable married ladies instead of the bedrooms of single girls.

Peg's first best-seller, The I Hate to Cook Book, was published in 1960. Now, for foodies, the 1960s are the crucially important decade. The 1960s were the decade in which Julia Child not only published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but starred on television as "The French Chef." The sixties were also the decade where food faddism stopped being solely the territory of cranks like Gayelord Hauser and Adelle Davis and started to go a bit more mainstream. And most importantly, it was during the sixties that packaged convenience foods hoisted their flag over the American pantry, witih the result that many Americans had no idea what fresh vegetables tasted like.

Clearly, the forces were in place for a foodie revolution.

So Peg Bracken is the standard holder for the instant, frozen, just-add-water school of mid-century American "cooking" that was about to be subsumed by blanquette de veau, granola, regional Chinese food, Northern Italian cooking, sushi, and sun-dried tomatoes. Her books are loaded with recipes made from canned this, frozen that, and instant whatchamacallit.

You'd think I'd have tarred and feathered her long ago.

Except she's a great writer. And she's funny. I suspect that if I didn't have the post-modern, post-foodie outlook I do have, I'd want to be her when I grow up.

On top of that, her books were illustrated by Hilary Knight, who also illustrated the Eloise books and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. So we have to give Peg a break, because even if she was hooked on dried onion soup mix, she had excellent taste in illustrators.

On the other hand, Peg still provides a lot of material for mockery. For example, there's her

1976 Trifle

[which] takes

1 strawberry jelly roll--about a pound
2 small packages strawberry Jell-O
1 cup sherry
1 package cook-type vanilla pudding (not the kind you merely mix)
whipped cream
some maraschino cherries

and preferably a transparent bowl to put it in. Line the bottom of with the jelly roll, cut in one-inch slices. Make the Jell-O according to directions EXCEPT use only half the water it calls for and make up the difference with sherry (Not cooking sherry, which is salty.) Pour it on the jelly-roll slices and mush it together gently, then put it in the refrigerator to set while you cook the pudding. Pour it on the top of the Jell-O and let it set. Before serving, decorate it with the whipped cream and the cherries.

Now, this is not the vilest glop I've ever swirled over my mental palette, but it does seem like a lot of bother, considering the number of instant and store-bought ingredients and the time it would take to assemble them. I mean, why not just buy a bakery cake? For all the time and effort involved, you could make a custard and produce a real trifle. So why bother?

Also, the name is bothersome. It's been a long time since I studied American history, but I believe the American colonists fought the revolution and broke the chains of fealty to England in order to avoid eating English food--you'll notice the first thing we did was stop drinking tea--so why make a "1776 Trifle," when clearly, if we're celebrating the Bicentennial, what is called for is apple pie?

So Peg Bracken, Queen of Culinary Incorrectness, is my guilty pleasure. It's probably shocking--as though Oprah Winfrey had been caught reading The Surrendered Wife under the covers with a flashlight--but there it is.


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

As Seen on TV!

Betty Crocker Bake and Fill
Originally uploaded by Trilby.
I think I may have just stumbled upon something my daughter has been babbling about for a couple of weeks. I gather that Cartoon Network or The Fox Box or some other Children's Television Network From Hell is running back-to-back advertisements for this weird cake-baking doo-hickey.

(I'm also hearing a lot about something called "The Chocolate Factory," where you make chocolate fondue, chocolate lollipops, etc. But while grossly overpriced, at least The Chocolate Factory involves chocolate. Which is pretty hard to make Horrifying enough to deserve inclusion in the Horrifying Foodstuffs canon.)

However, the Betty Crocker Bake 'n' Fill monstrosity wants you to use cake mix (three guesses which brand) and bake two layers of cake in such a way that you have a big hollow space just waiting to be filled--with some Cool-Whip™-addled substance, I have no doubt--unless General Mills, parent company of Betty Crocker, has a different product they'd like me to use.

But what's a mother to do? My daughter wants me to buy it for her. I'll probably cave.

Unless a new advertisement for some new mass-produced atrocity comes along to divert her attention. Even a gross of My Little Ponies is a small price to pay to avoid having to bake a giant lady bug cake.


Thursday, July 07, 2005

A cornucopia of Cool-Whip™

Teddy Grahams caught by paparazzi; film at eleven
Originally uploaded by Trilby.
OK, so tonight you're getting the Lazy Woman's Blog Entry. I mean, why should I page obsessively through my cookbook collection looking for a new nadir in revolting recipes, when the web has become a moveable feast that can, in a few clicks, glut even Templeton the Rat? And with colored photographs, too.

For example, I just discovered this. An entire website devoted to--you guessed it--horrifying foodstuffs. They have it all: 241 recipes using Velveeta; 769 recipes using Jell-O, and a mind-boggling 803 recipes calling for Cool-Whip. In fact, it looks like every recipe contains at least four non-food processed bullshit ingredients. And there are seasonal delights, too. They have a section devoted to summertime desserts featuring--guess what? Jello-O and Cool-Whip! I mean, what could be cuter than a cake decorated to look like a swimming pool for Teddy Grahams? But they don't stop there! They use the same old processed ingredients in new and exciting ways! Fudge made of cheese! Who would have thought of that? I know I wouldn't. Plus a section devoted to recipes especially for children. What a relief, because I know my kids wouldn't be able to handle the gourmet adult fare featured elsewhere on the site.

Isn't it amazing? Of course, if I were the nervous type, I'd be afraid that this website would put me out of business. Bye-bye blog.

But I have one thing they haven't got.

My secret ingredient.



Tuesday, July 05, 2005


OK, I lied. No, I haven't found a sorbet recipe that is so revolting that it simply must be included in the Horrifying Foodstuffs canon. No ... although I suppose the field is ripe for a degree of exploration and mockery ... anyone for squid ink/prune? Or tuna/tomato/pistachio? Or raspberry/chive?

You know, I'm sure some foodie somewhere has come up with something really gruesome in the sorbet department. I really should Google something up.

But I digress.

No, as the summer progresses, I've done a bit of cooking. Of decent food, mind you, not the crap I write about here. I've also climbed back onto the organic food wagon. And at the moment, the produce section of the local Whole Foods is a cornucopia of yumminess.

I've come to the conclusion that what this blog needs is some actual food recommendations. So what I'm writing today is a chance to cleanse the mental palette. A metaphorical sorbet. In which we turn away from the apparently infinite number of Horrifying Foodstuffs to think about food that--just this once--won't make you want to puke.

(Don't worry; I haven't lost my edge. I promise I'll Google up some more revolting sorbets real soon.)

OK, good food tips from Poppy:

1. Buy organic produce. Organic milk is also fantastic, but the taste difference from the regular stuff is less obvious. But with produce even the dullest of palettes will snap to attention.

2. If you're tired of grilling (and yes, Joke, this actually does happen to some people) there are ways to cook without heating up the kitchen. Your microwave is your friend. Tonight I poached filets of sole in a court boullion I made in the 'wave and they turned out great.

3. Another appliance I lean on is my rice cooker. Somehow it can cook a ton of rice and keep it warm without blowtorching the kitchen.

4. Also--and I'm going out on a limb here--the crock pot comes in handy. The other day I cooked black beans in mine and they were fabulous. And again--the kitchen remained pleasant. And so did I.

5. I was eating a ton of Ensalada Caprese until I realized that I'm really not all that crazy about basil, and I'm not always in the mood for mozarella. So here is how I'm fixing tomato salad these days: I smash a clove of garlic and rub it all over a platter. Then I slice red, ripe organic tomatoes as thinly as I can right onto the platter--I don't drain the slices; I keep all the juice. Then I splash on some extra virgin olive oil and some balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. Then I put the platter on the table and ignore it while I cook the rest of dinner. Maybe I'll remember to flip the tomatoes to get the garlic on both sides of the slices. This is heaven. OK, I'm a tomato fanatic, but seriously, this is so good you'll want to slap your grandmother.

6. I was away for the weekend and didn't have my trusty iron skillet and needed to make cornbread. So I did the emergency cornbread recipe, which is to use the recipe on the Quaker Corn Meal tub, except omitting the sugar and switching the proportions of flour and corn meal. That way you end up with a much cornier bread with more of that wonderful buttery taste and to-die-for ever-so-slightly-gritty corn meal texture.

7. For Independence Day I made strawberry shortcake. And I made real shortcake, the biscuit-like stuff, not the little round cakes from the supermarket. And needless to say, I whipped the cream myself. I did not use Cool-Whip.™

OK, that's enough sorbet. More snarking anon,