My colleague Karen Anderson, who teaches poetry in many of our creative writing classes, recently gave a fascinating talk to the faculty on her poetic dialogue with cookbooks, especially the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (commonly knows as the “Big Red Cookbook”). I asked for her lecture notes so that I could reconstruct her argument for you here.
Karen makes the useful point (obvious when you think about it) that cookbooks are always about more than food. She has written a series of poems in response to the Big Red Cookbook because she says it provides a particularly visible example of the confluence between class aspiration, desire for public recognition of domestic work, and elevating the importance of the private domestic sphere.” Betty Crocker, Karen says, assures women that “the work done to execute these recipes will allow one to transcend the fatigue and boredom of the work.”
The disturbing thing, Karen adds, is that women of the time got the message that doing the work more carefully, thoroughly, and efficiently was the only way to transcend it. In other words, to do it “right,” one must put all one’s time and energy into it, which means that one can never escape it.
Transcendence might mean joining the company of celebrities (a number of whom provided recipes to Betty Crocker in the 1940’s and 1950’s for publicity purposes) or it might mean keeping the love of your husband. Karen quoted an example provided by Susan Marks in her 2005 Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret life of America’s First Lady of Food. In 1928, a radio show listener of the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air radio show wrote in saying, “I don’t make your fudge cake, because I like white cake, but my neighbor does. Is there any danger of her capturing my husband?”
The following poem by Karen takes off of a Grace Kelly recipe for a vegetable dip called “Hollywood Dunk.” The dip is actually pretty bad, Karen says, and she can’t imagine any star eating deviled ham, but a woman looking at the recipe could imagine that she was partying with the stars.
I love the way the poem moves between the film world and the domestic world. A vegetable dip made over like Grace Kelly can render a man helpless—Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window lured by toast points?—so that for a moment the woman imagines herself inside the white ropes or at the (fake) pool party with her bowls.
And then she has a moment of doubt. She’s not Grace Kelly but an extra. Or maybe just a guest. Or maybe just a chewed piece of celery that has been dipped into Hollywood Dunk. Once one starts thinking about fitting into a two-piece, the fantasy becomes a horror film.
But the cookbook is there to reassure us. Try it again. Just suspend yourself in cream this time. And put on an apron.
Here’s the poem:
Recipe: Hollywood Dunk
By Karen Anderson
Whipped cream plus minced onion. A spread
for Americans, deviled hams dressed up,
mid-chickflick. It might incline us
to service, seeing Grace’s Famous
Makeover in Parchment, Handsome Man’s
Helplessness on Toast Points. The careless cool
around the cinema’s fake pool party,
rich and pink and white, endlessly instructive
as my very bowls going by. Watching, I get some
part of me inside the white velvet rope,
imagining myself an extra:
a jut-breasted fifties dress, period piece.
If not a guest. If this dip’s vegetable, chewed
ragged by the end, almost horrorfilm: I need
to fit that two piece? I need to say what? If I
would suspend myself in cream, they said
I’d like it better. “For Anyone Who’s Ever Been”:
white, middle class, a little green; OK,
fine, I’ll go again to see what I’m missing.
Maybe it will be more fun
with my apron on.
Karen notes that the notion of “transcendence through self-management” is not limited to women of the past. A recent example is Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain, which Karen says is a hit “amongst the well-heeled, aspiring-to-be-organic set.” In its gorgeously photographed kitchen scenes “we see a woman who, after leaving her high profile job as a pastry chef at Spago and Campanile to raise her children, manages to turn her own carefully documented domestic bliss into an enormously successful career as a writer.”
Turning one’s back on the rat race, staying at home with one’s children, turning that decision into a satisfying and lucrative career—these are the things that dreams are made on. Karen says that she could not write so vividly about them if she herself did not dream them, and her poems are an attempt to interrupt and query that yearning.
“Recipe: Hollywood Dunk” was originally published in New American Writing, Issue 28 (Fall 2010)