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Peg Bracken; Eased The Path to Dinner

Peg Bracken sold millions of copies of
Peg Bracken sold millions of copies of "The I Hate to Cook Book" (1960). (File Photo)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Peg Bracken, 89, who wrote witty best-selling books tweaking the pretensions of gourmet food preparation and proper etiquette, died Oct. 20 at her home in Portland, Ore. She had a lung ailment.

Ms. Bracken was an advertising copywriter before "The I Hate to Cook Book" (1960) sold a reported 3 million copies and established her as an authority on resourceful cooking. The book, which launched her franchise as an author and columnist, became a staple for housewives with little interest in cooking beyond what they could scrounge from an understocked pantry.

She aimed for an audience that shared her dislike for women's magazines that set an impossible standard by offering tantalizing but impossibly opulent recipes suitable for Henry VIII's banquets.

"We live in a cooking-happy age," she wrote in "The I Hate to Cook Book." "You watch your friends redoing their kitchens and hoarding their pennies for glamorous cooking equipment and new cookbooks called 'Eggplant Comes to the Party' or 'Let's Waltz Into the Kitchen,' and presently you begin to feel un-American."

She emphasized convenience over the fresh ingredients and time-consuming preparation pushed by the gourmet school of thinkers including Julia Child and James Beard.

"The I Hate to Cook Book" gave a green light to canned vegetables and promoted mushroom soup as an effective way to cover up mistakes. Throughout, Ms. Bracken offered recipes written with a nod to the weary housewife.

To make "Skid Road Stroganoff": "Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink."

She warned against condiment overkill, writing that "a lot of people feel that anything peppered should look as though it had been fished out of a gravel pit."

She also dispensed tongue-in-cheek semantic advice. For example, she told readers that to say "garnish with crispy bacon curls" made one appear more knowledgeable in the kitchen than to say "top with bacon."

Ms. Bracken's cookbook received favorable reviews, though it has rarely been a favorite of purists. Decades later, food writer Miriam Ungerer said the book was "still around, pandering to the slothful."

Ruth Eleanor Bracken was born Feb. 25, 1918, in Filer, Idaho, and raised in Clayton, Mo. She graduated in 1940 from Antioch College in Ohio and changed her name to Peg "out of thin air," she said, when she began looking for work. Until then, she was known by the nickname Poots.

"I was applying for a job," she once said. "The guy said it was a casual place -- everything on a first-name basis -- but when he heard my [nickname], he said it wasn't that casual."

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