Cooking with Cheese

My parents’ marriage, as seen through a cookbook.

Photos courtesy of Better Homes & Gardens

Photo by Linny Morris

Braving the muddy slick that was this year’s Punahou Carnival, I found myself pawing through boxes and boxes in the book tent. Have you ever noticed that old books smell the same the world over? A vintage book here smells just like a vintage book in Seattle, New York or London. It seems so unlikely, considering the different humidity and climates. But old-book smell—a musty, sexy smell, a smell that always suggests mystery to me, not mildew—that’s just how they are. At any rate, there I was in the humid book tent, when I came upon a Holy Grail: A stash of Better Homes & Gardens cookbooks, all dating from 1958 to 1968.

I grew up with many of these cookbooks in our house, and always loved them, particularly when going through that teenage “Isn’t everything retro so kitschy!” phase. My favorite was, and still is, Cooking with Cheese.

The series has wonderful photography, which, compared to modern printing, looks garish; the greens too pine-y, the pinks, super cherry. The table settings are things you now only buy at thrift stores. And the language comes through a different filter, too: Working women are called “career girls” and you apparently need to feed them cottage cheese. Fruit is presented in “boats” and food is “tidbits.” Seafood has “a salt-air tang.”

In the land of 1960s Better Homes & Gardens, recipes include frozen onion rings, sliced American cheese and vegetables, fresh out of the can. There’s a startling amount of gelatin in this strange world, everything from desserts (“Pineapple in Emerald Wreath”) to savories like “Chicken Buffet Molds” and  “Perfection Salad.” And really, what could be more perfect than shredded cabbage and pimentos suspended in tart Jell-O? 

In Better Homes & Gardens Land, you use a dotted diagram to plan the proper buffet-line traffic pattern. You put out a relish tray, darn it, possibly with a phallic cucumber display. You whip up a July Jubilee menu to entertain the bridge club at noon. Men do not cook, but occasionally deign to be photographed with meat. I love the gentility of these cookbooks, as frozen in time as the olives suspended in aspic.

These cookbooks are windows into a place and time that happens to be exactly when my parents were first married. Like most children, I wasn’t privy to their marriage before me, but I wasn’t privy to much of their marriage after me, either, as my dad passed away when I was quite young.

But flipping through these cookbooks, I get flashes of 1965. Of copper pots and avocado refrigerators. Red plaid Thermoses. It’s almost like standing in a kitchen I’ve never been in. The cookbooks were all new then and lined up on a shelf.

Did they try this recipe, or that one?  Did they really own a chafing dish?  Could they possibly have hosted a care-free casserole supper for 24?  I just love being there, with them, opening the frozen peas and squinting at the Crab Louis recipe—if only for a moment.

But my favorite cookbook has always been Cooking with Cheese.  It’s not the fondue recipes, although it’s hard to go wrong with those.  It’s not because of a kitsch factor.  I love it because that one has my dad’s handwriting in it.