April 11, 2008

Big Fat White Man

I found this 1953 Pillsbury Cookbook featuring all the 1952 “4th Grand National $100,000 Recipe and Baking Contest” contestants and winners. Back then the grand prize was $25,000 and the cookbook cost 25 cents. It was my Grandmother’s and I found it with my Mom’s collection of cookbooks. Sadly, my Mom has Alzheimer’s and isn’t doing any cooking or baking these days, but she was a very good baker and taught me, with only the patience a Mother can have, what she could about baking. I wasn’t much in the mood for measuring cups, wooden spoons, and rising dough, being the ruffian I was. Hang out in the kitchen for an afternoon?? No way - there were far too many bugs, cats, baby birds, lizards, and little brothers to round up and play with. Then have funerals for them. (Not my brother – I would have been grounded forever… though I did manage to get a long fake braid attached to his head).

I’d play with/train/dress up/do surgery on all these hapless creatures until they finally just gave up and expired, then I would empty my Mom’s shoes from their boxes, wrap the bodies in paper towels, nestle them in the shoe boxes with grass for pillows, and have a proper funeral service for the recently departed. Our yard was studded with the many burial mounds. My Dad couldn’t mow the yard without cursing the bumps and caved in grave sites. “J.H.C. on a half shell, can’t you kids go play in the street or something?” Making my sisters line up in their shorts, Easter hats, and patent leather Sunday school shoes, I’d deliver a eulogy that included much crying, poetry (“fly, little bird…fly, to heaven…fly, and…eleven!”), ordering everyone to stand still, even if it was 112 degrees and they had to go to the bathroom, and then host a lovely reception with Frito's and Kool-Aid, graveside. My Mom would come out and yell at us for digging up the yard, taking all her shoe boxes, and why, dear God, WHY, had she raised a pack of savages?

So, no…not much baking during those years. I was very busy with my veterinarian/animal training/funeral business.

The 1953 Pillsbury cookbook is enlightening. I’m particularly astounded by the $2,000 2nd prize winner of the Junior Contest….”By Cracky Bars”….by a Miss Yvonne M. Whyte, New Bedford, Mass. Now, Miss Whyte was a young black woman….and I’m just wondering about that name….“BY CRACKY”???? Rosa Parks was two years too late.

And how about “Peppy Apple-Cheese Bread”….peppy? I don’t see any caffeine products in this one. What’s so peppy??? Is that a euphemism for the diet pills/speed that kept frustrated 1950’s housewives from burning their husbands alive? Then I found “Surprise Zookies”…it appears to be a simple butter cookie with an apple butter filling...."Zookie"? Did people in 1952 bite into a cookie and when tasted saw apple butter, yell out, “ZOOKIE!”????

Lots of recipes with “merry”, “dreamy”, “fluffy”, “dandy”, and, of course “surprise” in the title.

But there are some simple, direct, “don’t mess with me in the kitchen or I will stab you with a hat pin” recipes – like, the very basic,“Liver and Onion Dinner” by Mrs. Robert Wellman, of Kenosha, Wisconsin. That’s right, by cracky, eat your damn liver and onion dinner, you kids, or it’s off to the barn for a strappin’ and a milking session! There’s “Parisian Sophisticates” by a Mrs. Warren H. Thorpe, of Macon Georgia. Oh, I bet she was an uppity one, wore a cardigan with a poodle broach and didn’t mingle with the ladies from “up north”.

I imagine that cook-off kitchen in 1952 was one hot and steamy mess of extremely competitive women (I counted two men….poor guys). I know that both my grandmothers held very strong opinions of how things should be done in their kitchens. Back then, maybe cooking and baking was THE one and only area where women could be extremely competitive and be rewarded for it. These ladies absolutely were the hotshots of the culinary world. There were no celebrity chefs or anything even close to Food Network…the Pillsbury Bake-Off was the equivalent of Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Next Food Network Star all rolled into one juggernaut. It was the first time amateur cooks were recognized for their baking and cooking prowess on a national level with huge prize money and notoriety. People (like me) often make fun of the down homey-ness of these old recipes, but these gals (and a few guys) were true pioneers for all of us that blog about food or enter cook-offs and contests. Can you imagine what a BIG DEAL it was to go off to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NYC to actually have a shot at $25,000, back in 1952? Some of these women had probably never been 25 miles in any direction from the family farm.

So toques off to ladies like Miss Lettie Spencer, Mrs. Clara Walker, and Mrs. Maude Dietrich! They help propel cooking into national entertainment and a prize worthy endeavor that blossomed into food careers for many and gave inspiration to others. They were amongst the first “foodies” who swerved this nation toward inventive cooking that was purely American. While it wasn't classically French or even approaching "gourmet", it was their “Orange Upsidaisies” and their “Pork and ‘Tater Pie” that got the average cook to be creative and excited about cooking.

There are 100 wonderful bakers and cooks gathered in Dallas as I type, readying their nerves and their Kitchen-Aids to compete for the grand prize of $1,000,000. I wish them luck. There’s a long list of previous contestants that paved the way for them.

Here’s link to recipes for the Cook-Off:

2008 Pillsbury Bake-Off Finalists


Anj said...

Oh, what a nice treasure you have. I loved reading your story.

Zen Chef said...

hehehe..funerals in the garden followed by a reception with Frito's and Koolaid graveside? How cool is that!! hehehe. I'm giggling now.

Chuck said...

I love going to garage and yard sales. You can find some amazing old recipe books and pick them up for .25 to a 1.00 I think I have about 150 in my collection now.

You have a great blog!

Kristen said...

That is such a gem of a cookbook!

Heather said...

Those cheese bars are from an era where housewives could get methamphetamine from their family doctors. Peppy indeed.

I used to try to make my little brother turn into a sister by putting him in dresses and making him dance to Madonna with me. Boy, did my dad get pissed! Said I was "ruining his boy." Didn't work, sadly. No, my bother is straight as the day is long. You win this round, dad.

Jenny said...

You were quite the tomboy huh? I love the stories of you and the bug funerals, my sister and I were busy dressing our cat up in doll clothes and making up dances, total geeks.

This cookbook is a classic, I would love to browse through it to see what Pillsbury was like way back then!

Best of luck to all of our friends in Dallas this week, I'll be anxiously awaiting to hear who is the next millionaire!

RecipeGirl said...

What a cool thing to be able to browse through! Can't wait to hear the results of the latest bake-off!

Emiline said...

Great post Catherine! I loved it!
How fun it would be to go to the Pillsbury Bake-Off. I like watching it on TV.

Best of luck to all of the competitors!

Deborah said...

This was such a great post! I can only imagine what it was like to be housewife back then...

Tracy said...

WOAH ... I just noticed that the 1951 winner, at the bottom of your post, was Double Delight Starlight cake (or something like it). This year's winner was Double Delight Peanut Butter cookies! Next time I enter I'm going to do a double delight something, for sure.

jj said...

Books like these are such a treasure! I have a few that belonged to my Grandma and they remaing my absolute favorite cookbooks. I'm sure you'll always treasure yours.

Creative Commons License
"The Dish" by Catherine Wilkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.