The I Hate to Housekeep Book: A New Assessment

IMG_5429Two weeks ago I had occasion to talk with some people about my love of Peg Bracken, which is something I’ll do if poked even a tiny bit. The way some people talk about their favorite jazz albums to anyone who’ll listen (and even people who won’t listen), I will talk about Peg Bracken. I think she’s hugely underrated, ignored unfairly, and just generally given short shrift. She was one of the great comic writers of the 20th century. It’s true that comic writing of decades past is always ghettoized (even current comic writing is ghettoized), but one of my Things is trying to keep the greats in the hands of current readers. And if the books are actually useful in some way — which Peg Bracken’s definitely are — then all the more reason to crow about them at any given opportunity.

The Bracken title most people know is The I Hate to Cook Book, which is an undeniable classic. It got reprinted about ten years ago, and I huzzah’d with joy along with maybe a thousand other American women who’d grown up reading their mother’s copies of this book. The I Hate to Cook Book is, in its original edition, a work that no one I know is likely to cook from today — there’s far too great a reliance on canned goods and freeze-dried this-or-that. But the newer edition was updated to make it somewhat more approachable to someone in the kitchen today — it was not made trendy (there’s no mention of “clean” eating, thank god), but it was altered to match more closely what a pressed-for-time woman in the kitchen today would have at hand. The basic premise still stands, and, more importantly, Bracken’s voice still stands. Peg Bracken wrote a snarky mama blog decades before anyone could have imagined such a thing.
The cookbook she wrote was followed by a few other titles. One of them, I Try to Behave Myself, is an etiquette book. I re-read it two weeks ago and while it was amusing, much of it was rather beside the point in today’s world (not too surprisingly). On the other hand, I admit, a lot of it was quite relevant and I found myself nodding my head now and then as I read it. So that’s worth a look, perhaps especially for parents of young children. Bracken’s observations on children and their impacts on life are always valuable.
But the one that’s absolutely mandatory reading, no question, is The I Hate to Housekeep Book, a copy of which, if you ask me, should be handed to every person as soon as they sign a lease on their first apartment. All those listsicles you see online with handy hacks for this and that? Dude: probably half of them are in this book, which goes to show that the people writing these listsicles aren’t half as clever as you think they are. This book is super-useful and really funny and you don’t have to click through annoying ads when you’re reading it, because it’s a BOOK.
A lot of those lists online, hot tips from the good people at Martha Stewart or Real Simple, or Buzzfeed, or whatever, are good but also somewhat unrealistic. Expectations can be a little high. Well, you say, Okay, but it’s a starting point, right? It’s a baseline. Well, sure. For me, the baseline is Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson: when you really need the most precise, anal-retentive, Cook’s Illustrated-level instructions on how to take care of a housekeeping issue, that’s where you go. But for the run of the mill stuff, Peg Bracken beats the snot out of the entire editorial staff at any magazine online or in print today, because she is really funny. She’s so funny that my husband, who believe me, does not want to read housekeeping manuals, was laughing at passages from this book last week. (I took this book with me on vacation and read it in two sittings of approximately two hours each.) Hints from Heloise were good, but smug and rather humorless; what’s more, as Bracken writes in her foreword, the advice is often more trouble than it’s worth. “I have been doing all this myself for about twenty years, and I find it hard on the manicure. I’ve found, too, that none of the books about it does me much good. The household experts hand out cures are worse than the ailment. They expect you to do things that depress you to merely think about, let alone do. They think you’ll actually keep an orderly file of all the washing instructions that come with the family clothes, once you’ve been told to. The efficiently organized expert makes the mistake of assuming that you, too, want to be one.”

Take that, Heloise.

I invite readers to come with me and examine (or re-examine) the I Hate to Housekeep Book, chapter by chapter. If I’m really on my game, I’ll be able to reproduce here some of the Hilary Knight illustrations. But even if I’m not, you’re going to see that this book is worth acquiring. I acquired my copy online (via Abebooks) and if I can do it, so can you.


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