One of my earliest kitchen memories is my mom — who is a truly excellent cook — sending me to fetch her “Red and white checkered cookbook.” It was easy to find for a little kid who didn’t read yet, because it was exactly as described: A big three-ring binder with a red and white checkered cover. Instantly recognizable. This was, of course, the inimitable Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.
When I got old enough for Mom to teach me to cook, it was the cookbook she started me with. If I was going to be stranded in a strange kitchen and could only have one cookbook, it would be the cookbook I chose to bring. And if I was teaching cooking, it would be the kitchen manual I started every novice with.
The recipes have changed over the years, to keep up with changing American tastes and trends. Because I’m a traditional creature who resists change and all the associated discomfort, I’m not always delighted with some of the choices they make around which recipes they drop, and which new recipes they include. Nonetheless, the how-to manual parts of this magnificent cookbook have remained solidly classic: How to choose a cut of meat, how to properly measure dry ingredients, how to substitute ingredients without ruining a recipe, how to properly gauge temperature and doneness of different kinds of meats, how to guesstimate the hard-ball stage of liquid candy temperature when you drop and break your candy thermometer at eleven P.M. in the middle of a batch of pralines. . .
Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook has been around since 1930, when it made its debut as the first-ever loose-leaf binder cookbook. It wasn’t until 1941, however, that the cookbook got its distinctive red and white cover.
The 1999 Anniversary edition includes favorite recipes from the previous 70 years of this marvelous cookbook’s history. The 16th edition — the most recent — was just released last year. Better Homes and Gardens includes a page on their website just about the lore surrounding this perennial favorite, as well.
I like this cookbook so very much, and rely on it so heavily, that I actually own six different editions, including the classic 1953 edition, and a gold-covered commemorative limited edition issued to celebrate 10 million copies sold. More recent versions (say less than 50 years old) are generally called Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. The classic 1953 version is the one I use most, because mostly the recipes are completely from scratch — no cheating by starting out with box-mix cakes or Jello pudding — and that pleases me. Also, I love a cookbook that understands what cream of tartar should be used for.
And, just like issuing a cookbook in a sturdy three-ring binder that a messy cook could simply wipe down was a sound practical decision in 1930, this essential cookbook is now readily available in e-book form for your iPad or Kindle.
(Meredith Press, 2014)