Friday Hoyden: Peg Bracken

Guest post by Helen on the Cast Iron Balcony.

Most people know Hillary Knight’s wonderful illustrations from Eloise, the little hotel-dwelling spoiled-rotten urban girl. For me, his line drawings take me back to my childhood in Adelaide, where my mother, a university-educated housewife, was navigating the late 1950s and early 60s. I’ve mentioned before that The Feminine Mystique was one of the books in our bookshelf. The I Hate to Cook Book is another. It had a companion volume: the I Hate to Housekeep book.

The books are a manifesto for the women for whom cooking and housework weren’t their vocation, and who didn’t have the ‘natural’ womanly skillset that was supposed to attach to their biology. They were defiant, irreverent, and very funny. And they were like a coded message from my mum.

It’s reported that Bracken’s first husband’s reaction to her book was “it stinks”.

I went to work on the book, but then I hit a speed bump,” she says. “My husband who was also a writer was jealous. He said, ‘You’re wasting your time; who’d want a book like that?’ He didn’t want competition. He wanted to be the only writer in the family.”

After that particularly telling period in their marriage, Bracken says, “I showed enormous patience and waited four more years until I left him.”

(An interesting bit of trivia from the linked article: Bracken co-wrote a syndicated cartoon, “Phoebe, get your man”, with Matt Groening’s father. His name was Homer.)

The IHTCB was an icon of an era where women were just beginning to come out from under the cloud of the stultifying postwar period. That was when women, who’d gained work and life experience with the men away at the front, were told in no uncertain terms by society that their place was in the kitchen now that they were back. Yes, the recipes were bloodyawful, relying as they did on canned and packet ingredients. But this was a time where women couldn’t expect their male partners to share the domestic work. The growing popularity of instant food was a culinary disaster, but one of the few ways that women could cut down on the hours spent on work in the home.

Bracken appreciated good food, but not if it was at the expense of time for reading, smoking or drinking Martinis. She gave her recipes such names as “Sole Survivor” and “Stayabed Stew” and focused on easily available ingredients, including spam, baked beans, corned beef hash, cheese, frozen vegetables, fish fingers and canned mushroom soup, which she often used as a sauce…
…Much of the appeal was in the tone of her writing: “Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir,” she instructed in her recipe for “Skid Road Stroganoff”, “and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”

A hoyden after my own heart. I wasn’t really up to reading The Feminine Mystique (published three years after this book) at the age of seven or eight, but I bet I soaked up as much subversion reading Bad Girl Peg. If you see the IHTCB or the IHTHB in a second hand shop, snap them up while you can.

Categories: Culture

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4 replies

  1. Oh, I loved IHTCB! I ‘lost’ my copy when I separated in 1987 and have never seen a copy since. The meatloaf and the tuna casserole were great faves in our house. And the ‘stroganoff’ meatballs that you served with sour cream and noodles. I remember some of her hints: If you beat the family home by only five minutes, set the table and put some bread rolls in a low oven. It will make it seem that dinner is nearly ready. And her comment on one-up-womanship in catering: she once went to a dinner party where flaming shishkebabs were served on swords – she would rather die than have that women in her house in return. And on fruit salad: three different fruits are fine – this isn’t the Ritz! I saw that she’d died recently and felt sad again that my book has gone.

  2. Nothing wrong with the odd canned-and-packet Insta-Gourmet meal, and they can be rather tasty if you’re picky about which cans and packages you use.
    A favourite: Dump IKEA meatballs, a tin of diced tomatoes, and a bottle of tomato puree (the stuff with onion powder is fine, but NOT the stuff with “basil”) in the crockpot. Add some pepper or fresh herbs or something if you’re feeling really fancy. Serve over spaghetti.
    Also yum in the slow cooker: sausages, a big can of four bean mix, and a sauce mix over the top (tomato sauce/maple syrup/soy sauce/lemon juice/chilli flakes, or whatever else you like. I tend to stick to the principle of salty/sweet/sour/tomato/chilli).
    And, of course, red lentils/some sort of vegetable/a protein, and a jar of Patak’s Curry Sauce.

  3. This explains so much about the food we ate in the late 50s and 60s.
    My mother had at least one of these books. The difference, perhaps, was that she liked being home. She didn’t like housework, but she liked being a full-time mom. (She used to say “No, you can’t eat off of my floors, but you can eat off of my dishes, and that’s what really counts, isn’t it?”)
    We ate a whole lotta convenience-food dinners supplemented with a salad and some kind of boiled, formerly-frozen vegetable.

  4. and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink

    Ouch. The acid dripping from that line is so strong that it has burnt me 50 years later. Wow.
    Deborahs last blog post..Friday Feminist – Pamela Foa

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