This book makes me want to bake. After reading this book, I want to put on an apron (yes, an apron) and bake cookies all day.
First, three confessions that will inform what I’m about to say:
Confession No. 1: I love to read cook books. I am not a chef; I don’t often get too adventurous with my cooking or my baking. But I love to read cookbooks and imagine that I’ve cooked it all. Not leaf through, not skim, not peruse: I read cookbooks cover-to-cover.
Confession No. 2: I did not grow up with Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. My mom had the ubiquitous Betty Crocker Cook Book, and gave me one of my own when I got my own place (and I still consult it at least once a week, further proving to me that if I had to choose one cookbook out of the many I have to be my only, desert-island cookbook, it would be Betty, every time), but I had never even heard of said Cooky Book until friends of ours talked about how they’d spent the summer tracking a vintage copy on eBay.
Confession No. 3: I love cookies. If I were on that same desert island where I’d brought Betty as my only cookbook, cookies would be one of my top-five foods I could have on this hypothetical (and apparently well-stocked) island. However, when it comes to Christmas cookies, I have one true love: the peanut blossom, known also as the peanut butter kiss cookie. I don’t care if I have any other cookies at Christmas as long as I have at least one of these.
Having made these confessions, here we go.
I plucked the coverless, much-abused copy of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book out of the recycle pile at my church’s book fair this spring, not entirely sure what I was going to do with it. But as far as I could tell, it was an original 1963 printing, and my innate nostalgiac and historian of material culture wanted it. As I confessed above, the cookie lover in me does not love Christmas cookies as a general rule, and most of the recipes within the book looked to me as though they were cookies I would bypass on the way to my beloved peanut blossoms come Yuletide. But I wanted it. And it was free. And it spelled “cookie” with a Y. And I had heard that this book was The Gospel According to Betty when it came to cookies.
I sat down with the Cooky Book on Sunday when I realized that it was Christmas cookie time and Mike, God love him, does not share my enthusiasm for the peanut blossom. My head spun with the number of recipes that seemed to center around gumdrops and other indicators of fruitcake. I giggled at the Technicolor photographs of perfectly arranged cookies on paper lace doilies and cake towers, most of them frosted in Crayola colors. I marveled at the gingerbread house with its ice-cream wafer shutters; I scoffed at the perfectly staged kitchen scene where Mom had left a spread of cookies, ice cream, milk in a glass bottle and a note for the owner of the letterman jacket casually tossed on a chair, encouraging her eaters to not only enjoy, but clean up their mess.
And I considered for a moment the book’s intended 1963 audience as it introduced the reader to self-rising flour (an old technology but one General Mills was surely pressing in many recipes), to flour that could be measured straight out of the bag (forget what Mom told you — no need to sift!), and to the changing technology of your oven (adding after every oven temperature what that might mean to you — 375F becomes “quick mod”; 400F is “mod heat”). It nodded back to the reader’s mother and grandmother with heritage recipes, highlighting the most popular cookies since the 1880s at the end of the book. It acknowledged the reader’s changing responsibilities and need for convenience with recipes that could be made using a boxed cake or brownie mix. It kept pace with the fashion of the time, encouraging the use of so much food coloring in some recipes that the finished product looked more like Play-Doh.
As I thought about the woman the Betty Crocker Test Kitchens had in mind with this book, I wondered about the women who lived in our house before we did. Our house was built in 1947 and marketed to people with large families, so it stands to reason that the family who lived in our house had a pretty good chance of having and using this best-selling book. I thought about my grandmothers baking for their kids, and how still to this day my dad’s mom (my Grandma Lou) has a full cookie jar and a freezer full of cookies even though it’s just her and my grandpa. I thought about Betty Draper, who is in my estimation one of the worst television mothers ever but so ridiculously compelling in her selfishness, and how even Betty Draper occasionally bakes for her kids. I used Betty’s photography to illustrate my visions with patterned wallpaper and vinyl-covered chairs, faux-wood paneling and lots and lots of frosting.
I thought about baking with my mom when I was little, and how she let me stand next to her on a kitchen chair, measuring and pouring ingredients even when I’m sure it would have been easier for her to just do it on her own. I thought about how my mom always baked chocolate chip cookies for me and my dad even though she has been allergic to chocolate since 1984. I thought about our daughter, still three months from entering the world, and how someday in the not-too-distant future it will be her standing on a kitchen chair and me teaching her how to crack an egg without getting the shell in the bowl.
It was all I could do to not get up, preheat the oven to “quick mod” and start baking cookies — any kind of cookies — not just because I wanted cookies (which, face it, if I lept up and baked cookies every time I wanted a cookie, I could single-handedly keep the Gold Medal Flour people in business). No, I wanted to be part of this long chain of Betty’s cookie-bakers. I didn’t want Rachael or Martha or the nice people at Nestle Toll House; I wanted this book, this coverless, battered, well-loved book, propped against my draining rack telling me how many eggs and how much Crisco and reminding me how I could use Gold Medal Self-Rising Flour if I wanted to. I wanted to be part of the world where, as Betty says, “Happy is the home with the full cooky jar.”