Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook: the first in a series of occasional reviews of out-of-print cookbooks

The Committee recently purchased an inexpensive scanner and is thrilled to pieces with it. The Chairwoman has a bit of a tendency to hoard things and is hoping to throw out some of her stockpile of pretty-or-amusing this-or-that after scanning; so far many things have been scanned and none have gone out the door, but we have high hopes. A less daunting task than actually parting with any favorite ephemera is beginning to log our small collection of out-of-print cookbooks, many of which were selected for their illustrations. Contemporary cookbooks are increasingly filled with gorgeous, well-styled, thoughtfully-lit photographs, but illustrations can be so much more charming, and while they reflect their time they generally don't ever end up looking as dated as photographs can.

Helen Gurley Brown's The Single Girl's Cookbook (Bernard Geis Assoc. 1969) was illustrated by Frank Daniel, who appears to have gone on to illustrate several children's books. Each chapter begins with an illustration of a mod young woman with Twiggy eyelashes, often accompanied by a boyfriend who looks an awful lot like Guy Smiley.
sect. 2 ch. 9 illustration

These are, I imagine, the sort of women who were too busy setting their hair and finding husbands to bother reading Betty Friedan. The book is geared towards young women who want to learn to cook not, apparently, because living well is a great pleasure, but because the thought of not being able to compete with other women drives them mad. "Make a lamb stew better than his mother!," HGB promises. "You can, too, because yours won't be so fat." A recipe for boeuf en daube is likewise introduced with the warning that "[t]his stew has undone more men than the Hong Kong virus, only it's a good kind of undoing. It definitely got one girl I know married."
sect. 3 ch. 11 illustration

The italics, happily, are not mine. At the start of chaper 1 Brown thanks Margo Rieman, "a cook" who "allowed me to take her wonderful recipes . . . and present them to you in my words, together with a few philosophical thoughts along the way . . . such as, it is better to get hollandaise all over your negligee sleeves than to wear something appropriate to cook in if you are entertaining a man." The words indeed appear to be direct from HGB: loads and loads of flighty italics, flattering addresses to the dear/darling/delightful reader, and uniquely florid hyperbole. I don't mean to grouse about it, though; that's her style and she generally pulls it off.

Well. I do mean to grouse about it a bit, and cringe a bit, but occasionally there's fine advice here:

  • "[M]ake friends with a butcher. It's fine to buy your one single-girl lamb chop for Monday's dinner prepackaged from the supermarket, but to cook lyrically for company you need a professional advisor. Most butchers are darlings."

  • "[C]heese is chic." HGB's recommendations for cheese, wine and fruit pairings for dessert hold up rather well (e.g., Gorgonzola, pears and Pinot Noir), and for readers stuck in the boonies she directs them to order from Cheese of All Nations (then located on Chambers Street in Manhattan ― the Murray's of its day?) rather than buy processed junk from the local grocery store.

  • While serving highballs, "[w]atch out for anybody who demands cream soda or clam juice or some other esoteric beverage. You have a nut on your hands and the next thing you know he'll be running his hands over the bottom of your bathtub to see if it's grit-free, or running his hands over the bottom of you or one of your guests . . . ."

  • "Cooking and eating foreign food is the way to great sensuous pleasure with great sensuous men."

In case you might not have guessed, a great many pages in The Single Girl's Cookbook explain what should and should not be served to lovers. There are five chapters of recipes and menus for the five stages of a Cosmo-style love affair, which begins with the-batting-of-eyelashes and smoldering glances but ends in disaster ("You Aren't Lovers Yet," "You're in Love," "He's Acting Funny and You Must Win Him Back," "Enough Already!" and "Goodbye Forever, Thank God! Three Dinners and One Revolting Breakfast"), and countless exhortations throughout the rest of the book. From the brunch chapter:

In addition to Sunday Brunch, we've included recipes for three delicious egg dishes to serve during the week to a friend (there's no need going into what sex and you may not even be sure) who stays overnight. If you're both scooting off to work there wouldn't be time to do one of the fancier brunches, but the quickies are delicious. For the almost overnight guest who gets ravenous at three in the morning, you simply serve one of the breakfasts. It's almost morning anyway. And of course you should never send anyone home drunk. Feed him!

sect. 3 ch. 9 illustration

There are also several chapters devoted to more prosaic aspects of single-girl living. What should be simmering when you invite the landlord over to see your leaky pipes or peeling paint? Ideally a "Poor Pitiful Ragout," which "will not only melt the man before your very eyes but establish you as the Brave, Strong, Deserving, and Ingenious Girl you are." (Quaint! Is it true that once upon a time a landlord might be torn away from rolling around in his pile of money and hate mail long enough to actually visit a tenant? Rather than sending a mumbling, fumbling super or his creepy, good-for-nothing brother?)

sect. 2 ch. 1 illustration

As for what to serve "When the Relatives Descend," it depends how much you like them. For a favorite aunt, two hors d'oeuvres, a roast leg of lamb, creamed spinach, roasted potatoes, and for dessert, ice cream with toasted coconut and Kahlúa. For an annoying aunt who will tell you that you're too thin, your apartment is garish, and your boyfriend's hair is troubling, "garbanzo dip" (a not-bad-sounding hummus, with plenty of lemon juice, garlic, coriander, mint and parsley), a yogurt dip, a big salad with anchovies, a main course of broiled kidneys with noodles, and a dessert of cheese and apples.

sect. 2 ch. 5 illustration

I have not tried any of the recipes in this book yet. There are indeed some dreary 1950's hausfrau recipes here; at least two or three of them feature canned soup, and a recipe for "ecstatic hamburgers" relies on onion soup powder for transcendence. There are, however, plenty of dishes that must have seemed odd at the time but are genuine and honest and could be served today without irony. The menu for a "Summer Feast for Married-Couple Friends" ("Here's a dinner with love and kisses for that wonderful couple who comfort you when sick, entertain you when you're lonely, feed you when you're broke, and take you in on holidays. It's frankly fabulous and they deserve it.") gets off to a rocky start with superfluous curried shrimp puffs, but the rest of the menu is quite edible: vitello tonnato, rice salad, green peppers piedmont (cooked in a slow oven with olive oil, garlic, anchovies and tomatoes), braised vegetables Adriatic (in olive oil), bread sticks, and "melon surprise" (cantaloupe hollowed out and filled with Port; I once had a cavaillon melon prepared this way and it was very, very good). The obligatory recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon (see below) is straightforward and would probably taste pretty good, particularly if you updated it with fresh herbs.

Boeuf Bourguignon 1

Boeuf Bourguignon 2

And when you're alone? HBG favors blender concoctions for breakfast (various combinations of fruit, powdered liver and raw eggs) and comforting soups and egg dishes to eat in bed if you're moping about something. There is also a short (two pages) chapter of favorite celebrity eating-alone binges. Lauren Bacall would have "[j]ust pickled artichokes. A girl can't get too many"; Julie Newmar would like a dinner of strawberry ice cream, camembert cheese, fresh French bread, chile con carne, "and for breakfast, fresh Beluga caviar." Carol Channing's answer evokes an era before publicists scrubbed all traces of personality from celebrity babblings; she would opt for an idiosyncratic combination of "sweet, earthy things like roast leg of goat, kasha . . . with goat gravy, baked fresh pears with pear juice, homemade candy made with honey and raw sugar, and fresh-pressed pineapple juice!"

sect. 1 ch. 6 illustrationsect. 1 ch. 8 illustration

sect. 1 ch. 5 illustration

My ideal single-girl dinner consists of cheese and bread (recently a bit of walnut bread and Tomme de Savoie), because I am a magnet for lactarded persons and I will never, ever get enough cheese. I may be cursed, really; my mother was struck with lactose-intolerance after giving birth to me. I lived with a man who was also lactose-intolerance for several years and after I moved out, I had cheese + bread + wine for dinner probably at least two nights per week, and I still think I have catching up to do.

walnut bread + Tomme de Savoie cheese


  1. holy god woman! what a great review!!
    i have one of HGBs other cookbooks, Cosmo Cookery, it was written in the '70s and definitely has more of a feminist streak to it
    but i actually have a favor to ask... would you mind posting or sending me that recipe for the Adriatic vege?
    we had various versions of it in Croatia and they were just FAB-U-LOUS and i've been trying to recreate them ever since with varying degress of aptitutde. i'd love to know what the real recipe is supposed to be!

  2. Thanks Ann! I will send you the recipe when I get home - it's a very simple one and I'm not sure how authentic to any particular style it is, but it's probably worth trying, especially at this time of year.

  3. Very amusing -- and what a time capsule of cooking styles and social mores.

    It's always interesting to read cookbooks of other eras and see what holds up and what looks hopelessly dated. Of course, there are many I am sure who still to this day swear by canned soup and envelopes of onion soup mix.

  4. Rebecca9:02 PM

    Don't tell Julie, but I still use the occasional envelope of onion soup mix, in my slow-cooked brisket, for instance.

    Maybe it's because I have three sons and a husband, but I have quite a few meals that I, at least mentally, identify as "man-pleasers", like roast chicken and other meat-heavy entrees, and things I would only cook if the guys weren't around and my girlfriends were coming over, like cold soups involving vegetables.

  5. Julie and Rebecca, I was indeed having a hard time trying to gauge the percentage of recipes here that are dated, both because there are some things that remain favorites (judicious use of soup mix, a platter of deviled eggs, a loaf of garlic bread, shrimp cocktail) and because some of the recipes were ahead of their time - it was very interesting to see, for example, that the hummus recipe was pretty much identical to contemporary preparations but was intended to be an unpleasant surprise for stodgy relatives.
    Rebecca, I don't think it's just you; if I had to name one dish that I would put in the serve-to-girlfriends-but-not-a-group-of-men category it would definitely be a chilled soup! Such an interesting topic; I'll have to come back to it -

  6. Just came over from Eat Me Daily... your blog is fantastic! I wrote you up on mine. :) Cheers!

  7. Hey, you, gorgeous… Maybe you don't know how to achieve it or you haven't been instructed, but here's our Way to be at my party-hardy in Heaven. Nothing on earth is worth the loss of Heaven, girl, for our finite existence is over in the blink-of-an-eye; Jesus/our Mother are the only free antivirus, while we few are only the prophets in a world that’s whorizontally haywire. Death’s cool, however, if you’re on the RITE side: we'll have a BIG-ol, Wahoo!, kick-ass, party-hardy for eons and eons fulla anything and everything and more --- Now, having read this, you’re faced with a choice: return to God who made you, loves you like crazy, and wants you or return to your dead-end-world - no middle ground on the Last Day. WAIT! BEFORE YOU CALL ME A NUTJOB… I have some pretty nifty, neet-o things we may do in Heaven! Besides being the most gorgeous thang God ever made, wanna nekk in Heaven on a park bench? …or anywhere? Wanna lemme serve you for eons and eons? Wanna lemme hold you as we watch the BEST fireworks Heaven has to offer and ride-on the BEST roller-coaster, too? Wanna lemme feed you baklava and Starbucks (either mocha or Strawberries&cream frappuccino) and those teeny, canned oranges for the length of eternity? Wanna swim nude in the ocean as shallow as four feet and then take a shower? Wanna be one with me for SEVEN, WHOLE, MONTHS?? Wanna be an adorable 17 forever, me a dashing 21? Wanna love so deep and wide, passionate and warm the universe cannot hold our? Wanna lemme be a part of you till even Heaven crashes around us? Wanna lemme snuggle with you, to love you and gratify your wonderful, beautiful, adorable feet? Wanna lemme prove to you I love you more-than-you-know, from head2toe, bodyNsoul, to give you pleasure-beyond-measure? Meet me in Heaven, girly, and I'll do alla that and more for you for the length and breadth of eternity --- How awesome it shall be to love you in person, to be with you, to hold you in my arms and give you a backrub in the Great Beyond; to kiss your adorable body and nuzzle with you, would make my eternity. God bless you.

  8. When I was a poor graduate student/single girl in the '70s, and had just moved in with my boyfriend ("living in sin," they called it then) who is now my husband of almost 40 years, I had a paperback copy of this book. It served me, and him, very well. I learned some basic cooking/entertaining skills, having grown up without many; and some of the recipes (e.g., spaghetti with clam sauce, piroshkis, individual meat loaves, a heavenly chicken dish that I later discovered in an old MFK Fisher book from the 1940s) are STILL in my cooking repertoire.

    Interestingly enough, my other "go to" cookbook in those days was "The Grub Bag," by Ita Jones. She was a far left, revolutionary (she could easily have fit in with the SLA), Berkeley-based food writer; most, if not all, of the cookbook entries were initially published as columns for an underground newspaper. I think this was her only cookbook. But some of the recipes are remarkably good, and reading her polemics does take me back to those idealistic days of my early twenties.

    The two authors could not have been farther apart in their styles, worldviews, whatever -- not to mention their views of feminism as they saw it -- which makes it even more amusing to me that I loved these two books equally. My old paperback copy of the "Single Girl's Cookbook" disintegrated (literally) years ago, but I found a hardback copy at an online bookseller. I love to read it, and not just for the recipes: it's a real blast from the past! My paperback copy of "The Grub Bag" is likewise falling apart and held together, more or less, by Scotch tape. I haven't yet found a replacement copy online.

  9. Interesting memories, thanks for writing! I wonder if your heavenly chicken dish is the same one a reader emailed me about a while back -- her daughter had just had a baby and was craving nothing else, but their copy of this book had gone missing. I scanned it and sent it to her, but I can't remember now what was in it. Mushrooms, maybe, and . . . ?

    The Grub Bag sounds right up my grubby alley! I'd love to track down a copy but it sounds hard to get a hold of.

    I have an SLA cookbook, actually, a spiral-bound number that looks like it was maybe photocopied, but the recipes in it aren't very revolutionary at all. Lots of unadventurous casseroles. The Single Girl's Cookbook was pretty progressive in terms of including recipes for foods that weren't widely eaten at the time.