I got this book as a birthday present when I was 7 or 8 from my good friend Steve Stasheff (I suspect his mother picked it out, actually). I don’t remember doing much cooking when I was a kid, but I did spend a lot of time reading this book, and I memorized a lot of the pictures. Even today, when I make pancakes or meatloaf, the images from this book are lurking in the back of my head.
First of all, I was fascinated by the test kitchen cooks whose faces and comments were sprinkled throughout the book. Who were they, and what did they know that I didn’t, that they got to get their pictures in the book? They looked kind of nerdy, but they were in a book and I wasn’t. That didn’t seem right.
The book started with a section on Beverages, the whole concept of which just puzzled me. Why bother? The only beverage I was interested in was pop, which we seldom got. I used to squint over the recipes, trying to figure out if they had slipped in a recipe for pop, but all they had were nauseating concoctions like Red Rouser (vanilla ice cream and cranberry juice), Choc-o-Nut Milk (milk mixed with peanut butter and chocolate syrup), and Cheery Cherry Drink: Stir maraschino cherry juice into milk and then “drop a maraschino cherry ‘surprise’ into each glass.” I didn’t think a bright red blob would be a good surprise in a glass of milk.
In the Salads section, the Betty Crocker folks rolled up their sleeves and got down to business, which in this book meant one thing: Making food look like something else. In the Betty Crocker cookbook, “Rocket Salad” did not involve arugula; it was a banana, set upright in a slice of canned pineapple and topped with a “nose cone” of half a maraschino cherry.
The salad section relied heavily on such artifice. Canned pears become bunnies (with almond ears and tails of cottage cheese). Carrots cluster, points inward, around a clump of olives to form a black-eyed Susan. And someone even made a Raggedy Ann Salad, using a marshmallow for the head, shredded cheese for hair… I’m going to stop there.
With the exception of the hideous “Ham” Loaf Hawaiian (the scare quotes say it all: It’s Spam, studded with pineapple rings and baked), the section on main dishes is pretty solid. The food stylists did go a little nuts on Meat Loaf a la Mode (meatloaf baked in a pie tin and topped with scoops of mashed potatoes), but other than that, it’s straight-up home cooking. The cookies are pretty basic as well. But then we get to the cakes.
This is the Enchanted Castle Cake, and I wanted it. Bad. I used to sit and look at the little chocolate bar doors and just desire that cake. I never got it, of course, which is probably just as well as there is no way that reality could live up to that image. This one was too freakish for me, though:
I could never figure out what that creature in the center was supposed to be, but it didn’t look appetizing. And note the popcorn-ball clowns lurking in the background. The entire scene just screams “forced gaiety.”
I leave you with the best page of the whole book, a chocolate cookie recipe that really works—my 12-year-old daughter uses it when she bakes cookies, and they are still delicious. But what makes it perfect is the dollop of sarcasm added by my sister at the very end. Happy eating!