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How Betty Crocker, other legacy cookbooks are trying to stay relevant

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

Of the thousands of cookbooks published each year, only a few have staying power.

Among them are multi-edition corporate cookbooks from such enduring brands as Good Housekeeping, Betty Crocker and Better Homes & Gardens, which have all released updated versions in the past few years, the latest of which is the “Better Homes & Gardens 100th Anniversary New Cook Book.”

These are “kitchen bibles” for many, handed down for generations, with recipes that reflect a slice of American home-cooking history and its evolution over more than a century. Before Amelia Simmons wrote what is considered to be the first American cookbook, “American Cookery,” in 1796, cooks in the United States — those who could read — had access to only European cookbooks.

“In the late 19th century, you start to get these American kitchen bibles that were larger than one person’s voice,” food historian Laura Shapiro said. “These were, above all, teaching cookbooks. They were educational [and] were supposed to lead you right from the first step of your life in the kitchen. The first one that you could call ‘corporate’ was the ‘Fannie Farmer Cookbook’ [originally called ‘The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook’] back in 1896.”

These huge books peaked during the 20th century. The “Good Housekeeping Everyday Cookbook” was published in 1903, with recipes described as “the meals granny used to make,” including buttermilk biscuits and meatloaf. “Better Homes & Gardens” and “The Joy of Cooking” published their first editions in 1930 and 1931, respectively, followed by “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook” in 1950. (The original Better Homes & Gardens cookbook was released 93 years ago, but because its 10-cent, 56-page recipe pamphlets began a century ago, the latest book celebrates 100 years of recipe publishing.)

Technological advances, such as access to running water, packaged food, and the replacement of wood-burning stoves with gas and electric, revolutionized home cooking. As American women became more mobile, many moved away from their homes — and thus, from their mothers and grandmothers who used to pass down techniques and recipes, Shapiro said.

“Suddenly, you needed a book, you needed printed recipes, which, over time, became the way a lot of people learned to cook,” she said. “People were not only cooking from what was in season or grown in the backyard.”

Certain common features of these books are timeless: They are approachable, with easy-to-find ingredients and simple techniques.

These cookbooks are “for the person that’s graduating, who is getting married,” said Jan Miller, editor of the 17th edition of the “Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book.” “Sometimes, people don’t even crack it open and start to use it until they have a family and they feel they really need to step up their cooking game. I hear so many moms say, ‘I bought this for my son.’ It’s for anyone who is stepping into their kitchen and maybe doesn’t have as much experience as they would love.”

One thing that’s changed about the books is the voice in which they are written. In its early incarnations, the “Good Housekeeping Cookbook” featured a fictional teenager called Susan.

“I remember I took that book away with me when I moved from home,” Shapiro said. “And when I started cooking in the ’70s, it was already a big, authoritative bible — if already dated in terms of the food — but there was something so comforting, so reassuring about the tone of voice. They would say, ‘This is Susan’s meatloaf; this is how Susan makes her cookies,’ as if saying, ‘We’re on this, don’t worry; we have your back.’ And then they walked you down the recipe.”

In 1921, Betty Crocker was created for a contest by a flour milling company now known as General Mills, and went on to become the most famous fictional cookbook character. For more than a century, she has represented the American housewife. But while the first kitchen bibles were written in a White woman’s voice, today they strive for a more institutional and inclusive tone.

What these books still have in common is that they teach cooking and offer basic information, such as temperature charts, chopping primers, culinary terms and proper techniques.

For instance, the “Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book” offers diagrams, step-by-step photos and specific text that assumes the cook needs even the most basic information.

“For a period of time, we were losing our skills,” Miller said. “There was a generation that learned to cook from Mom; then we skipped a generation, and now so many people are taking their food content from TV shows, from the internet. I want to answer all of their queries and needs on that page, because I don’t want them to have to go in search of another source.”

Chances are that if you are familiar with this category of books, it’s because you have a history with one of them. Maybe you saw it on your grandmother’s kitchen counter or at a friend’s house. You may even have a favorite: probably the one someone first gave you.

For Shapiro, it’s the “Good Housekeeping Cookbook” her mother passed along. For food scholar Anne Amienne, author of “Eat Feed Autumn Winter” (under the pen name Anne Bramley), it’s the “Better Homes & Gardens Cook Book,” which she says became her kitchen companion. The only child of a single, working mom who didn’t have time to cook, she often found herself alone in the kitchen.

Make Spaghetti Pie from "Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book."

“I would just follow this book and would learn things from it. It’s where I learned that I could make a cake that didn’t come from a mix,” she said.

Amienne owns several editions of the book, spanning the 1960s to the ’90s, and she still reaches for them because of the “good, stable recipes that are not fancy — they just work. I always use the pancake, the waffle, the cornbread and the dumplings recipe,” she said.

Recipes that work and stand the test of time are essential, but the editors also continue to work to address changes in American society. To that end, while the cookbooks are still aimed at inexperienced home cooks, they have expanded their scope beyond White women to reach men and people of color, and to reflect the changing demographics of the United States.

“I think appetizers are great metrics for how culture changes,” Amienne said. “In the ’60s you get those pineapple-nut balls, and then in the ’80s and ’90s you see more global things. And even though there was guacamole in the ’60s edition, it had mayonnaise.” By the ’90s, the mayonnaise was edited out and cilantro added.

The latest edition has plenty of recipes adopted and adapted for modern American palates, including fresh iterations of pho, hummus, shakshuka, chilaquiles and bulgogi.

Shapiro thinks that these books “are always going to be important” and that the internet probably will never replace them because each volume is an authoritative source of the everyday basics home cooks need to know.

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And she noted that the lasting power of these books also lies in their emphasis on teaching how to cook economically.

Especially during inflationary times, money can’t be wasted on recipes that fail. Corporate cookbooks have fully staffed test kitchens and big budgets that afford a rigorous testing process — something often missing from random online recipes.

Miller, reflecting on the economic downturn cooks face today, agrees.

“We’ve certainly ridden that wave of the economy since the initiation of the ’30s into the ’40s, all through the wartime, and then into the ’70s, when there was so much penny-pinching going on,” said Miller, who is now the executive food editor of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

“We try to make sure that it will speak to home cooks and help them get through whatever is happening in the economy or in their lives at that moment.”