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The Creamed Tuna Solution to a Complicated World
All of which would horrify a true home economist, a housewife (as stay-at-home moms were called back when we were allowed to ignore our kids all day) like Bettina, of the 1917 cookbook A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband.
This cookbook, which is not nearly as titillating as its sensationalist title suggests (unless you have some really creative uses for vinegar sauce and weak coffee) is the subject of Sadie Stein's great essay "Ways and Means" for The Paris Review. A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, as Stein writes, is filled with vignettes of the fictional Bettina and Bob's married life, complete with recipes perfect for the thrifty wartime bride with a hankering for pimentos. Bettina has great passion for "the word 'economical,' her energy-efficient fireless cooker (a slow cooker of sorts), and the budget notebook that is her preferred topic of dinner-table conversation." She lectures her husband on the price of steak, the joys of buying in bulk.
The book is a hoot as far as retro recipes go. All that white sauce! But, as Stein points out, "the emphasis on modern methods, labor-saving devices, and the science of housekeeping—not to mention that suffragette brunch!—is clearly intended to inspire the young bride not just with confidence but with a sense of the importance of her role." You must read her whole essay, in which Stein discusses her project of cooking every recipe in the book —the results are hilarious. But what strikes me most is how Stein writes, "like any young bride of 1917, I wanted to enter into Bettina’s perfectly ordered existence." She calls the book "a bastion of make-believe order in a scary world."
How appealing! Because this world, it is scary and complicated and messy, in ways that no one can protect her family from, no matter how hard she tries. And personally, I rarely savor a sense of the importance of my role as a "young bride." My resting state is more general befuddlement. So while Bettina's menus and mathematics give me palpitations, I do very much like the idea that I could take control over my home life and better manage household expenses, that the food I prepare for my family could impose a sense of calm, instill some order. Would Bettina allow a toddler to mash $3 worth of Dr. Prager's fishies into a cup of pink milk? I doubt it! If only I, like Bettina, could plan my menu a week at a time, intelligently using leftovers in an organized manner, cheerily reminding my family of how efficiently our little industry could operate. And you know, maybe with the right recipes and a better attitude, I can.
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