Come December, some kids get visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads; others ask Santa for skateboards or cell phone plans. Not me. Ever since I was a girl, I’ve been able to pinpoint the source of my Christmas fantasies to page 65 of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book: a colossal, psychedelic A-frame gingerbreadhouse topped with a shake roof of crisp-edged cookies and pink wafer shutters and a minty coconut lawn bordered by a stone wall sculpted from melty mints. Even now, when my mother pulls the slim red, spiral bound volume from her shelf and dog-ears recipes for holiday baking, my hunger reawakens. Who needs reindeer and tinsel when you have lebkuchen and peppermint meltaways?
It might seem odd, in this age of culinary enlightenment, of artisanal flour and foie gras doughnuts to hear a grown woman wax rhapsodic about a cookbook “by” Betty Crocker - a corporate figment who has become an icon of cake mixes and mid-century domestic dross. But not if you’ve ever taken one nibble of a warm ginger crinkle, with their spicy molasses kick and sparkly sugar top. Crocker’s Cooky Book was first published in 1963, and while it contained recipes for every season, it quickly became - and remains - a Christmas icon. Because while Betty may be fictional, her recipes are true: triple-tested, from-scratch, international classics made from accessible ingredients and simple enough for a parent and child to cook together that nonetheless look mighty impressive piled on a holiday platter. Eventually, the Cooky Book became a pop culture heirloom, passed from generation to generation, its well-loved pages smeared and taped together. Original copies sell on eBay for $50 and in New York, vintage cookbook dealer Bonnie Slotnik has trouble keeping it in stock. Indeed, before Betty Crocker reissued it in 2002, the Cooky Book had become the most requested of all the company’s out-of-print titles.
My mother was a 21-year old newlywed from Connecticut transplanted to cold, crumbling Cleveland when she received her first copy of the Cooky Book, and by then poor Betty was already slightly pass’ a reliable, if fusty, relic of an older sister’s generation. (“This was the late 60s after all,” my mother said recently, by way of explanation.) Still, she found herself bewitched by the bright, oversized illustrations, with their cheerful tableaus of after school snacks and sprawling company buffets. And she couldn’t argue with the results: never fail sweets, in every size and shape and color, easy, and cheap. By the time I entered the picture, a decade later, her copy had become a cherished kitchen staple. Along with gingerbread men and painted sugar cutouts, we made Betty’s candy cane cookies every Christmas of my early life. I remember rolling each snake of dough, twisting and bending them together, watching my mother’s hands move so surely and smoothly and wishing my own would do the same. In 1999, not long after I got my own apartment, I bought a copy of the Cooky Book at a thrift shop, and started baking peanut kisses and Mexican wedding cookies for friends and classmates. (A disclaimer: embracing the Cooky Book means becoming an evangelist for shortening: you will be buying Crisco. But label-readers can relax: you can now find a few transfat-free versions.) Unsurprisingly, I noticed my company was suddenly very much in demand.
Then, a few winters ago, December came and my mother went to her bookshelf and found the slender volume mysteriously missing from its perch. There were tears. (We suspected a sinister elf, or maybe, a competitive aunt). But the loss at least solved the dilemma of what to put under her tree: a brand-new used copy, wrapped in plaid paper and ribbons. It was all there: the foolproof cooky primer, the tea cakes, the lunchbox bars, the ecstatic Technicolor photographs - if not the stains. Just give us another 30 years.
Photos courtesy of Betty Crocker Editors and Eric Mulvany from Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, published by Betty Crocker.