Books Bygone: ‘The Modern Family Cookbook’

By Marica Bernstein

 

The introduction to “The Modern Family Cookbook” (first published 1942, updated 1958) is addressed to “Mrs. Homemaker,” and begins, “this book is written for you in full appreciation of your problems of running a home. These problems would challenge a psychologist, an expert on child training, an interior decorator, a skilled seamstress, a trained nurse. … Unless you belong to the 10 percent whose budget is not strictly limited, you are daily faced with the necessity of budgeting the income of one average husband — a problem to stagger a financier.”

Meta Given was the author of several cookbooks in the 1940s and ’50s. Her Modern Family Cookbook was the most popular, with sales of more than a million copies. For fun, do a search of the title to see how influential this “modern” cookbook remains.

Later in the introduction, Given lays out the structure of her 600-plus-page book. “This book was planned to help you with your [three kinds] of food problems — planning, buying, and cooking. … We have three parts to this book, … each headed by a ‘Creed’ expressing the importance and dignity of the homemaker’s tasks.”

Most are familiar with “creed” as a statement of the essential aspects of Christian faith. Given, however, uses creed more generally, as a brief statement of belief. Thus, she presents The Meal Planner’s Creed, The Food Shopper’s Creed and The Cook’s Creed. Of these, the first is my favorite.

The Meal Planner’s Creed

“The health of my family is in my care; therefore —

“I will spare no effort in planning the right kinds of food in the right amounts.

“Spending the food dollar for maximum value is my job; therefore —

“I will choose from the variously priced foods to save money without sacrificing health.

“My family’s enjoyment of food is my responsibility; therefore —

“I will increase their pleasure by planning for variety, for flavorful dishes, for attractive color, for appetizing combinations.

“My family’s health, security and pleasure depend on my skill in planning meals; therefore —

“I will treat my job with the respect that is due it.

The Food Shopper’s Creed repeats the themes of health, budgeting and enjoyment of food, and offers these suggestions: “Make It Yourself! … it is poor economy to buy cooked meats, cakes, cookies…” and so on because you’re paying not just for the food, but also for the time and labor to make and package it.

“Cash and Carry. To fall back on an account at a credit-and-delivery grocery may be useful; but for day-to-day buying, cash and carry is more economical.” If you go the credit-and-delivery route, you have to pay for the delivery boy, his truck and for the privilege of deferred payment.

The Cook’s Creed again repeats the themes, and ends with this:

“A well-prepared dish and an appetizing meal are a creative achievement; therefore —

“I shall derive happiness from work itself.

“Good food is of prime importance to my family; therefore —

“I shall take pride in doing an outstanding job of cooking.”

Such thoroughly “modern” ideas! It’s fun to remember that just a little over 50 years ago — some of us were alive back then — Mrs. Homemaker’s sense of self-respect, pride and even her happiness were tied so closely to feeding her family well-planned, economical, healthy, attractive meals. In our truly modern times, meal planning, shopping and cooking are considered by many to be drudgework. Mrs. Homemaker has a real job now and has been delivered from drudgery by a slew of modern appliances, innovations in meal packaging and drive-thru carry out.

I wouldn’t trade my microwave oven that cooks me an occasional chicken pot pie in seven minutes for anything. And my family is so modern that my above-average husband does the meal planning, shopping and cooking, I just help. Still, I love reading The Creeds every now and again. And I love that folks talk about Given’s cookbooks on the internet. It gives me faith.

[Meta Given. “The Modern Family Cookbook.” J.G. Ferguson Publishing Co., Chicago. 1942, 1958. Available at online booksellers.]

Marica Bernstein lives outside of Walthall. She may be contacted at bernstmc@gmail.com.