Touchstone Cookbooks

Betty Crocker Cookbook, an influential cookbook to generations of food lovers

Maybe it’s because I’m approaching a somewhat noteworthy age, but I choose to believe that perhaps the most significant of all my birthdays was my fifth. Why? My fifth birthday marked the day that my obsession with food (and food as an artform) was born when my mother gave me my first cookbook.

I was in the kitchen, watching my mother fuss with something in a drawer, when she gave me a copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls.

“Go sit at the table and look through the pictures,” she said. “Figure out what kind of cake you want for your birthday. Draw it for me.” I took to the challenge right away. I sped to the kitchen table, grabbed paper and wax crayons, and went to work. In between pages of subtle advertising, black print, and Gloria Kamen’s clever illustrations, I found vibrant color photos of party foods and ornate party cakes.

Even then I was a fool for clever food styling.

“Extra Special Drinks” for kids from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook

I studied the photos of pastel-colored kiddie cocktails with exotic names like eggnog and red rouser. I scrutinized a photo of a sheet cake with a shallow border framed with roaming candy tigers and bars of gum drops. I didn’t care how the cake tasted. What interested me were the candy lions and shiny gum drops. I wanted them.

“Drum Cake” from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook

But it was the picture of “the Drum Cake,” a Betty Crocker Devils Food cake covered in a fluffy white frosting with a lattice of candy canes and maraschino cherries, that offered me a lifetime of sugary daydreams. The image of peppermint swirls agains creamy white frosting was seared in my memory. Thanks to that cookbook’s influence, I asked for cakes with ornate decorations for years and begged for the kid-proof oven that baked mini cakes with the heat of a lightbulb.

Betty Crocker’s take on what’s fun for kids. Bags on your head. Yay!

Now that it is my birthday week all over again I return to that dog-eared children’s cookbook. According to a little research, it turns out that my beloved cookbook is the most requested title in the Betty Crocker archives (and is available in reprint form or via the Open Library). Though the cookbook is lacking in true recipes (many are simply instructions to follow the directions from a box of a Betty Crocker cake mix), reading through the popular 1957 cookbook reminds me of the importance of early influences. I love this book. If not for recipes, but for a reminder of how far I’ve come. (And no. I was not born in 1957)

Over the years I’ve been given cookbooks that influenced my life in and out of the kitchen. What are some of your favorite touchstone cookbooks you’ve been given?

*One year I asked for a birthday cake with the image of Jesus on it. An odd request, considering that we were not what you would call a religious family rarely went to church.

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

11 Comments

  1. amazing that you still have these cookbooks!! embarassingly, we don’t really own any! :(

  2. April 7
    Reply

    A BIG HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. April 7
    Reply

    Happy Birthday! I definitely had some childhood cookbooks like that as an early influence. I think the most influential cookbook I have received as a gift as an adult has been Le Cordon Bleu’s Complete Cooking Techniques. While I have no problem “winging” most things, it’s been great to learn about the “real” and time-honored techniques behind classic foods.

  4. April 7
    Reply

    Happy Birthday, darlin’! These are such adorable memories. Although I have lots of cookbooks that I adore, the one I most treasure is the vintage copy of The California Heritage cookbook that my mama gifted me with. It’s the same book she learned to cook from, so many of the recipes I grew up with are tucked within its pages.

  5. Grace
    April 7
    Reply

    Thank you for the delightful story–brings back many memories for me also. As the current editor of the Betty Crocker cookbooks, I can tell you that in our collection of books, the Cookbook for Boys and Girls is very dear to my heart, and to several of our group including our publishing manager. Because of its unique content, it is a timeless treasure that we know is still shared with children. Keep memories like this close at hand and you’ll always be a child at heart!
    Our best to you, from the Betty Crocker Cookbook team.

  6. I have my mom’s old copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Junior Cookbook from 1950 something (it looks like the same photographer and illustrator) and I was fascinated by the recipes as a kid.

  7. April 10
    Reply

    BUNNY SALAD!!! I lived on Betty Crocker’s cookbook for kids. I have no idea what the title of ours was because when my oldest sister left home it was the first thing she took with her. The 1958 edition of Betty Crocker’s cookbook has timeless recipes and help–I go back to it again and again and lean on it like you would your grandmother. The Betty Crocker books sparked my culinary imagination like no other cookbook–they weren’t overbearing but at the same time incredibly well researched, informative, and friendly. I taught myself how to bake by starting with a and working my to z in the dessert section. (Today I am a professional cook–I teach cooking in Italy and France and cook privately in NYC. fayefood.com

  8. April 10
    Reply

    How funny, I was just looking through my mother-in law’s 1963 Jello Cookbook and admiring all the drawings. Happy birthday!

  9. Brooke, I’m going to make an confession here. I didn’t cook until I was an adult, and one of the cookbooks I used most, and liked most, was Jane Brody’s Good Food Book. It may be charmless, but her recipes work. The book has a lot of time-tested combinations with a few innovative ideas thrown in. Everything’s makeable. Health is considered, but flavor is paramount. Jane Brody’s a pro. Charm isn’t everything.

  10. My aunt had a copy of the original Betty Crocker Boys and Girls cookbook – from her childhood. I spent two weeks at my grandparents’ every summer to go to day camp, and on the weekend in the middle I spent the night with my aunt and uncle and she would let me pick whatever I wanted to make out of the cookbook. we made Drum cakes and teepee cakes and lots of other dishes. It is one of the formative experiences of my cooking life. I bought my nieces a copy of the book when it was re-issued a few years ago. I laso had a Junior League cookbook from Spartanburg, SC that came with color-coded measuring cups and spoons, and I cooked dinner for my family from that for years as a kid.

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