BEFORE ERMA Bombeck there was Peg Bracken.
Before Peg Bracken there was Ruth Eleanor Bracken, known as "Poots." "I picked 'Peg' out of thin air," explains Bracken. "I was applying for a job. The guy said it was a casual place -- everything on a first-name basis -- but when he heard my first name he said it wasn't that casual."
After the breakup of her first marriage in the early '60s, and after the enormous success of her first book, "The I Hate to Cook Book," she got a divorce "with a legal name change thrown in for free."
Bracken, whose latest work is "A Window Over the Sink," subtitled "a mainly affectionate memoir," is the author of seven previous titles, all variations on a theme. They include "The I Hate to Housekeep," "I Didn't Come Here to Argue," "I Try to Behave Myself," "But I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World" and "I Hate to Cook" spinoffs: "Appendix to The I Hate to Cook Book" and "The I Hate to Cook Almanack." Until it was pointed out to her, Bracken says she hadn't noticed that this was the first of her books not to have the first-person pronoun in the title. "That's she mused, "since this is the most personal thing I've done."
Anyone who has followed Peg Bracken's career should know that it's a mistake to assume that this woman, in fact, loathes cooking. Not when there's a bread recipe -- as there is in the "Almanack," for Armenian lahvash -- whose steps stretch out over the better part of a day.
"I love to bake bread," Bracken confirms, a smile of mischievous pleasure breaking out on her face. "I buy wheat by the 500-pound sack and grind what I need myself." She adds the useful tip, "Bay leaves keep the weevils out."
Does such dedication mean that Bracken has experienced a change of heart since 1960, when "The I Hate to Cook Book" took American housewives by storm? Not really, since if that book wasn't exactly tongue-in-cheek, it was at least touched by a quirked eyebrow, a facial expression that Bracken, a handsome, hazel-eyed woman, still employes to good use.
That eyebrow is the outward sign of Bracken's delight in her own sense of humor and the iconoclasm that leads her, as it did at the end of the '50s, that decade of happy homemaking, into saying the unsayable. Remember -- Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" didn't puncture the balloon of domestic complacency until 1963.
But Bracken, in her way, was first: relentlessly chatty, full of bright quips and comfortng negativism. Though hardly a standard-bearer for feminism, she was all for calling a whisk a whisk.
"Do you know the really basic trouble here?" she wrote, encouraging her fellow "suffers" to grin and not bear it. "It is your guilt complex. This is the thing you have to lick. And it isn't easy. We live in a cook-happy age. 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."
That was 21 years ago. Today, though the emotional climate in the kitchen may be said to have changed, those words will ring as true as ever to some recalcitrant cooks.
When "I Hate to Cook" was published, Bracken had been writing light verse for such magazines as Collier's, The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post, sending her "modest" output east from her home in Portland, Ore. With the introduction and a sample chapter being shown around by an agent, it was rejected by four or five male editors before its potential was finally recognized. "It took a woman to buy it," Brack says now.
After the publication, Bracken was an instant celebrity, and she wound up with -- besides myriad interviews and opportunities for speaking tours -- one thing she had always dreamed of: a nationally syndicated newspaper column. However, at the same time, she also wound up with an ex-husband.
So, taking her small daughter south, Bracken settled in the Bay Area around San Francisco and there she remained until 1974. It was then that, with her second husband, illustrator Parker Edwards, she migrated across the Pacific to the Hawaiian island of Maui where "you don't get pineapple any cheaper unless you hijack it."
"A Window Over the Sink" is a result of that move. It seem that after they moved in to their new house Bracken discovered that not only was its kitchen too small ("You had to decide whether it was Blender Day or Toaster Day"), but that it also lacked one important item: a window over the sink. The contemplative moments she'd spent in years past, gazing out onto a fire escape or a beach or a stand of fir trees, were thus transformed into soul-searching encounters with the spice rack, noticing how dusty the cinnamon had gotten.
This brought Bracken to a course of action she'd always sworn to avoid. She's seen a friend "design and hatch a kitchen," she says. "Triplets would have been easier." But Bracken, windowless, succumbed to the temptation."A Window Over the Sink" is a series of meditations, primarily about her Ohio girlhood, which are brought on by the new kitchen's evolving stages.
Bracken, who in the book admits to filing notes to herself under "F" for "Fancy that!" has a way with disgression. The chore of polishing a copper bowl carries her off, almost like Dorothy, to her Grandmother Em's house back in Kansas.
It's a thoroughly pleasant tradition that Bracken works in: folksy but sophisticated and, as she herself describes her style, "very American." Bracken is able to make cliches pass as fresh, much as if she were crisping up week-old lettuce. In each of her books she is breezy enough to ventilate whole buildings, let alone one windowless kitchen.
One of her favorite stories takes place at the meat counter of a grocery store, with Bracken and another woman, a stranger, both lost in reveries over the chops and ground round.
"I was trying to decide what to buy for dinner when the woman standing next to me heaved to big sigh and said, 'You know, sometimes I feel just like Peg Bracken.'"
As she tells it, you know she didn't skip a beat before replying, "I do, too."
Despite Bracken's undeserved reputation as a culinary barbarian (that almost ubiquitous -- but liberating -- "can of condensed cream of mushroom soup"), she is an articulate appreciator of food tastes, textures and techniques. She can denounce "refrigerated biscuits, ready-mixed pie crust, ready-mixed pie crust, ready-grated parmesan, prepared salad dressings, and other heinous products" with the best of them.
Here are three of the recipes she appends to "A Window Over the Sink." PUMPKIN SOUP (6 to 8 servings) 1 large onion, chopped 1/2 teaspoon curry powder 1/4 cup butter 2 cups canned pumpkin 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 cups heavy cream 2 1/2 cups chicken stock Sour cream and chopped parsley for serving
Saute the onion and curry powder in the butter until the onion is limp and defeated. Add the pumpkin and salt, stir ir around, then pour the whole thing into the blender and blend for half a minute or so. Pour it into a saucepan, along with the cream and chicken stock. Heat it slowly and serve it steaming hot. A small dollop of sour cream in each bowl is nice, and so is a sprinkle of chopped parsley. CRUMPETS (Makes 10 to 15)
These crumpets take an hour and a half to rise, all told, but some days, don't we all. And you don't need crumpet rings, really. They just result in a neater product. If you haven't any, pretend you're making four-inch flapjacks. l tablespoon dry yeast 1/4 cup very warm water 1 cup milk, scalded 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons butter 1 egg 3 cups all-purpose flour
Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water so they get acquainted while you heat the milk. When it is just hot, pour it into a big bowl and add the sugar, salt and butter. Stir until the butter melts, then stir up the yeast water, too. Add it to the milk now along with the egg and the flour.
Beat it thoroughly, then cover and let it rise, about half an hour. Beat it again for 3 or 4 minutes and let it rise again for another 30. And do that yet again. This is something of a bore, but if you don't do it, the split crumpets probably won't have that craters-of-the-moon complexion necessary for holding all that eventual butter and jam.
Now grease a griddle, or use an electric skillet at 350 degrees, and put the greased crumpet rings in, if you have some, to fill half full with the batter.
Cook them 8 or 9 minutes per side till they are a nice saddle-leather brown.
You can freeze them now if you like. To eat them immediately, split and toast them, then butter and jam them, and pour the tea. RYE DROP CAKE CHICKENS (Makes about a dozen)
This is Em's recipe as she wrote it. Em wasn't much on details. 1 c rye flour 1/2 c wht flr salt egg 1 c sour milk
Make lard same temp. as for doughnuts, drop batter off spoon. Put in round willoware bowl, make sure it's hot.
Bracken's version, which varies only a little, goes like this: 3 inches vegetable oil 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 cup milk 1 cup rye flour 1/2 cup wheat flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 egg Maple syrup for serving
Pour about 3 inches of vegetable oil (because I seldom have lard around) into a pan, put the deep-fat thermometer in it, and start it heating. Then stir a teaspoonful of baking soda into a cup of sweet milk (because I never seem to have sour milk around either) and let it set, while sifting the two flours and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and beating a large egg till it's light.
Add the milk to the egg, mix in the sifted flour, and beat just a bit, till it's all blended. When the thermometer registers 370 degrees, you're in business. Drop half-teaspoons of the batter into it. (If you drop larger dollops in, you won't get chickens; you'll get dolphins and an occasional wart hog and they may not cook properly all the way through.) Don't cook more than three at a time, or it will cool the oil too much. When they're a beautiful golden brown, take them out with a slotted spoon, park them briefly on a paper towel, and serve them hot, to dunk in individual saucers of maple syrup. World According To Bracken
"It isn't easy to lay one egg a day. I used to write a daily column, and I know."
"It's true that it would be reasonable to use these random minutes for random jobs, like polishing the toaster or grating some bread crumbs. But that kind of efficiency isn't my natural gait. Besides, I recently adopted for my own a good motto I saw somewhere, on a barroom mirror or possibly a washroom wall: 'The time you enjoyed wasting wasn't wasted.'"
"In McKinleyville, when you said carrots, you had to say peas right after or you'd have bad luck all day. Peas went with carrots as infallibly as ham went with eggs. For years I though carrots and peas grew on the same vine."
"i've noticed that bits of emotion often become permanently commingled with the tastes of things, the way a tatter of egg yolk, once in the egg white, is impossible to get out. So far as I'm concerned, cinnamon will always say home-and-mother, and red grapes taste like Christmas, and oyster stew is merry and loving, and chocolate mousse is nearly always pugnacious if not downright bad-tempered."
"Still, it is a happy thing that a window over the sink can serve as a window on a world now gone. For truly, the loved and long-ago people and places in your memory can be visited only in your imagination; and perhaps the things that you ate and loved then can be tasted again only in your imagination too." -- From "A Window Over the Sink"