The Coy of Cooking: Adventures with Bettina (Part 3 of 3)
Even if you’re a devotee of old domestic manuals and other antiquated writing aimed at women–and I am–the chirp and chatter of A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband can make for tough reading.
Our heroine Bettina is (as I noted in Parts One and Two) as flawless as a dew-covered morning in May. On the page, it means she’s surrounded by a fluttering cloud of admiring friends and relations; not to mention a husband who never fails to exclaim at her ability to transform a fistful of leftovers into Belshazzar’s Feast. In real life, people like Bettina are hard to bear. Nowadays she would be posting photographs of every dainty meal on Facebook and Instagram and you would have unfollowed her months ago.
In writing this little series, though, I’ve had to spend more time cuddled up with Bettina than ever before. And when you read A Thousand Ways closely and often, you begin to catch startling glimpses of something unexpected. Something that might even, perhaps, have been a little subversive for 1917.
We Need to Talk About Bob
I’d probably gone through the book two dozen times before it struck me how often Bob–even at the end of a hard day at the office, with grease on his Palm Beach suit–volunteers to help out in the kitchen. It may only be by washing the dishes, or it may be (as in Chapter Five, “Bob Helps to Get Dinner”) shaking up the salad dressing and slicing a lemon. In Chapter 22, from which comes today’s recipe, Bob is at Bettina’s side, rising early, to help prepare for a luncheon party with a special guest. Not because she ordered him to, but because he insisted on it.
The authors don’t treat this as anything exceptional. Bettina (perfectly politely, of course) always thanks him for his help–but then turns the conversation back to her centerpiece of coreopsis or the tenderness of her filet steak.
There are hints elsewhere that Bettina’s readers ought to expect not only appreciation, but assistance, from the man of the house. In Chapter 36, “A Kitchen Shower for Alice,” the gag-inducing rhymes flung at the bride-to-be include these two couplets pinned to a set of dish towels:
No matter what his whims and wishes––
Just tell him he must wipe the dishes!
But if he breaks a cup or plate,
Just throw the pieces at him straight.
In a book not rife with subtlety, here is a subtle message: Bettina is the sort of woman you ought to be; but Bob is the sort of man you deserve. The sort of man who can (and will) handle a dish towel.
A Guest for Breakfast
The real eye-opener for me was Chapter 22, “A Porch Breakfast.” Bettina and Bob are up early, working in the kitchen, and ditzy ingénue Ruth (who exists to mess things up so Bettina can fix them) is due at 8 a.m. to pick up the slack when Bob heads to the train station. He’s meeting an important guest, the guest of honor at the porch breakfast: Bob’s Aunt Elizabeth.
Here’s the thing about Aunt Elizabeth. She’s not a bride-to-be like Alice, or a befuddled matron like Mrs. Dixon (who simply cannot understand what a refrigerator is for, my dear). She is a suffragist, and she has come to town, “in conference with some of the leading suffragists of the city.” Bettina is laying the table for six, and the centerpiece–in a sly but unmistakable nod to the cause–is “great graceful yellow poppies.”
(If you are familiar only with violet, white, and green as the colors of women’s suffrage, note this report from an American woman at a Louisville, Kentucky suffrage convention in 1911, collected in History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et. al: “We all have votes-for-women tags on our baggage, yellow badges and pins, California poppies and six-star buttons on our dresses and coats…”.)
The poppies are about as militant as Bettina gets, beyond admitting to Bob that, “the whole suffrage cause is on my mind this morning…”. But to the reader with a listening ear, the pro-suffrage message of A Thousand Ways is clear. Rather than being a monstrous virago or a figure of fun, Aunt Elizabeth is “beautiful, distinguished looking.” She is an object of admiration, not only for women but also for men. Bob himself seems somewhat in awe of her, and she’s strong enough to carry her own bags from the station, thank you, in spite of his offer of a taxi.
The authors give a hint of steel, in other words, beneath Bettina’s taffeta and bows–and I like her the better for it. I hope that when American women* earned the right to vote, three years after A Thousand Ways was published, that Bettina threw off her apron and danced in the street.
*The white ones, anyhow. Sigh.
Why not celebrate the ongoing movement, as Bettina did, with…
Bettina’s Potato Doughnuts
As in Parts 1 and 2, the recipe first follows more or less as originally written, followed by my own notes on the process and–of course–the reaction from our panel of husbands.
1 cup mashed potatoes, hot
1½ cups sugar
2 tbsp melted butter
3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup milk
3 cups flour
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp powdered cinnamon
Beat the eggs, add the sugar. Mash the potatoes and add the butter and milk. Add this mixture to the eggs and sugar. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon sifted together.
Roll one-fourth of an inch thick, cut with a doughnut cutter, and fry in deep hot fat.
Makes three dozen doughnuts.
Make no mistake: I tried this one because I wanted to find out what the hell a potato doughnut tastes like. Potato and doughnut were not, until now, words that I had ever thought to place together.
I followed Bettina’s recipe almost to the letter. As I haven’t got a doughnut cutter, after rolling out the dough as directed I sliced it up into nuggets about the size of a tablespoon, using a sharp knife. You don’t want the pieces to be too big, or they won’t fry all the way through before the exterior is burnt. Aim for something akin to a modern “doughnut hole.” Flour the counter generously before you roll the dough.
I know you can’t just say “potato” in a recipe these days without people getting concerned. “But … what kind of potato?” they ask, wringing their hands. My mother would have said, “You know—just potatoes. Potato potatoes. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. Jeez.” For the record, I used bagged Idaho potatoes from the Regular People Aisle at our local chain grocery. I don’t think they had a pedigree other than that.
As to the frying medium, I used fresh Crisco vegetable shortening. Vegetable oil would also work well. For more on deep fat frying, I refer the gentle reader to my notes in Part 1 of this series.
Can you use this to make something nice from leftover mashed potatoes? I suppose you could, if you hadn’t flavored them with anything other than salt. If you decided to make potato doughnuts with the remains of last night’s garlic-and-onion mashed potatoes, please do not invite me to your porch breakfast.
The Verdict from the Panel of Husbands
Insanity. Scarfing. Vulgar chomping noises. Licking of fingers. Satisfied burps.
None of the husbands could taste even a hint of potato, which was a relief. One fellow said they were “needlessly sweet,” but I say you’re going to get one of those in every crowd. Three commented on how surprisingly light and crunchy they were–with two comparing them favorably to waffles and ice cream cones.
I was curious about how well they’d keep, so the morning after the tasting (having put them under foil in a bowl in the kitchen, leaving a little gap in the seal for ventilation) I got up and ate the remaining dozen–cold–all by myself.
I regret nothing.
I don’t want this to be the final installment – can’t we keep going?
I agree. These Bettina posts are wonderful IK. (BTW, recipes probably didn’t mention what kind of potatoes to use because everyone was assumed to know which kind of potatoes are good for which kind of cooking. Red potatoes are best for mashing while Idahos are best for baking.)
Apparently, there weren’t any Spudnut shops where you grew up:
There was one a few blocks from the small Catholic college I went to, and the lady that worked there would give us free donuts if we sat in there and studied during the wee hours of the morning. She didn’t like being there by herself late at night and felt safer with a table or two of students hanging around.
There’s a locally famous Spudnut shop in Richland,Wshington, too.
I too hope this series pops up again in the future!
Being blessed by having had such a husband, I smile at Bettina and Bob’s relationship. Please, more of such enchantment in my Friday reading!
I can’t even tell you how much I have enjoyed this series of writings! Please, more Bettina?
Wonderful!!! Always love reading a new piece by you, but I shall miss your Bettina pieces, Franklin!
Bettina reminds me of my Danish Granny. She bustled around and did everything including chopping the kindling for the stove. And one day, I realized that my Grandpa did quite a few of the “female” jobs quietly in the background. Granny loved doing the jobs she thought of as “pioneer”, drying dishes etc, not so much! I asked her once how she got Grandpa to do the jobs he did….she looked at me sideways and said “Women have their little ways” and loaded her apron with wood for the stove while Grandpa rinsed off the veggies he’d just picked in the garden for supper.
I’d like to have met your Granny, Barbara Brown. My Grandma Babe was an ex-flapper with dyed blonde hair who drank a shot of bourbon with a Coke chaser when out for dinner (just one), wore crotch-less girdles (without panties) and never seemed to need to chivvy Grandpa to do little chores around the house. Wonder why? She died before I got any sideways looks to impertinent questions but since she never understood a clean joke in her life I suspect I know the answer. We’re both so lucky to have had grandmothers who showed us that they were more than little old ladies in sensible shoes.
Potatoes (all kinds) are a wonder. This doughnut recipe reminds me of Potato Candy — delightful!
In Idaho those are called spudnuts.
I don’t even cook and I find these essays incredibly interesting. I suspect your writing could make any subject fascinating.
Franklin for President! I’ll work on your campaign anytime!
(and, I also find the comments from commenters to be very clever as well!)
We need more Bettina stories.
Those sly little nods to equality and helpful marriage are why I love pre-WWII domestic manuals! I think people forget that the women who wrote these books had careers…
love this series! We were recipients of potato doughnuts and given the recipe. Let me just say that the recipe was used only once as the doughnuts are wonderful and addictive!!!! You may wish to put the recipe waaaay up high on a back shelf; just sayin’
I think I may have mentioned that my mother had this book, and I could have read it….but didn’t, beyond the overly cheery beginning. Never tried a recipe from it. My mother was not a gifted cook.
I love these! More from Bettina, please!
Why do I not have a Palm Beach suit? I think it would be appropriate apparel for summer in Victoria, BC.
I need a potato doughnut. And a porch party.
I have truly enjoyed these, and I was also inspired to read through Bettina’s book. I did think it odd that I only noticed one reference to the war. Thanks for introducing me to this cookbook!
I love Bettina – but I love Franklin even more! Thank you kind sir for your fabulous renderings of Bettina and Bob. I hope there are many more to come.
More Bettina, please. I’m loving this series.
Ah yes, someone else mentioned the noble Spudnut. Potato doughnuts are fine, fine doughnuts.
This is hysterical! I bought the book (Dover reprint) solely on the strength of the first column. You are a national treasure in these dark days, Franklin.
Love these installments! Please keep them coming (Bettina would, of course, put a cherry on top)
I, however have a doughnut cutter plus a spare. It helpfully instructs me that it may also be used as a cookie cutter. Ingenious little device, turned one way it cuts the larger circle then flip to cut out the hole. Actually, I have two cutters. One was my mom’s, although she never made doughnuts for us, and the other was her mom’s.
I never knew this book existed until this year! Thank you, Franklin, for a hilarious introduction.
You’re, too funny Franklin. Wildly creative and funny.
If you are ever in Southern Maine, you must go to The Holy Donut – potato donuts that go quickly. Sooooo good!
I love the panel of husbands. Mine is handy with a dishtowel, and makes a miraculous mac and cheese.
I echo the community’s pleas for more of this series or something like it. But if we must say goodbye to Bettina forever, please PLEASE enlist Mr. Franklin for more regular writing series in the future. He is, as ever, a complete delight. I will read every post he puts out.
I always look forward to Franklin’s writing! Keep it up! and I too will be sorry to Bettina go 🙁
There was a place in Madison, WI, called “Spudnuts”. It was there through the 50’s and early 60’s, when I left town. Best doughnuts in town! Bettina knew what she was doing
I will miss this series! The lack of specificity on the type of potatoes reminds me of the made-in-Italy, bilingually-labeled-in-Italian-and-English pasta that my (Irish-Italian) husband pics up at our local Italian deli. It has no cooking time on it. Presumably if you can’t figure that part out, you are not Italian enough to deserve this pasta. 🙂
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