The Coy of Cooking: Adventures with Bettina (Part 1)
I wonder what it says about me that nearly half the cookbooks in my collection are older than I am. Of those, about a quarter were written before my elder grandmother was born, in 1919. The most venerable—a deluxe subscription edition of Hannah Glasse’s 1747 masterpiece The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, was the first thing I ever bought over the internet. The second thing I bought over the internet was Isabella Mary Beeton’s Mrs. Beeton’s Guide to Household Management—the first edition of 1861.
I love elderly cookbooks as sources of social history, of unintended levity, and—not least—of sound kitchen wisdom. My favorites offer all three. Consider, please, the 1917 classic A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband, written by Louise Bennett Weaver and Helen Cowles Lecron.
The title is enough to raise twenty-first-century eyebrows. Are they serious? They are. I mean, were. A Thousand Ways was part of a series called “The Romance of Cookery and Housekeeping” (how high are your eyebrows now?) and it’s a genuine hoot.
This is a cookbook in the form of a novel, a chronicle of the beginning of a marriage. Young bride Bettina strives in each chapter to dazzle everyone—but most of all, new husband Bob—with her thrifty, inventive cooking and entertaining. And she does. She always does. Every single time. So perfect is the winsome, clever Bettina that by comparison other famously good wives—Lucretia, June Cleaver, the Blessed Virgin Mary—are wannabes in dirty aprons.
Bettina’s aprons are never dirty. Bettina’s face is never sweaty. Bettina is never tired, cranky, angry, or in need of a day off. Bettina can spend all morning canning fruit and still serve you lunch with a kiss and a face as fresh as the newly picked rose tucked into her belt.
She brings to mind the priceless German expression backpfeifengesicht, a face in need of a punch. Her manner of speaking doesn’t help. Here she is talking to Bob about the second dinner of their married life:
“Steak is expensive, dear, and you’ll not get it often, but as this is our first real dinner in our own home, I had to celebrate. I bought enough for two meals, because buying steak for one meal for two people is beyond any modest purse! So you’ll meet that steak again tomorrow, but I don’t believe you’ll bow in recognition!”
She goes on like that for nearly 300 pages, an exclamation point in a breakfast cap and a lace collar. Bob, by the way, is no better:
“I caught a ride with Dixon in his new car. And I thought you might need me to help get dinner; it’s nice to be needed! But here I’ve been picturing you toiling over a hot stove, and, instead, I find you on the porch with a magazine, as cool as a cucumber!”
Even allowing for changes in colloquial English over the past century, I feel sure that no married couple anywhere, ever, has spoken like this to one another.
There are illustrations throughout by Elizabeth Colbourne, who communicated the “romance” theme by giving Bettina a sidekick in the form of a cherub wearing nothing but a chef hat and an apron.
Things to Do, Husbands to Please
There were several sequels to A Thousand Ways and Bob stuck around for them, so Bettina must have been doing something right.
I decided to put her to the test by preparing three recipes and serving them to a panel of authentic husbands. We gathered around a table set with china, silver, and glass appropriate to the period; and each man was given a score sheet to make his remarks.
The final question for each dish: “Are you, as a husband, pleased?”
The guests were as follows.
Jim S., aged 55, real estate/asset manager; married 7.5 years
Josh C., aged 31, finance manager; married 3 years
Kevin F., aged 35, creative director; married 5.5 years
Tom R., aged 53; funemployed; married 10 years
First, we tried . . .
Bettina’s Chicken Croquettes
This recipe comes from Chapter 31, in which Bettina’s friend and culinary protegée Ruth prepares a farewell luncheon for a young female cousin who is off to study at “a fashionable New York school.” With each course, a new motto of the “Don’ts for Girls” genre, writ large on a paper scroll, is brought out and hung from the chandelier. Hilarity ensues.
Caveat: For all recipes in this series, I’ll first give the original wording, or close to it; followed by my own notes and revisions.
To make the croquettes, first prepare Croquette Sauce.
3 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
⅓ tsp salt
Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour and salt, stirring constantly. When well mixed add the liquid, a little at a time. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula.
Now, make your croquettes.
1½ cups chicken, cooked and finely chopped
¼ tsp celery salt
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp parsley chopped fine
¼ cup croquette sauce
½ tsp salt
2 cups breadcrumbs
4 tbsp egg, well beaten
Mix the chicken, celery salt, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and sauce. Shape into croquettes. Roll in crumbs, beaten egg, and more crumbs. Deep fry. Serve hot.
Once the sauce is made, keep it handy but don’t worry about keeping it hot if you’re getting right down to the croquettes. It will be thick. Like glue. I kept it on the stove, but off the heat, for about 20 minutes while I prepared the rest of the ingredients. Worked fine.
I used two chicken breast halves, fileted (sliced in half lengthwise to make two thin cutlets), baked with a bit of salt and pepper in a 350 degree oven until just barely done—about 20 minutes. Once they cooled, I chopped them very fine—something close to a mince, really. You could use any sort of cooked chicken, light or dark. Leftovers would be dandy.
When forming your croquettes, do what my late Sicilian grandmother did when forming meatballs—run your hands under cold water first, shake off just the excess, and go. Gently form little balls of the croquette mixture about the size of a large walnut, about 2 tablespoons, between the palms of your hands. Then roll in crumbs, egg, crumbs as directed.
No, foodies, I did not use Panko. Bettina did not use Panko. I used plain old breadcrumbs. Nobody died.
I tried to stick with ingredients as close to Bettina’s as possible. She doesn’t specify what sort of fat to use, and might well have used lard. I don’t have ready access to lard, so I used enough melted Crisco vegetable shortening to fill my 5.5 quart Dutch oven about halfway. The croquettes should float freely.
Crisco has a low smoking point, so for heaven’s sake keep an eye on the oil and don’t let it burn. Of course you can use other fats, but I’d go for something relatively tasteless (therefore, no olive oil).
You want to fry the croquettes to a nice golden brown all over. It won’t take long—watch them. You shouldn’t be leaving hot oil unattended anyhow.
Use a slotted spoon to lower them in, turn them once halfway through, and lift them out. If making multiple batches, let them drain in a warm oven (about 170 degrees) on a wire cooling rack on a rimmed baking sheet until they’re all ready.
Serve them hot and soon.
Universal acclaim. The husbands (and the cook/husband) went positively wild.
Kevin F.: “I could eat a dozen of these in a single sitting.”
Josh C.: “Simple but enjoyable flavor—really good!”
Jim S.: “Rib-sticking. I would think that an entrée like this would have been a special event.”
Tom R: “Yummy! Very savory and filling.”
Quite aside from the taste, what impressed the heck out of me (as the cook and fifth taster) is that I served these to the panel without anything other than a decorative bed of parsley—and three croquettes each was found to be a hearty portion. That’s five ample servings for five grown men made from less than two chicken breasts. (We had another three croquettes left over, but not for long. Cook’s privilege.)
Five out of five husbands, all pleased.
Way to go, Bettina. Maybe you earned those exclamation points. We’ll see if you can keep it up with the next recipe.