Three Generations of Cookbooks

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classic culinary text is guide through seasons of life

by josh perilo

in 1945, just months after the end of the second world war, my grandfather, jack hatfield, returned home to wichita, kan., and married my grandmother, florence. at that humble ceremony in my great-grandmother's house, the young couple was given the 1945 deluxe edition of the better homes and gardens cook book as their lonewedding gift.

in 1970, my mother had recently moved out of her childhood home in kansas city, kan. it was at this time that my grandmother and grandfather took the opportunity to overhaul their outdated kitchen. along with new appliances, my grandmother also purchased a copy of the 1970 better homes and gardens new cook book.

in 2006, having just moved in with the young lady who would soon be my wife, my grandmother asked if i needed anything for the new apartment.

"i can always use a cookbook." i said.

days later i had in my hands the 2006 better homes and gardens new cook book.

only a little over a year later, my grandmother passed away and her belongings were scattered amongst the myriad children and grandchildren. but somehow i was able to secure her two prized cookbooks. i keep all three, side by side, as though they complete some kind of mythic kitchen trilogy.

the oldest edition is stuffed with as many magazine clippings as there are recipes in the actual book. there are the bizarrely dated dishes like a phosphorescent green cake called a lime delight, and a frightening array of fried disks called ham patties sultana. there are also ads from the clippings for long-forgotten products like kellogg's corn soya breakfast cereal and swift's allsweet vegetable oleomargarine. the spills and stuck-together pages attest to a young cook, finding her footing in her first kitchen. trying new things and taking risks with culinary experiments.

the second cookbook, from 1970, is the one that i have the fondest and oldest memories of. as far as i knew growing up, it was the only cookbook that existed. the bold red and white-checkered design provoked a pavlovian response for me to immediately start pulling out cookie sheets and mixing bowls. this book was largely responsible, in concert with my grandmother's encouragement, for my passion for cooking. looking at the cookbook now, it seems more like a relic than the endlessly useful book my grandmother and i used every summer together. it's strange to remember how seriously i took the classic late 1960s/early '70s food photography. at the time, i would go to great pains to exactly recreate the dish i was making to resemble the one in the photo, props and all. there was no jell-o salad that went un-lettuced.

the 2006 version of the ubiquitous culinary tome is no shelf decoration. i consult it on a regular basis for advice on technique and basic cooking facts. its base knowledge has and will always be the north star for home cooks. it is exactly where you head to if you want to know the temperature of a medium-well steak, how many minutes per pound in the oven for a roast turkey, or what ratio of butter to flour to milk makes the best béchamel sauce. the editors have, unfortunately, added their own "modern" touches, the most irritating being updates on standards and classics. with all due respect, the very reason to have a better homes and gardens cook book is because it is so classic, unchanging and reliable. unnecessary gilded lilies like "overnight cream cheese stuffed french toast" is easily skipped over, leaving the originals, like the basic better homes french toast recipe (one of the best i've ever made) intact.

aside from the knowledge that we, as a collective cooking community, use many fewer beef bouillon cubes than our grandparents, the three generations of better homes and gardens cook books have given me a better perspective on where i came from, culinarily. for as much that has seemed to change philosophically, just as much has stayed exactly the same in practical application. here's to the next three generations!

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