When Tracy V. Grant first read the Internet chatter about her late mother’s work being called “the most depressing cookbook ever,” she had one thought: There's no such thing as bad publicity. Marie T. Smith’s 1986 book, “Microwave Cooking for One,” may be the easy butt of jokes, but a real person was behind it, and she believed strongly not just in the need for single people to have workable recipes, but in the ability of the microwave to facilitate them.
As a fellow microwave user, cookbook author and cooking-for-one believer, I feel something of a kinship with Smith, who died in 1987. It’s true that my culinary tastes aren’t entirely aligned with hers, and I’m more likely to use the microwave for simpler tasks rather than full-fledged dishes, but I appreciate the fact that she was, at heart, a teacher. According to her daughter, Smith’s volunteer work at the time of the book’s publication, just a year before her death, was aimed at helping “displaced homemakers” learn to adjust after suddenly finding themselves alone.
“She felt strongly that food is the center of life, and that these newly single women deserved to take care of themselves as they had for others for so many years,” Grant wrote in an e-mail. “So she invited these women into her home and gave them an all-day microwave cooking class, teaching them 30 basic recipes.”
Grant, 55, talked to All We Can Eat about her mother’s work, in a phone interview from her home in Lakeland, Fla. Edited excerpts follow:
All We Can Eat: How did your mother end up writing the book?
Tracy Grant: First of all, can I just tell you, my mother would be so excited that you are interested in her book. It would’ve made her day.
She started it in the ’70s, actually, and spent 10 years developing the recipes. She predicted that because of the baby boom we would become a society of one and two-person households, that this would be a need. She was a visionary. And when she saw a demonstration of the microwave, she just saw its potential, too. A lot of people turn up their nose to the microwave, saying you can’t produce good food using it, and she proved them wrong.
AWCE: Do you remember when she was cooking for herself?
TG: My dad was a test pilot for Piper Aircraft, and he would have to go out of town on business sometimes and she would need to cook for herself. But even when he was home, there were things she liked that he wouldn’t eat, like liver. And she just thought that at some point people need to know how to cook for themselves. She knew how difficult it is to take a recipe for four and divide by four and make a recipe for one.
She provides the parentheses next to each time indicator where you can make your own notation. The whole trick to cooking in the microwave is proper timing, and weighing the food was also a big thing to her.
AWCE: The parentheses are because she also did that wattage chart, showing how time should change when you have a different microwave.
TG: Right. She thought that up herself, and I have the formula, so I give custom recommendations to people when they write to me. When she wrote the book, the standard was 700 watts, and there were a lot of lower wattage ones. Now there are a lot of 1,000-, 1,200-watt ovens out there. I tell people to make sure to adjust the cooking time, especially with the smaller amount of food.
AWCE: How old were you when she was working on the book? You typed the manuscript, I understand from her acknowledgments.
TG: Yes, I did. I was in my late 20s. I had moved home and had started a typing business out of their home, and that’s when she got the contract with Pelican. The very week she got the contract was when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had surgery, and then the book was published, and she lasted about another year.
AWCE: I’m so sorry. I assume she was a smoker?
TG: Never smoked a day in her life, and she had the worst kind of cancer there was. Some people have said, “That’s the microwave,” but it wasn’t. Their home was on the site of a former phosphate mine, and when they tested it later for radon, it turns out the house was loaded with it. She died at age 54, in 1987.
But you know what? She still helps people. I still get letters. I get the biggest thrill when a man writes to say, “My wife died, and this cookbook is my bible.” That would’ve made her very happy.
AWCE: Did you sample any of the recipes she made for the book?
TG: Oh, yes, I was there the whole time. She used me as a guinea pig. I remember once, I was in the front room typing, and she said, “I have a surprise for you, I made crab casserole for lunch.” I was so excited. I went into the kitchen and sat down and took one bite and spat it out and said, “That was disgusting.” She said, “I’m sorry, I used you as a guinea pig. I used canned crab.” She was a believer in always using fresh, and she wanted to test her theory that canned crab wouldn’t be good. She later went out and got some fresh crab, and it was great.
AWCE: When and why did you start up the Web site? Did you also work to republish the book?
TG: The book has always been published by Pelican. Now it’s available on demand. It went through six or seven editions; it’s sold right around 10,000 copies since 1986.
I quit receiving royalty checks from the publisher for about 10 years. In 2000, all of a sudden, I got a check for $50. I thought, what happened? I went to Amazon, and there was the book, and I thought, if it’s selling without promotion, maybe if I create a Web site, I can generate more sales. In 2003, I quit my job because I was making money through the affiliate marketing aspect of it. I make more money promoting microwave-safe dinnerware and cookware than selling the cookbook. I make a good living doing that.
AWCE: Speaking of dinnerware, what happened to those Corning browning pans and the like your mother writes about? They don’t make them anymore. Do you know why?
TG: I asked them, and they said people didn’t know what to do with them, so they quit making them. But people still find boxes in their attics and sell them on eBay. I’ve got a lot of pieces I have had for 30 years that my mother gave me. The biggest question I get about it is, “Can I put it in my regular oven?” That’s an absolute no-no.
AWCE: When did you first notice the “most depressing cookbook ever” stuff going around the Web?
TG: It was after this post on the blog F Minus came out. People were like, “Oh, Tracy, that’s terrible.” I’m like, all advertising is good advertising. Right after that, it sold a lot.
AWCE: What do you think of those comments from people saying it’s so depressing?
TG: Mostly it’s young people who’ve always lived at home and have had roommates and friends around, and they’ve never had to cook for themselves. But there are all kinds of reasons people have to cook single portions. I’m not single, but my husband and I do a lot of independent cooking. When he’s hungry, he cooks what he likes. He puts everything in one big mush into one pot, and I can’t stand all that stuff mushed together.
AWCE: There can be good things about cooking for yourself, too, don’t you think?
TG: Sure. It’s certainly better to cook something healthy for yourself than to go to McDonald’s every night. The whole thing about my mom’s book is you could cook very healthy meals for yourself, and they’re very easy to follow.
AWCE: Do you use the microwave yourself?
TG: Whenever possible. I’m not a cook the way my mother was. But I did lose 40 pounds on the Dukan diet recently. I eat a hamburger patty whenever I’m hungry, and I fry it up on the browning skillet in the microwave. And recently I made an Italian rum layer cake using the microwave: It’s a layer of cake, then a layer of vanilla pudding, cake, chocolate pudding, cherries, cake. I baked the cake in the regular oven, but my mother had converted the filling from boxed to making them in the microwave from scratch. And you know what? They came out perfect.