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Nostalgia, wrapped in plaid

What's so special about the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook

Addie Broyles
A collection of Better Homes and Gardens Cookbooks from 1940 to 2019. [ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

The rings are gone, but the plaid is here to stay.

After nearly 90 years as one of America’s most loved cookbooks, the newest edition of Better Homes and Gardens’ “New Cook Book” just got a refresh. The iconic red plaid is still there, and so is the recipe for chocolate chip cookies, but for the first time, the book doesn’t have its signature ring binder.

To publish a new edition is such an overhaul that they’ve done it only 17 times since 1930. “We pull the book apart, every chapter, every recipe,” says Jan Miller, the book’s editor, who is based in Iowa with the rest of the Meredith Corporation.

“Those classics aren’t a gimme. If the chocolate chip cookie recipe is going to survive, what do we need to do to make this feel like the classic of today?”

While they were putting together this edition, they knew every recipe had to have a photo, but they weren’t convinced that readers still needed the binder, which was one of the major innovations when the book first published.

The ring binder allowed cooks to add pages, and to encourage subscriptions, the magazine printed additional cookbook pages that readers could tear out and punch holes in.

As home printers became available, cooks printed out their own recipes to add to the binder. Miller said the company’s research suggested that this generation of cookbook buyers didn’t need to store recipes in the same way their grandparents did, so they designed the book with a red-plaid spine that would still lie flat when opened.

Ultimately, the no-ring decision had to go through Mell Meredith, one of the founders of the Iowa-based publishing company; she gave her blessing. “They know that we have to keep moving ahead, and that’s why Meredith has been successful,” Miller says. “You have to meet your consumer where they are at.”

The “New Cook Book” has a new look, but there are a handful of recipes that have been there since the early years and continue to earn their place, including those classic chocolate chip cookies, orange-glazed “bowknots” and a “busy day cake” that is now called a one bowl butter cake.

The magazine, which launched in 1922 as “Fruit, Garden and Home,” has been in the recipe business for nearly 100 years. By 1924, the publishing company was already hosting recipe contests with a $5 prize, and it built a test kitchen in 1928.

When the book debuted in 1930, the magazine claimed that “never before has there been a cookbook like this,” a promise it quickly lived up to. The book became a bestseller in three months, and by 1938, it had sold a million copies. Today, there are nearly 35 million copies stored on shelves, stashed in boxes and maybe sitting on your kitchen countertop as you read this.

Some editions included blank pages at the back for cooks to write notes and recipes, or an envelope or folder to hold clippings, and countless cooks simply tucked handwritten notes, clipped stories and handout materials within the pages.

In many editions, you’ll find tabs separating the chapters. The tabs made it look like file folders or a mini filing cabinet, Miller says, and in the business of keeping a home, more room for recipes in a single place was the modern equivalent of getting expanded storage on your phone.

This ephemera — and the system in which to store them — is why cooks came to treasure this specific book over others, including “The Joy of Cooking.” Each book became a time capsule, a scrapbook and a pre-Internet encyclopedia for a cook’s entire cooking life.

In the past 20 years, Americans have been finding that balance between fast and from scratch, low calorie and high flavor, hands-on or hands-off. The book begins with a detailed primer about kitchen basics that everyone needs to know, from the different spices to keep in a pantry to how long to cook various kinds of rice, beans, fruits and vegetables.

“There’s so much of an emotional tug tied to this book because so many women, mothers pass it on to their daughters, grandmothers," Miller says. "When people lose these treasured books through hurricanes or a fire, they ask for their specific edition as a replacement.”

Her staff will send out replacements, and they also accept donations from sentimental owners.

“I have cabinets filled with plaid,” Miller says. “People want to keep them for as long as they can, but if they don’t feel like someone will love and treasure them, they’ll send them to us,” even if the covers are falling off. “I’m happy to be the keeper.”

Last week, I became the keeper of Elizabeth Whitlow’s mother’s 1940 edition, whose tan cover has browned over the years. It’s a well-loved and beautiful book stuffed with a flurry of booklets, newspaper advertisements and other scraps of paper about rationing sugar and cooking with Jell-O.

Whitlow was one of nearly a dozen readers who shared their Better Homes & Gardens stories with me. Her mother, Marjorie N. Whitlow, wasn’t an instinctive or creative cook, and her copy helped her put dinner on the table to the best of her abilities, Whitlow says.

When Whitlow was in seventh grade, she realized that if they were going to eat before 7:30 p.m., she was going to have to make dinner. She’d make weeknight dinners with ground meat, pork chops or fish, along with two kinds of frozen vegetables or a vegetable and a salad.

“No bread, and no deserts, unless boxed pudding or Jell-O or fruit was in season,” she says.

On Saturdays, they’d make hamburgers, and Sundays were reserved for roast beef, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, “or a meat loaf I still make.”

She has her own 1968 edition of “The New Cook Book,” and as she has started paring down her book collection, she considered passing along her mother’s copy. Whitlow’s mother had been a Statesman reader from 1940 until her death in 1996, so she felt like we could be the trustee of her most trusted cooking resource.

I’m not the only food writer with a particular love of Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks.

Tucker Shaw, editor of America’s Test Kitchen, keeps a copy of the 1962 edition on his desk at work for inspiration. “I love the kind of real-life point of view in it, like how to remove stains,” he says. “It offers a cool window into the kinds of things that home cooks were thinking about at the time and are still thinking about.”

The holistic experience of running a home kitchen is an important part of running a good kitchen, he says, and the book addresses all of that, from planning and shopping to storage and cleanup.

Shaw also pointed out that this particular edition has a sense of humor. “Not (author) Peg Bracken-level humor, but a certain levity that is welcoming,” he says, including a photo of a woman holding dishes with five arms extending from her body.

I keep a copy on my desk, too. When readers donate cookbooks to our ongoing cookbook drive, sometimes I’ll get a copy of “The New Cook Book,” and a recent donation included a copy of the book with math homework, dated 1977, from a then seventh-grader named Timothy Sunstrom.

Cookbook author Kate McDermott also has a first edition of the cookbook in her collection, which she turns to for inspiration when she’s developing new recipes or wanting to connect with the generations of cooks who came before her.

Austinite Jane Hellinger made a donation to the cookbook drive a few years ago but couldn’t part with her 1960s-era Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. She also still has her mother’s light blue edition, which she got for her wedding in 1939. Both copies have been "a steadfast presence in our lives” and are well used.

Judy Warren uses her copy of the cookbook to make peanut butter cookies and ginger crinkles to share with her friends at a senior apartment complex. “I have several other cookbooks even though I had to downsize my collection when I moved,” she says. “The Better Homes and Gardens is still my favorite and the one most often used.”

My aunt, Betsy Cook, emailed photos from her 1976 edition that her sister, Patti, gave her when she married my uncle, Chris, in 1981.

“It was my only cookbook at the time, and while I have never been much for following recipes to the letter, it has been an amazing reference over the years when I was in need of inspiration, reassurance or step-by-step hand-holding,” she says.

Patti had written on the first page of each chapter. At the beginning of the section on vegetables, she wrote, “Betsy, I love you and I can’t think of a thing to say about veggies.”

“What a delight to flip through the pages and find sisterly encouragement and her special brand of humor,” she says. “It brings a smile to my face as I read them again, 37 years later.”

Kay Pinckney Braziel has a five-ring copy of “The New Cook Book” that she thinks is probably a gift from her wedding 56 years ago. Her husband, John, a gardener at Sunshine Community Garden, is the primary cook in the family, and for more than 20 years, has cooked them breakfast in the mornings, but “I still refer to it for deviled eggs, peach pies, gravy and the weights and measures section on the inside back cover,” she says. “I am very happy that I still have it as a basic cookbook, even though I have other cookbooks that I have probably used more over the years. I would never part with it.”

Orange Bowknots

“This is one of the longest-running recipes," cookbook editor Jan Miller says. "It’s been in the book since 1946.” You'll need three oranges total (one is for the glaze) for these citrus-y tarts.

2 oranges

5 1/2 to 6 cups all‑purpose flour

1 package active dry yeast

1 1/4 cups milk

1/2 cup butter or shortening

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

2 eggs

To make the orange icing:

1 1/2 teaspoon orange zest

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons orange juice

Remove 2 tablespoons zest and squeeze 1/4 cup juice from oranges. In a large bowl stir together 2 cups of the flour and the yeast. In a 2-quart. saucepan heat and stir milk, butter, granulated sugar and salt just until warm (120 to 130 degrees) and butter almost melts. Add milk mixture and eggs to flour mixture. Beat with a mixer on low 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly. Beat on high 3 minutes. Stir in orange zest and juice and as much of the remaining flour as you can.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic, using a dough scraper as needed (dough will be slightly sticky). Shape dough into a ball. Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning to grease surface of dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (1 hour).

Punch dough down. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface; divide in half. Cover and let rest 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly grease two large baking sheets. Roll each dough half into a 12-inch-by-7‑inch rectangle. Cut each rectangle crosswise into twelve 7‑inch strips. Tie each strip in a loose knot. Start by folding each strip into a loose loop. Tuck one end under the loop and ease it up through the hole of the loop. Readjust dough to make an even knot. Place 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Cover and let rise in a warm place until nearly double in size, about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake 12 to 14 minutes or until golden. Remove from baking sheets; cool on wire racks.

While rolls are cooling, in a medium bowl stir together orange zest and powdered sugar. Stir in enough of the orange juice to reach drizzling consistency. Drizzle the rolls with orange icing and serve. Makes 24 rolls.

— From "Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book, 17th Edition" by Meredith Corporation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99)

One-Bowl Butter Cake

“Although renamed several times through the years, the one-bowl butter cake recipe formula in the 17th edition is similar to the favorite butter cake recipe in the very first edition of the cookbook published in 1930. It was described as a 'good plain cake batter.' Over the years we changed the fat from shortening to butter, and opted out of the cake flour to all purpose to accommodate today’s home cook, and added a bit more milk,” Miller says. The quick mix‑and‑pour method and common pantry ingredients create a moist, tender everyday cake. Customize it with ice cream, curd, fudge, honey, caramel, jam, toasted nuts, grilled fruit, such as pineapples, or berries.

1 1/3 cups all‑purpose flour

2/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup milk

1/4 cup butter, softened

1 egg

1 tablespoon vanilla

3 cups assorted fresh berries

Sweetened whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Honey (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and lightly flour an 8‑inch round cake pan.

In a medium bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add milk, butter, egg and vanilla. Beat with a mixer on low until combined. Beat on medium 1 minute more. Spread batter into prepared pan.

Bake 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool cake in pan 10 minutes. Loosen sides of cake; invert onto a plate. Cool 30 minutes. Serve warm with berries and, if desired, sweetened whipped cream and honey. Serves 8.

— From "Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book, 17th Edition" by Meredith Corporation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99)

Best-Ever Dill Pickles

Every edition of "The New Cook Book" has had a recipe for pickles, and the editions that were published during the Depression and World War II had even more preserves than the editions that followed. The newest edition calls for using Kirby, Persian and gherkin varieties and says that the best pickling cucumbers will be at your local farmers market in early to midsummer. Choose those that are firm and bright-colored with no soft spots. If pickling cucumbers aren’t available, use regular-size cucumbers from the garden. Do not use waxed cucumbers that are sold in the supermarket.

3 to 3 1/4 pounds (4-inch) pickling cucumbers

4 cups water

4 cups white vinegar

1/2  cup sugar

1/3 cup pickling salt

6 tablespoons dill seeds

Thoroughly scrub cucumbers with a soft vegetable brush in plenty of cold running water. Remove stems and blossoms; slice off blossom ends. Cut cucumbers lengthwise into quarters.

In a 4- to 5-qt. nonreactive heavy pot  combine the water, vinegar, sugar, and pickling salt. Bring to boiling, stirring to dissolve sugar.

Pack cucumber spears loosely into six, hot sterilized pint canning jars, leaving a 1/2-inch headspace. Add 1 tablespoon dill seeds to each jar. Pour hot vinegar mixture into jars, maintaining the 1/2-inch headspace. Discard any remaining vinegar mixture. Wipe jar rims; adjust lids and screw bands.

Process filled jars in a boiling-water canner 10 minutes (start timing when water returns to boiling). Remove jars from canner; cool on a wire rack. Let stand at room temperature 1 week before serving. Makes 6 pints.

— From "Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book, 17th Edition" by Meredith Corporation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99)

You can learn a lot about American food history by flipping through the different editions of Better Homes and Gardens "New Cook Book." When the book debuted in 1930, it was among the first to standardize recipe measurements and instructions, and the dishes — and recipes — continues to evolve over the years as Americans' cooking habits changes.

The first editions of the book included tips on rationing, pickling and cooking efficiently during the Depression and wartime years of the 1930s and 1940s. After the war, families had time and resources to entertain again, so backyard grilling and party-friendly dishes, such as chicken divan, entered the mix during the 1950s. As markets became supermarkets, cooks started looking for ways to use these new ingredients, such as cherries, artichokes and shallots.

As the interstate system and international travel expanded in the 1960s, so did a desire for dishes such as chicken cacciatore or chicken kiev. Americans were also hosting casual get-togethers where finger foods and fondue were on the menu. By the 1970s, when the country experienced more war and economic turmoil, the editions include more budget-conscious cooking that would appeal to working women. The natural food movement added foods such as granola, yogurt, whole grains and beans to our diets. This is also when new appliances, including microwaves and slow cookers, helped families get dinner on the table faster.

The cookbook stopped including table-setting information in the 1980s because so few people were hosting formal parties. They were spending a lot of time thinking about their health, so editors added nutritional analysis to the recipes.

In the 1990s, the gourmet foodie was born, and the book added recipes for focaccia, tiramisu and baked brie. As technology promised to give us more time, we found less of it for cooking, so the magazine added fast recipes that you could make in 15 or 30 minutes.

In 1993, the Midwest floods destroyed the Better Homes & Gardens archives back to 1922. Thanks to donations from readers, within a month, the library was restored, including the earliest editions of the cookbook and magazine.

The evolution of the book in the past 20 years shows that Americans really do love photos with their food and dishes with international flair. The newest edition includes eye-popping guides on spices, salts, dried pastas, marinades, peppers, cuts of meat and different storage methods. The extensive baking chapters include troubleshooting notes and instructions for how to adapt the recipes for gluten-free eaters. They authors didn't venture into Instant Pots or air fryers, but they do cover traditional cooking techniques in a way that both beginners and experts will find useful.

A history of American eating through a cookbook's lens