by Alexandra Rasic
How did you learn to cook? Like many, I learned by watching my parents and grandparents, but they were usually so rushed, or their cooking was so involved (my grandmother made her own phyllo dough!), that I only got to help with simple tasks. As I got older, chefs with cooking shows on PBS like Julia Child and Martin Yan exposed me to very different cuisines than what I was used to at home, as did some of my friends who shared treats like steamed bao buns and seaweed snacks. But as for really learning how to cook, it was not until I was home alone, after school and during summer vacations, that I actually started to do the work myself. As a latchkey kid in the ’80s, I made great use of the microwave, but I got bored.
Among my mother’s extensive collection of cookbooks was Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cookbook, published in 1973, the kids on the cover looked proud, satisfied, and downright delighted by their prowess in the kitchen. Not a parent in sight! And as you would imagine, the recipes were easy. My favorite was Stir-n-Drop Oatmeal Cookies. My mom still has the book, slightly stained, its vibrant illustrations bring back happy memories, and it’s probably why I was so intrigued when I came across When Sue Began to Cook with Bettina’s Best Recipes in the Homestead’s collection of cookbooks. The book was published in 1924 with beautiful illustrations by Elizabeth Colborne. Narrative in structure, its target audience was girls age 8 to 15, on the cusp of learning how to properly keep house.
The book was laid out in 52 lessons, one for each week of Sue’s first year of cooking lessons given to her and her friend Ruth Ann every Saturday by Sue’s mother, Bettina. Bettina was the creation of authors Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles LeCron who wrote not one, not two, but at least six cookbooks with Bettina as the smart, sensible, and increasingly skilled homemaker and heroine. It appears her story began with A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina’s Best Recipes (what a title!) in 1917; followed by A Thousand Ways to Please a Family with Bettina’s Best Recipes, Bettina’s Best Salads and What to Serve With Them, and Bettina’s Best Desserts, all published in 1923; and Bettina’s Cakes and Cookies and When Sue Began to Cook, both published in 1924.
When Sue Began to Cook contains 51 recipes and is filled with useful tips for budding cooks on things like:
• measurements: “Mother says we must always be very sure about the level spoonful.”
• methods: “Mother says all good cooks know that tomato soup is likely to curdle if the milk is emptied into the tomatoes. The tomatoes must be emptied into the milk. (I’ve underlined this so I won’t forget.)”
• and safety: “Mother says to write in our note-books in big black letters: Never Leave Salmon in an Open Can. Just as soon as we get the can opened, we must empty the salmon out in a dish, because many people have been poisoned by letting the air get into the salmon and the tin.”
But it’s the narrative that goes with the recipes and tips that made this such a compelling read, one that really captures what a particular segment of society valued about women at a time that the world was dramatically changing for them. Home is not home without a good mother. She is more than a good housekeeper, she is a home-maker, who if blessed with a daughter, needed to teach her to be the same. While the number of professional women working outside of the home rose significantly in the 1920s, married women like Bettina were still overwhelmingly expected to stay in the domestic sphere, one that was given more credibility through the rise of homemaking courses and things like Home Service Departments. The ideal of running one’s home with efficiency and learned expertise comes up time and time again in magazine articles, technical pamphlets, and books, and Bettina exemplified this standard.
The story of Sue’s friend, Ruth Ann, sucked me in right away. The book opens with Sue complaining that keeping company with Ruth Ann was currently quite challenging. “Oh, Ruth Ann’s no fun now—not since her Mother had to go to Arizona for her health. She cries all the time, and says their house feels so lonesome she wished she could die, and her Grandmother won’t let us cut paper-dolls on the floor…” By the next paragraph, Bettina has an idea. She tells Sue to skip over to Ruth Ann’s house and tell her grandmother that the girls are going to get a cooking lesson. Better yet, she promises one every Saturday until the girls are “both really fine cooks and can whisk together a perfect meal in no time!” She explains that she’ll start with easy recipes and “lead up very gently to the harder ones, just as real domestic science teachers do with their classes.” How absolutely 1920s, Bettina!
Bettina becomes a surrogate mother for Ruth Ann. Readers see this demonstrated in numerous ways throughout the book. “It seems to me Mother is a good deal more interested these days in what Ruth Ann eats than in what I eat,” writes Sue. Mother explains, “We must teach her to cook things she ought to eat…” The concern is that Ruth Ann’s grandmother does not realize she is not getting the nutrition she needs, nutrition that Bettina understands. Slowly but surely, Sue and Ruth Ann begin working together to teach and nurture others in their community, like the McCarthys, a poor family with 11 children who frequently get into trouble, lacking motivation and direction. Sue notes that even though some of the female children don’t show any signs of wanting to improve their own condition, once she and Ruth Ann know all there is to know about cooking and keeping house, “we’ll become neighborhood missionaries and teach it all to them.” Later in the book, motivated by delicious food that Sue and Ruth Ann are learning to make under Bettina’s tutelage, two of the boys go from causing mischief and swinging on gates to proudly cleaning windows and painting fences. Finally, Ellen McCarthy timidly asks if she can sit in on a kitchen lesson one day. “I’ll not say a single word,” she promises, “I’ll be all eyes and ears and no mouth at all!” After Bettina tells Sue it’s okay, it is Sue who tells Ellen that she can sit in on a lesson if she goes home and scrubs her “face and neck and ears till they shine, and your hands too. Then you give your teeth and your hair a good hard brushing, and come back.” A proud Bettina calls Sue a “little manager.”
Sue’s younger brother Robin and his pal Teddy also feature prominently throughout the book. Sue puts Robin in his place early on: “Maybe you and Teddy think we’re doing this cooking just for your benefit…Ruth Ann and I are learning to be practical cooks, and we aren’t planning our lessons just to suit two silly little boys that can’t even do their arithmetic problems without help.” Ouch!
Weaver and LeCron leave the reader guessing until week 51 to learn what happens to Ruth Ann’s mother. Good news! She comes home. A cheerful Ruth Ann tells Sue “you never half appreciate a mother till you have to do without one for a while.”
My husband and I are raising two boys who are extremely opinionated when it comes to food in our household. Whereas my husband and I ate what was put in front of us as kids, our family makes decisions about what to eat together. Like Sue, the older they get, the more they are expected to do for themselves. My oldest can fry an egg like nobody’s business. He knows how to make it just the way he likes it—crunchy on the edges with a runny yolk. My youngest likes to choose recipes and shop more than participate in the cooking right now, so I asked him to help me choose a couple of recipes out of When Sue Began to Cook to make for our family. He advocated heavily for Chocolate Pudding with Marshmallows, which was delicious, but we all agreed that it needed more marshmallows, so we ended up using 1/2 a bag! No complaints there.
The recipe I chose was Frizzled Beef. When I began to look into the history of the dish, I realized it was basically a creamed chipped beef recipe, something I had never made or tasted, but had heard about. I found many variations of the recipe online. Over the years, chipped beef has gone by many colorful names including Shit on a Shingle, or S.O.S. if you’re more civilized! This, the kids had no interest in sampling. They thought the dried slices of beef in a jar looked “disguuuuusting!” “Who puts beef in a jar?” my oldest asked. My husband ate creamed chipped beef as a kid, as did some of my colleagues and their spouses. None went as far as to say they missed the dish, but I made it anyway.
The recipe was easy to follow. I tried the beef beforehand and found it insanely salty, so I omitted the salt from Bettina’s recipe. My husband and I ate it for lunch today and tossed in a few handfuls of vegetables to feel a bit less guilty about all of the butter and salt. I have to say…it tasted better that I thought it would…especially with the vegetables. The butter makes the dish. Served on toasted bread, there was a nice mixture of textures and flavors, but definitely too much salt. (We do think making the dish with sliced mortadella would be pretty darn good!)
While my Betty Crocker cookbook didn’t have a melodramatic/moralistic story to go with it, it did give children, both boys and girls, agency in the kitchen, something I really value in raising my boys today. I look forward to hearing what kind of memories they will have of learning to cook, and am thankful the job is not longer relegated mostly to women.