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Peg Bracken, 89; author of irreverent 'I Hate to Cook Book'

Obituaries

October 23, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Peg Bracken, the dry-witted former advertising executive who relieved the kitchen anxieties of millions of readers with her 1960 bestseller, "The I Hate to Cook Book," died Saturday at her home in Portland, Ore. She was 89.

The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, said her daughter, Johanna Bracken of Long Beach.

Bracken sold more than 3 million copies of "The I Hate to Cook Book," which helped busy women save time in the kitchen by cutting steps and shamelessly relying on convenience foods such as dry onion soup mix as key ingredients.

She wrote for reluctant cooks like herself, who knew that some activities -- particularly childbearing, paying taxes and cooking -- "become no less painful through repetition." Her book, she wrote, was "for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry martini instead of a wet flounder."

That sentiment struck a chord with an as-yet-unidentified mass of women emerging from the Eisenhower 1950s who did not regard slaving over a hot stove a feminine virtue. Betty Friedan addressed the same audience a few years later with "The Feminine Mystique" (1963), the landmark feminist treatise that said women were unhappy confined to a strictly domestic role.

Bracken's popularity surged as another culinary star surfaced -- Julia Child, who launched a gastronomic craze in 1961 with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," co-written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Child shared Bracken's irreverence but not her love of shortcuts and recipes so anti-haute as to be named "Fake Hollandaise" and "Spinach Surprise."

Although Child addressed an audience eager for sophistication, Bracken -- who sold three times as many copies of her book as Child and company did of theirs -- spoke to everyone else. And although Child explained in step by voluminous step how to beat egg whites into a perfect froth or mash potatoes for gnocchi, Bracken stuck to tried-and-true basics, such as lasagna and beef stroganoff, leavened with a dash of sarcasm.

Her instructions for stroganoff, for instance, said to cook the noodles in water flavored with a bouillon cube; brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef; add flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms; then "let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink." She called this recipe "Skid Road Stroganoff."

Another favorite was "Stayabed Stew," a beef dish that will "cook happily all by itself" in the oven for five hours. "This," she wrote, "is for those days when you're en negligee, en bed, with a murder story and a box of bonbons, or possibly a good case of the flu."

Bracken sometimes saw cooking as therapy. The prime example was her recipe for "Aggression Cookies," an oatmeal concoction credited to a mental health center in Lansing, Mich.

It calls for vigorous kneading, mashing, squeezing and beating, which offered an opportunity for "channeling some energies away from throwing bricks." The recipe is widely available on the Internet, where reviewers describe it as delightful.

Born in Filer, Idaho, and reared in Clayton, Mo., she majored in English at Antioch College in Ohio and moved to Portland in the 1940s after marrying her first husband.

She conceived the book when she was working full time as an advertising copy writer for such clients as Jantzen swimwear and Pendleton shirts. After work, she often would meet with a group of other working wives, who would commiserate over drinks about what to cook for dinner. They called themselves the Hags.

One day she was feeling especially burdened by the prospect of preparing the evening's repast. "And so," as she told National Public Radio in 1999, she and her friends "pooled our ignorance" and shared recipes that were tasty and wouldn't take hours to prepare. They urged her to compile the recipes in a book.

Bracken wrote several books in the "I Hate" vein, including "The I Hate to Housekeep Book" (1962), "Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book" (1966), "The I Hate to Cook Almanack" (1980) and "The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book" (1988).

She co-wrote a syndicated cartoon called "Phoebe, Get Your Man" with Homer Groening, an advertising colleague and the father of "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.

Bracken also wrote a memoir, "A Window Over the Sink" (1981). She was close to 80 when she published her last book, "On Getting Old for the First Time" (1996), which, like her other books, bore Bracken's comical outlook.

"Mom considered herself a humorist first," her daughter said in an interview Monday.

Culinary historian Laura Shapiro said Bracken wrote in a genre she calls "the literature of domestic chaos." Like Jean Kerr and Shirley Jackson (and, later, Erma Bombeck), Bracken approached the experiences of mid-20th century wives and mothers from an ironic perspective.

She also was truly interested in good food.

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