The I Hate to Cook Book by
(303 Stories)

Prompted By What We Ate

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My mother was not much of a cook. She made dinner every night for 30 years (except for the occasional restaurant meal), and then, when my father retired and the kids were all grown up and gone, she never cooked again. She certainly never imbued any of her three daughters with a love of cooking, although we have each come to enjoy it to varying degrees.

A few months after I graduated from college, I went to work for the US Department of Transportation, and moved into a wonderful big old house in Inman Square, Cambridge. To celebrate my first venture at living on my own, my mother gave me two cookbooks. The first, a large hardcover book, was The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. This has been a classic for generations. My mother had received an earlier edition of it as a bride in 1943, which had a whole section about dealing with wartime rationing. It had gone through numerous revisions since that time. In a parody of Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, she had inscribed it “Happy Homemaking and Merry Cooking! from December 1972 on, whenever you’re in the mood.” This book has been surprisingly useful over the years, and I still consult it from time to time.

The second cookbook was The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken. This book was written in 1960, when of course women had to cook all the time whether they liked it or not. It is full of easy recipes, with humorous commentary sprinkled generously throughout. (It also has wonderful illustrations by Hilary Knight, the same artist who illustrated the Eloise books.) I actually made many of the dishes in the book during my early years on my own. Once I got into more sophisticated recipes that didn’t involve using things out of cans, I stopped looking at it. But I never got rid of it. Recently, for some reason, I was talking to my kids about this book, and pulled it off the cookbook shelf in the kitchen to show it to them. It automatically opened to the page that had been one of my favorites, a beef stroganoff recipe. We all cracked up as I read it aloud. After the first two sentences, involving cooking the noodles and browning the beef, the third sentence was as follows:

“Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”

While this seems hilariously funny now, I shudder to think how many ’60s housewives, probably including my mother, did exactly that when they were cooking. We really have come a long way, in so many respects!


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Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Susan says:

    Oh Suzy, my Sister from Another Mother! My mom also had this cookbook, and I’m insanely jealous that you still have your copy. Maybe you’ll get a laugh out of my earlier story “Vanishing Leftovers.”

    • Suzy says:

      I did enjoy your story, Susan, and left you a comment there. I’m glad I kept my dogeared copy of this book, although I didn’t realize until recently what a piece of feminist history it represents.

  2. Constance says:

    I so appreciate the part of the inscription, “whenever you’re in the mood.” It really was amazing that a generation of women of that era attempted to break the chain of laying such a burden on the next generation of women.

  3. Loved your succinct coverage of much more than a cookbook. And your ‘stare sullenly’ excerpt provided a punch-line ending. And yes, I did Laugh Out Loud as I finished the story. Graceful, simple prose pulled me right through your tale!

  4. John Zussman says:

    I think cookbooks are an unappreciated form of literature, because the good ones convey not only recipes but an attitude toward cooking. My mom was a good cook but, of course, never saw a reason to teach her sons. Fortunately, my wife was (is) too. Everything I know I learned from her, and from the cookbook that sustained our early years, Gourmet Cooking for Two. I loved your descriptions of the books that sustained yours, at both ends of the attitude spectrum.

    • Suzy says:

      John, thank you, almost two years later, for your comment on my story. I like your characterization of cookbooks as an unappreciated form of literature. Also a social history, describing, in the case of the I Hate to Cook Book, the generation of women trapped in the kitchen and sullenly smoking cigarettes.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific, evocative story, Suzy. And I particularly loved that you focused more on the cookbooks of our youth than the specific foods or meals. I, too, remember, the “I Hate to Cook Book” — and especially Hilary Knight’s drawings — as well as the more traditional tomes like “The Joy of Cooking.” (And I bet there was a “Settlement Cook Book” to be found somewhere in your mother’s kitchen, too. )
    You made me realize that going through these cookbooks, especially the marked-up or dog-eared pages, is like going through a family photo album or a yearbook. Wonderful!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a delightful story, Suzy. Can’t believe I didn’t comment on it when you first wrote it. I never learned to cook properly, but did it until my husband retired (much like your mother) and still have “The Joy of Cooking”, though mine is dubbed “all new”, so must be a newer vintage. But I LOVE your description of “The I Hate to Cook Book”. I might have even used that one, and the passage you describe is both hilarious and sad, since women smoked (and died) all too much and were trapped in those domestic chores and sullen I’m sure.

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