Deviled Beef: or, The Nameless, Delicious Thing Peg Bracken Told Me to Make

When I bought a sirloin steak last Friday, I thought I was buying one nice, big, fat steak. I admit I wasn’t paying close attention to the details of the object, standing at the butcher counter. The meat weighed a little more than two pounds, which was what I was concerned about: I wanted leftovers.

What I didn’t realize, until rather late in the game — I had already broiled the entire slab of meat — was that what I really had was three separate steaks that happened to be attached to each other with these big webs of fat. I’m not complaining. The steak was delicious. But it did mean that when I went to slice the steak last Friday night, I had a small technical problem as one mini-steak separated itself from the rest of the meat and I came close to making a big mess on the counter with the dripping meat juices. It all turned out fine, don’t worry: I managed to flip everything onto the carving board and all the juices landed in the board’s channels, just the way they were supposed to. Nothing landed on, say, the filthy kitchen floor. And as it happened, the piece that had seceded from the United Pieces of Steak was just enough to serve the three of us comfortably on Friday night, and the two remaining pieces turned out to be just right for two other projects. I was vindicated, regarding my plans for leftovers, and the meat itself had done the portioning for me.

One leftover mini-steak was turned into nachos the other evening, as longtime readers may recall. And you longtime readers are now probably wondering, “What did you do with the last of the meat?”

At this juncture in the narrative, let us now remember Peg Bracken’s writings on the subject of leftover meat, in The I Hate to Cook Book.

Peg Bracken was, of course, a genius on the subject of what to do with leftover food, and the world owes her thanks on this matter. But the fact is, one of her suggestions regarding leftover beef is something that I’ve read a thousand times or more and never tried. It is this:

“And have you ground up a chunk of it with pickles and onion and celery and added some mayonnaise, as a spread for after-school sandwiches?”

To this, until recently, all I could ever say was, “No, why would I want to do that?” Not when I could do things like make chili or nachos or beef stroganoff out of my leftover beef! It wasn’t until recent years that I began to think, “That might be pretty good.” The younger Hausfrau — the pre-Hausfrau Hausfrau — always read this and thought, “I’m supposed to grind up meat with pickles? Are you insane?”

Well, I have been wrong.

Last night I took my last few ounces of sirloin steak and threw it into the food processor with a hefty hunk of red onion, a tablespoon of powdered garlic, and some mayonnaise, and I made a tan mush that looked disgusting. I scraped it into a mixing bowl and folded in a couple tablespoons of pickle relish. It looked vile. But I was undaunted. Appearances can be deceiving. Much as cakes that are works of sugar art can taste like chocolate-scented cardboard, many things that look revolting often taste very good.

My husband came home and peered into the bowl and said, “Tuna salad sandwiches for dinner?”

“No, it’s… beef spread,” I said, a little dubiously, I confess. “I don’t know what you call it, really.”

“I bet it’s really good,” he remarked. My husband has never met a thing involving beef that didn’t brighten his day. My daughter, a more skeptical meat-eater, came into the kitchen and peered into the bowl with great hopefulness and then got a sad look on her face. This stuff does not look appetizing at all. Have I mentioned this before? Because it’s true. But I took a dab of it and offered it to her to taste. “Here,”I said. She opened her mouth and I stuck my finger in and she looked happy.

“Dinner won’t be ready for about twenty minutes,” I said. “Get out of the kitchen.” My family went and sat on the couch to watch stupid cat videos and I thought, “I’ll make them a little appetizer.” I made two small sandwiches with the beef glop and brought them to the couch. Then I turned and went back to working on dinner.

“How is it?” I called from the kitchen.

“It’s really good,” my husband said.

“Does our daughter like it?” I asked.

My husband said, “I don’t know, she’s too busy cramming the rest of it into her mouth.”

I ambled back out to the living room. “Is it good?” I asked my daughter.

“Can I have another one?” she asked.

Let’s call it Deviled Beef. You could call it Beef Salad, you could call it Beef Spread, you could call it That Stuff That Looks Like Something the Cat Gakked Up. Deviled Beef sounds the most appealing to me.

There are a lot of articles online that talk about this substance, which is simultaneously ubiquitous, it seems, in certain low-brow food circles, and entirely undiscussed in others. The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, who has a vast following, wrote a piece about this delicious stuff almost exactly six years ago. But I’ve not seen the articles I expected to see. I expected to see swooning from someone at Epicurious.com about how this old-timey sandwich spread deserves to be served on crackers or Melba toasts at your next cocktail party. I expected to see some hipster-y piece somewhere, maybe from Serious Eats, about how beef spread can be a solution to your picnic sandwich woes this summer. I expected some food blogger to have a thousand words on Peg Bracken’s beef spread and how it’s an unappreciated work of genius. If nothing else, I really thought the Peg Bracken angle would have led some Bracken fangirl to write about beef spread, or salad, or whatever you call it.

What I found was a fair number of very middle-America websites suggesting we grind up our beef with mayonnaise and pickle relish and things (hard-boiled eggs often came into play, as with Ree Drummond), and a lot of comments from people saying, either, “Oh my god, that looks like baby vomit” or “My grandmother used to make this and it was delicious.” I found a website that talked about Southern food and gave a recipe for Roast Beef Spread which looked pretty much like what I’d made, but there are no comments on it (not that kind of site, I guess). But Saveur hasn’t talked about it, though they’ve discussed pimiento cheese at great length. I don’t recall anything about beef spread in Cook’s Illustrated. And Tamar Adler and Sam Sifton haven’t written about it, to the best of my knowledge.

In other words, this substance has not yet made it into the elite (or elitist) food world yet, the way deviled eggs and pimiento cheese cycled back in a few years ago. (I still haven’t recovered from the time I went for drinks at a fancy bar that specializes in serving bourbon, and they charged me $7 for three deviled eggs. I don’t mean three whole eggs. I mean, three half-eggs. Seven bucks. For seven bucks, I could make about 48 deviled eggs.) It may be that deviled beef is just too disgusting-looking for it to have a cultural and culinary renewal, but that would be a mistake. This stuff is good. And it’s economical. Not that that is the point. The point is, it’s good. But if I ran a restaurant and had a lot of leftover beef around — not hamburger meat, but leftover steaks or something — I would totally make a killing selling this stuff to my customers.

I’ll tell you how good it is. After I denied my daughter a second deviled beef sandwich last night — because we were soon to sit down to eat huge bowls of Pasta Natalie — she asked me, “You’re gonna make me a sandwich of that for lunch at camp tomorrow, right?”

Deviled Beef Sandwich

 

The answer is Yes. And furthermore, I intend to spend some serious time fiddling with this stuff. Deviled Beef is going to be awesome with horseradish, with capers, with chimmichurri blended in….

Some New Terminology in the Field of Domestic Life: The Hausfrau, by Another Name…

Bear in mind, this is all off the (freshly ironed) cuff:

I recently had occasion to hear a woman describing the less-than-delightful first time she met her husband’s ex-girlfriend. The woman (wife) had instinctively made the move to take the high road and not let fear or jealousy of her husband’s past color meeting this person. The ex-girlfriend obviously had no such instincts: When the wife extended her hand and said, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you after hearing so much about you!” the ex responded by not shaking hands and saying, “Oh, what a nice little housebitch you’ll be!”

Which is not an auspicious beginning for much of anything. Except for this:

I’d never heard the term “housebitch” before and on hearing it, I thought, “Wow, that is not a nice thing to say,” and then immediately afterward, “But why does it have to be that way?”

Concerned that I was not grasping the most accurate meaning of the term, knowing I’m not exactly up on current (or even decade-old) slang, I Googled “housebitch” to see what was out there. Naturally, Urban Dictionary rose to the occasion. “Housebitch” is not a term that has any positive connotations, in current/recentish usage. It’s been understood to mean Someone who’s been whipped by life such that all that they’re good for is housework. I gather that the term is particularly insulting when applied to men. But I think that should change. Much as the gay community reclaimed “queer,” and as other groups have taken back pejorative terms to use as statements of group and identity pride, I will say that strong willed women who are housewives should feel free to declare themselves housebitches. I realize that many will be uncomfortable with this. They will be angered by this, because “bitch” is not always perceived as, like, a positive term.

To which I say: If sounding slightly unpleasant is what it takes to convey that, even if you’re a stay at home parent, you’re not a doormat, then so be it. The housebitch, as I see her, is a housewife who is actually pretty good at coming up with dinner for five on a night when you thought it would be dinner for three. The housebitch is a skilled problem-solver. The housebitch is annoyed when the kid spills paint water on the kitchen floor, but has a pile of towels nearby to be used precisely for mopping up this kind of mess. The housebitch has systems for the household that work. The housebitch is someone who knows that it’s smart to own a pair of scissors that can be taken apart for washing, that you always keep a Sharpie in the kitchen drawer, and isn’t afraid of taking apart the vacuum cleaner when it starts making a weird noise. Ten years ago, the kids might have called this having mad housewifery skillz.

A lot of women are reluctant housewives who defensively take pride in being crappy at it because they’re rebelling against the Donna Reedism that they think is part and parcel of being a housewife. They are women who had children and found themselves at home all the time and feel daunted by it and so they do the best they can. That’s fine. The reluctant housewife isn’t likely to embrace housebitchery as I’m envisioning it here, though bitching about housework may be a primary activity. But this may be a mistake: the reluctant housewife who’s pulling it off even half-way well should embrace the moniker housebitch and claim it with pride. Because if she’s still getting shit done, that counts.  If she’s doing it while still wearing her old Fluevogs? Hell yes.

But what about the people who find themselves unexpectedly at home with children and who turn out to be good at it? And whose brains do not, in fact, melt into applesauce as the result of being a housewife? And who say to themselves, “Ok, this has some bad moments, but overall, I can do this shit?” You can be a competent housewife and a sentient being. You can be a housewife and a not-vapid person at the same time. You can be a housewife without being someone who identifies with the current stereotype of the woman who’s holding a microfiber cloth in one hand and a glass of wine in the other hand. You can be a housewife — and be good at it, even — without giving up your own fractious identity.  This has been said before a thousand times, but I don’t think it’s ever been said while connecting this idea to housebitchery. And this is a real linguistic opportunity, which I am grabbing, the way my husband will reflexively grab another brownie before bedtime, just because they are there.

To me, the word housebitch conveys: Someone who’s taking care of the household (making sure that daily life isn’t a total shitstorm; that the kid/s is/are alive and reasonably content at the end of the day; taking care of laundry in reasonable fashion, and making dinner most if not all nights of the week; you know how this list could go on and on) while retaining her former personality. The housebitch is not defaulting to an artificially sweet and light mode because she feels like she has to turn into Donna Reed when she wakes up in the morning. The housebitch hasn’t forgotten who she was before. She’s recognizing that she’s using parts of herself that perhaps didn’t have an application until this time, and making the most of that application. You, Housebitch, can be someone who does a good job of keeping house without sacrificing the things that make you who you are (unless, I suppose, your inner you is just a massive slob, in which case you might have to reconsider). You can be a housewife, and maintain the title respectably, without going off an emotional deep end and winding up as someone who cleans the baseboards with Q-Tips. And yes, I’ve met someone who did this. (She also refinished all the woodwork in an early 20th century house, bit by bit, over a ten year period, and did a job so good that no one would ever guess that all that woodwork had once been slathered with white paint: so we have to admit that the compulsive types have their virtues, in the context of housewifery: when they tackle a job, they tackle a job.)

The housebitch is an intensely domestic person who is frankly ok with that; and who combines that sensibility and skill set without losing her essential sense of self. It may or may not have always been part of her essential self, but it is part of her now,  and she does it on her own terms and often with considerable élan. You can be a housewife without letting a lowest-common-denominator version of housewife take over your personality, your sense of who you are, or, importantly, losing your sense of humor about your day to day life.

It probably helps, to be honest, if in your life Before Housewifery, you were already aware of being something of a difficult character. You have to be self-aware. So I will come clean here (no housekeeping pun intended):

Yes: more than once, people have told me that I was not a fun, easy-to-be-around person. Yes, a boyfriend dumped me once for someone who was “more fun” than I was. I can’t say I was surprised to be described as “not fun.”  Likewise, the word “bitch” has definitely been applied to me. It’s ok. I’m not afraid of it. I have my priorities. I have better things to be afraid of.

Since becoming a parent? I’m definitely even less “fun” than I used to be. I’m the kind of person who will lie on the couch and read a book until 9 o’clock on Saturday night and then go to bed. Going out would mean having to deal with other people, and other people usually suck. (There are exceptions, but those exceptions are almost never in bars or out carousing on Saturday night.) Even wholesome activities, like taking my child on wonderful hikes up the local mountains so that she can experience… dirt, or something? That isn’t going to happen. I didn’t give a crap about nature when I was 25, and I don’t give a crap now that I’m 45. I won’t pretend to give a crap because it’s the trendily virtuous thing to do. I’d really rather stay home and take care of the laundry and listen to music.

But all my life, I’ve also been someone who liked being at home and making “home” a nicer place. My mother remembers my endlessly making “nests” under coffee tables, when I was small; I’d set up a pillow and a blanket and a stack of books and crawl under the table and spend hours under the table, reading, napping, or, probably, just staring at the underside of the table. And I think back on that and go, “Well, that’s a fine afternoon, isn’t it!” The nesting instinct, which supposedly only hits women hard when they’re very pregnant, is clearly essential to my nature, and I suspect that most housebitches would read that sentence and nod.

Not everyone with that instinct is a housebitch full time: there are also part-time housebitches. People have jobs, and they can curtail your ability to get too wrapped up in the minutiae of every last detail. I get that. Housebitchery does involve picking one’s battles. You could be working out of financial necessity or out of emotional necessity. I have a friend who embodies many fine housebitch qualities — she will make dinner for ten out of a can of tuna, a can of beans, and a box of ziti, I swear to God — but she really believes she’d lose her mind if she didn’t go to work somewhere every day. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think she feels she benefits from having her time organized in that way, and she feels it makes her more productive on both home and work fronts, because she knows that the hours at each are finite. She loves home and she loves her family but she doesn’t really get much satisfaction out of doing housework and so for her, she splits her time up in a way that works for her and her family. When she is at home, she is at home with a vengeance, and displays domestic competence that leaves me awed. But I think she feels that if she became a housewife, she would sink into a morass of emotional oatmeal and lose her sense of who she is.
I suspect she finds me mystifying in this regard. She and I had spent years discussing the minutiae of running a household but neither of us ever expected me to become a housewife. When I became one, and turned out to not mind it so much, she seemed kind of awed, and said she could never do it. The way time expands and contracts when you are at home with a baby all day, every day, is very difficult for a lot of people, and I can’t say I thought it was fun, but it didn’t throw me the way I thought it might. It turned out I was good at figuring out how to keep things going under those circumstances. I cooked dinner, I took a shower every morning, the baby grew big and got her first pair of shoes.
I complained when things annoyed me, and lost my shit a few times, but overall, I was temperamentally well-suited to staying home with a baby, and I was good at running the household: making sure we didn’t run out of milk, making sure of a thousand little things. I can’t say I felt called to it, the way people feel they’re called to the priesthood, but it was not the stretch I’d thought it would be. Kind of the opposite, in fact.  

There were foremothers, I am sure. Perhaps the fact that I spent my youth reading Peg Bracken and Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages over and over again prepared me for this life. Bracken and Jackson were women who, in today’s terms, we wouldn’t describe as housewives, but they definitely knew the drill. Most of the great housebitches, I suspect, are women you’ve never heard of — and neither have I — because they toil in anonymity. Maybe they don’t accomplish things that make them famous in the big world. They’re just grousing through their days with as much good humor as they can shake together. The washing machine still emits that funny smell. The dog has to go to the vet. But it’ll be okay, because the housebitch isn’t going to let it bring her down. The washing machine will either gets its shit together (by virtue of the housebitch attacking it with vinegar and Borax) or get replaced. The dog will get to the vet one of these days. In the meantime, dinner will be pretty good, and when everyone goes to bed, they will climb into beds that were nicely made that morning…. The housebitch will prevail, without shame, with pride in her abilities to take care of this shit. She may have to crack her copy of Home Comforts to look up how to deal with getting Gorilla Glue off the countertop, but she will prevail.

And, here, ye shall read her words, and ye shall find succor. And maybe a brownie.

Peg Bracken’s Literary Chops: in which I offer money to anyone who can confirm my suspicion that Nicholson Baker is a Peg Bracken fan

IMG_5481One of the things I like about Peg Bracken — this holds through all of her books — is that even if she’s writing about things that are — let’s call them mundane, though I’m tempted to call them trivial, even though I don’t actually think they are trivial at all — she throws these bits of erudition at you that make you remember that she’s really writing for you — she’s giving you all the credit in the world for having much better things to do, and having spent a lot of time doing them. For example, reading is a high-priority activity on Planet Bracken. You can tell by how she scatters literary bits throughout the books. Chapter 4 of The I Hate to Housekeep Book opens with a little epigram from Christopher Fry (“What, after all, is a halo? It’s only one more thing to keep clean.”) and closes with a bit from Peter de Vries (“What’s the panel discussion about?” “The Ordeal of Modern Women is the subject!” “You mean those two cars, automatic dishwasher, beautiful house in the suburbs but Something’s Missing? That ordeal?”). This kind of thing just wouldn’t happen in a housekeeping manual written today, I’m pretty sure. Cheryl Mendelson’s more than capable of it, but I think she’d feel that a household manual isn’t the place to get clever: that it’s a waste of the reader’s time to slip little literary jokes into the text. She does seem like a very serious person, after all.

But Peg Bracken is full of clever asides, quips that make you laugh while you’re sitting there thinking about dusting the furniture, though obviously, since you’re on the couch, you are not actually doing it. Lest you think I’m implying that Bracken was an intellectual snob, I can assure you she is not, and this is demonstrated by the fact that while she’s quoting Fry and DeVries (whose names might not be household words now, but they certainly were when Bracken was writing her books, and they were respectable names, too), she speaks in no uncertain terms of the joys of reading trash as well.  Back in the Bride’s Own ABC (discussed in an earlier post), she talks about how Great-Grandma didn’t wax the furniture, but just dusted quickly with a polish-soaked cloth she fished out of her Mason jar (take that, hipsters), and “had time to sit down and read Love or Lechery: The Story of a Good Girl’s Temptation, and a rattling good story it was, too.”
In other words, Peg Bracken wouldn’t mind you reading pretty much anything, except, I suppose, the manual that came with the vacuum cleaner, unless you were really in a pinch.

Now, one of the funny aspects of re-reading this Peg Bracken book is that on examination today – I think the critics would call this a close reading — an explication de texte, for those of you who insist on being jerks — it’s come to my attention that direct lines can be drawn from the works of Peg Bracken to the works of a writer I admire very much but would never have thought to connect to Peg Bracken. This would be Nicholson Baker, who is one of the funniest writers going (when he’s not writing about World War II, don’t get me wrong, not all of his books are funny). It is suddenly very clear to me that Baker must have read Peg Bracken growing up. He grew up in the 1960s; his mother, from what I can tell of her, is the kind of woman who would have had Peg Bracken books around; and I would bet $50 that Baker read these books over and over again, probably while sitting at the kitchen table eating sugary breakfast cereal. I suspect that a significant amount of his comic tone, his phrasing, was adopted unconsciously from Bracken. If anyone can put me in touch with Nicholson Baker to discuss this, let me know. (And if I’m wrong, and Mr. Baker says, “Peg who? I have no idea who you’re talking about,” then I will concede defeat. But look at my two fast examples, and tell me there are no similarities.)

I had to get in touch with my husband to confirm some of this, because I couldn’t remember what it was, exactly, that made Bracken’s dismissive take on “how to make ironing fun” seem so Baker to me. She disses the women’s magazines that tell you to put on a Fresh House Dress and open a window to catch the cool breeze, saying, “This is a lot of clam juice.” I re-read that sentence and thought, “Nicholson Baker.” Naturally I couldn’t think WHY I was having this thought, so I emailed the Gourmensch and explained my problem. He wrote back almost immediately and said, “It’s in The Anthologist. “Now, people are going to feed you a lot of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’ll say, “Oh, ho, ho! Iambic pentameter!””
And he is correct. (Almost correct. The actual line is, “People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter!” But my husband’s paraphrase is ridiculously close to Baker’s original, so I’m giving him all the points.) We can, as my husband points out, make this even more fun to think about by remembering that the narrator of The Anthologist is named Paul Chowder.

I never expected to write this much about mollusks in my entire life, but here we are. I hold that Baker’s Chowder and Bracken’s clam juice are related. Even her cookbook talks a lot about using canned clams, too. There are just a lot of mollusks stashed around Peg Bracken’s books, probably because of living in the Pacific Northwest all those years. And I hold that these things — Bracken’s clam juice and Baker’s Paul Chowder and his oyster crackers — are related.

But another thing that makes me think Baker read Bracken: the use of funny noise words. Here is Bracken talking about car noises. “Let’s say, as another case in point, that your car has developed a small plinkety-bleep under its hood. In the repair shop, the men in the white overalls can spend a good couple of days changing it to a plinkety-bloop. But if you had only sat tight and waited, it would probably have turned into a plinkety-bloop anyway, and a lot cheaper, too.”
Now, let’s jump back to Baker, his brilliant tribute to John Updike (whose works were getting big just at the time Bracken’s were, let’s remember). U&I is always ignored, I feel, by general readers who have the very wrong idea that you have to be a fan of John Updike to find this book interesting. This isn’t the case at all. You don’t even have to have read any Updike to find the book of interest. What you have to be is interested in how Nicholson Baker writes, and how his mind works. I am both of those things (as well as marginally interested in Updike) and so I have read this book probably a dozen times. I remember that the first time I read it, I laughed so hard at a couple of things in it that I nearly made myself puke (and if I had, I would probably have turned to Peg Bracken for tips on how to clean up the mess). One of those things was this passage, which now strikes me as not only Bakerian, but Brackenesque. Here, we read Baker’s version of an Updikean sentence, its pattern and rhythm. But what strikes me is how it adopts the occasional silliness of Bracken. See this: “her blank seemed, in its blinkety blankness and blanketed blankness, almost blonky in the late afternoon blonk.”

Plinkety-bloop. Blinkety blankness. Tell me that one of these writers is uninfluenced by the other. I totally realize that this kind of silliness stretches way back; it’s the kind of noise-writing that you might have seen in Perelman or Benchley even. People who basically write very dignified sentences making the reader giggle by casually tossing something ludicrous into the mix. But I feel in my heart of hearts that this is a sign that Baker is a Bracken fan, and it makes me like Baker even more. (Should Nicholson Baker ever read this: please confirm or deny. I’d really like to know, either way, realizing that if I’m wrong all of this makes me look like a pretentious twit.)

I am going to be looking for some Peter de Vries books soon.

Some of the Clever Stuff Peg Bracken Knew about When You were in Short Pants, you Lederhosen-Wearing Hipster

IMG_5431Actually, you probably weren’t even in short pants. You probably weren’t even in diapers.

But Peg Bracken, in Chapter 2 of the I Hate to Housekeep Book, has a nifty little A to Z of housewifely tips for the new bride (translation: the person setting up house or trying to take care of Adult Life as We Know It for the first time). A lot of this is stuff I don’t worry about much, like the tip regarding oatmeal. She suggests we add chopped raw apple to our cooked oatmeal because it somehow improves the oatmeal and “doesn’t hurt the apple.” However, if you’re like me, and only eat apples under duress as it is, this isn’t much of a tip.

But then, there’s stuff in here that I know I read at an impressionable age and it had a positive effect on the rest of my life, such as…

P is for Plastic Bags. This is about re-use, people. How trendy is that? She explains that the bags your packaged bread comes in can be re-used in all kinds of ways, and it is certainly true. (It also holds true for the plastic bags you might put your fruit and veggies in at the grocery store, assuming you don’t have to tear a hole in the bag to get at your onions.) Several of her ideas are ones I have used. These include: freezing dampened clothes so that I can iron them later when I have time (not that I iron anymore, but in the days when I ironed, I certainly did this); using as covers to pack shoes when heading out on a trip (why have the crud on the bottom of your shoes get all your nice, clean, packed clothes dirty?); put wet bathing suits on them to take home from the pool or beach without soaking everything else in your bag… Bracken doesn’t suggest this, but I also use these bags to help me out when I’m cleaning our cat’s litter box. Presumably Peg Bracken was too delicate to suggest this. Or maybe she hated cats, and couldn’t have imagined such a scenario. But now you know another thing to do with little plastic bags left over from your groceries.

The entry for E — Equipment — is admirable for its encouraging you, the reader, to not buy things. She points out the painful truth: the majority of gizmos and devices that people buy to help them maintain their households (whether kitchen equipment or bells and whistles on a vacuum cleaner) go unused and are, hence, a waste of money. “I am personally acquainted with two food liquefiers which made just two frozen Daiquiris apiece before they were retired to the top shelf of the pantry.” Where I’m sure they collected a lovely protective layer of greasy dust. Just as well to’ve not had them in the first place.
This is something Laurie Colwin talked about too, in her first cookbook: she said, plain and simple, that there are a million things to use in the kitchen that someone might buy with all good intentions but then never use, and you have to think hard about what’s going to be worth having and what isn’t. She says — accurately — that occasionally there is a special need that has to be catered to; sometimes there is a kind of cookie that requires a special shape cutter. So be it. But she and Bracken would agree that to simply acquire nifty things for the kitchen because a friend has one and it looks cool — this is silly and not worth anyone’s time or money. I know that when we were living without a functional kitchen a couple of years ago, a friend lent us a slow-cooker and it was, at the time, a life-saving device. I got pretty good at cooking with it, and we discussed, briefly, whether or not we should buy one for ourselves. I said absolutely not, because there’s nothing I can do with the slow cooker than I can’t do equally well with the Dutch ovens we already own and the oven that we knew would eventually be installed. The oven has been installed; it works just fine; and I am very happy to not have a slow-cooker taking up real estate in my small kitchen.

The way you know Peg Bracken was ahead of her time, and know for sure that the hipsters of today should embrace her, as well as the yoga mommies — is that her alphabet even uses Yoga for her Y entry. Yes, it was 1962 when this book was published, and Bracken was talking about yoga for housewives. She encourages people to do yoga breathing when faced with a housekeeping disaster, such as the time her friend was throwing a fancy dinner party and it turned out there was a wee mouse lurking in the silver-lidded crock of curry mayonnaise that the friend had made to impress the muckity-muck Guest of Honor. It wasn’t a pet mouse, either. It was some hideous unpedigreed mouse.

I’m not sure what I would do if I opened a tureen of something at a dinner party I was hosting and found a mouse. Partly because I don’t have a tureen (see: Equipment). I suspect my first thought would not be “yoga breathing!” My first thought would not be printable in a family newspaper. But I am confident of this: once we’d smashed the little wee beastie into furry mush (or the cat had caught him and brought him to us) I would be more than happy to wrap my hand in one of those leftover plastic bags to safely and hygienically dispose of the mouse.

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.

The Myers-Briggs Test for Housewives

IMG_5430The I Hate to Housekeep Book opens with Peg Bracken’s concise layout of Who We Are, we hausfrauen, personality types that are infinitely clearer and probably have more scientific validity than the Myers-Briggs tests everyone takes online when they’re bored.

“There are three kinds of housekeepers,” she writes at the start of Chapter 1. “There is the spotless housekeeper, who won’t stop, and there is the spotful housekeeper, who won’t start. Then there is the occasional or random housekeeper, whose book this is.”

(An amusing aside: when I was typing out the above, WordPress autocorrected “spotful” to “spiteful,” which is damned accurate, for an autocorrect.)

I have friends who think I am the first type, but they don’t know the truth. I am definitely the third type, the occasional or random housekeeper. How do I know this? Because our bathrooms can get quite grungy looking before I’ll think, “gee, I should probably do something about that.” Because I know for a fact that I haven’t dusted the bookcases in the guest room since we moved here, which was in 2011. (I’m writing this on September 3, 2015.) The spotless housekeeper has these things under control because she keeps a weekly schedule from which she will not deviate, ever. Bracken sketches a sample schedule on page 4, and it’s definitely on the grim side. Bracken pokes fun at the spotless housekeeper’s tendency to clean the kitchen while she cooks (something I do — because I have to, my kitchen being a rather finite space). And, I admit, I am someone who will say, “Monday is Laundry Day,” in earnest, because otherwise the laundry will pile up to a scary degree and we’ll all run out of clean undies. But even I totally see that the Spotless Housekeeper has to be, at some level, insane.

The piece of advice I grabbed onto immediately upon reading this book for the first time in the 1990s was this — No. 5 : “Act immediately upon whatever housewifely impulses come your way.” It is this sort of thing that explains why I only ever wash the kitchen floor at nine o’clock at night, when I ought to be lying on the couch watching TV or thumbing through the pile of magazines that have piled up over the last six weeks (thus creating even more clutter than we might have to begin with). The fact is, it’s while I’m washing the dinner dishes that I tend to become most disgusted with the state of the kitchen floor. We have a wooden floor which we paid good money to have installed a couple of years ago. I do not enjoy it when it feels sticky underfoot. The good news is that because we have a small, one-wall, galley-type kitchen, the span of actual kitchen floor is quite minimal. So it takes me about ten minutes to wash it, rinse it, and dry it. But trust me, I never do this at a normal time of day, like when the kid is at school and the husband’s at work. No, I do it at night, when the light is poor and I probably miss a ton of schmutz because I can’t see properly anyhow.
But the important thing is that I take advantage of the housewifely impulse when I have it.  Some cleaning is preferable to none, which is what we’d have otherwise. Bracken advises us that the cliche “anything worth doing is worth doing well” is not true — I disagree a little, she’s probably right. What I really think is,  it’s a matter of taste and personal preference. There are some things that I  think are worth doing properly, as often as possible, if only because the results make one’s life measurably more comfortable or safe. For example: it’s not necessary to make beds nicely every day. No one gets hurt because the bed is messy at bedtime. But we are a family who appreciate getting into nicely made beds at night. It’s comforting, it’s pleasant. So it’s worth it, to us, to have the beds made in the morning (after being aired out). That’s just us. Maybe you don’t care. Fine. But if you’re a guest at my house, spending the night, your bed will be nicely made, with sheets that smell and feel clean. The bookcases will be very dusty, because dust on bookshelves doesn’t happen to be one of my own bugaboos (and my husband seems to not believe in dust at all). But the bed will be comfortable and neat, with an extra blanket folded for you at down by your feet.

One idea that Bracken emphasizes in this chapter happens to be very trendy right now, which is that you do not, no matter what the marketing people tell you, need to own thirty-six specialized cleaners for the ten different types of surfaces in your house that need occasional cleaning. Peg Bracken was probably the person who first alerted me to the cleaning value of things like baking soda and vinegar — I remember keeping cans and jars of these things under my sink in the apartment I lived in in 1995. No Fantastik or Method Special Granite Cleaner for me (not that I ever had granite counters, but that’s beside the point). The items on the Bracken List were cheap, I knew, and I figured if it was good enough for Peg Bracken it was good enough for me. Reading the book again, I find it amusing that the Bracken lists seems so contemporary, so…. well, hip, even, as housecleaning supplies go. I remember that when I first read the book I was mystified by all these references to “sal soda.” What the hell was sal soda? I’d never seen it anywhere. Well, I know what it is, now: it’s sodium carbonate, and you can buy it in boxes in the laundry aisle of the supermarket, and it’s worth buying. I have even learned, thanks to Google, that if I don’t feel like using it to help scrub the bathtub or brighten the laundry, I can also use it to help me with my taxidermy projects — making me a very hip hausfrau indeed.

Bracken closes this chapter with a sage nugget: “never think unkindly about someone else’s housekeeping, nor speak unkindly either.” This is a real challenge sometimes, at least for me. (My mother is reading this and laughing. Hi, Mom.) But it’s true. And in this era of Sanctimommies, it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. She points out that you, we, the visitor to the friend’s house that we regard as crazypsychoneat or crazypsychoCollyerBrothers, don’t know what the friend is really dealing with on the home front. In other words, there can be good and valid explanations for behavior that may strike us as completely unacceptable in any given direction. So don’t criticize peoples’ dirty bathrooms or their manically clean bathrooms either.

Bracken opens her book gently and encouragingly. She is not lecturing us. She’s inviting us to sit down and put our feet up with this book for a while, saying, “ok, so, this might get a little ugly, but really, it doesn’t have to be as ugly as you fear.” And you can figure it all out while you’re sitting at the table drinking a nice iced coffee. Don’t worry about leaving a ring on the table. It’s fine. Not a big deal. We can deal with it later (probably much later).

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