#121 | Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book
Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book 17th Edition
By Jan Miller & Jessica Christensen
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Jan Miller: I'm Jan Miller, the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens 17th edition of the New Cook Book.
Suzy Chase: I don't think there's another cookbook that's a good friend in the kitchen like the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. They're all more like a collection of recipes.
With the iconic red and white plaid, you don't have to put a title on the cover of that cookbook, people already know. Was the cover always red and white plaid?
Jan Miller: No, it wasn't. In fact, the very first book that was done in 1930, was sort of a greenish and had had a black square on it. It was not very cookbook looking and it started as a premium for the magazine. So if you ordered a subscription of the magazine, then you got this wonderful little collection of recipes from the Better Homes and Gardens Tasting Test Kitchen.
Suzy Chase: Was it a pamphlet? Or was it a regular size?
Jan Miller: They did do a quick little bind up of just a few recipes that was a pamphlet that you could get for like 10 cents, and then it did grow. I think they had great response from that, so the very first book that they did was, like I said in 1930, and it was a ring bound right away and it was a full size book.
And it's interesting, I love the editor's letter from that first book because she's really talking to the woman of the home, I mean, she's saying "you are an efficient, home business woman", and so the reason that we created this book in this format is if you stand that book up on its spine and you see all the tabbed chapter openers, those little tabs, then that was like their filing cabinet. And so they encouraged women to punch holes in other recipes and to add to this book, and that was the reason, initially, for the ring bound.
Suzy Chase: Oh! I thought it was so it would lay flat on your counter?
Jan Miller: It absolutely did that as well and that was the other reason that women loved it, but it was two-fold, it really was. They wanted it to be very functional and, honestly, as the years went on and the book just gained in popularity, the magazine did start to have little perforated lines to indicate that you should cut your recipes out of your magazine and punch them and put them in your cookbook.
Suzy Chase: I love the tab dividers. How come you got rid of those?
Jan Miller: Well, this 17th edition really took an entirely right turn. I think what people maybe don't think about this book is every time we redo a new edition, we're trying to make sure that we're speaking to the home cook today.
And it's a book that you receive, maybe when you have a life change or you're getting your first home, you're leaving the house, you know, just to get your own first apartment. There's a lot of times that this is definitely a gift purchase, and so, we know that oftentimes it's a younger cook who uses this book, so we do a lot of research and talking to young cooks of the day, as we're trying to update the edition. And I had so much feedback from some of the folks. We do informal and then we also do very formal research as well, so you get quantifiable research but I also love the gut and I love research that you get and I love just talking to other people as well.
But they really wanted a book that felt like they could leave it on their counter, that would really line up nicely with all their other cookbooks on their shelf, and the format just started to take on a life of its own. They wanted this heavy book that felt a little bit more modern. And so that was the reason for going to the hardcover this year, as opposed to the ring binding.
Suzy Chase: In the 17th edition, you've concentrated on what we're eating today. What are some of the modern trends that are included?
Jan Miller: Oh my goodness. We really picked up on ... there's a lot of bowls. You know, [now that 00:04:46] we're eating so many things in a bowl. There's grain bowls, there's noodle bowls, there's a smoothie bowl. We've included some of the boards. My Instagram is so full of all the boards, food on a board, and so we did a few of those.
I would say the section that probably got the most love and the most updating was our meatless section. I mean there's so many great things out there, not just plant-based, but some of the other alternatives for protein and so, that just got an overhaul and a refresh.
Oh, for the first time, we also included fermenting in this book. And so how to make kombucha and kimchi, and there's a really yummy fermented whole grain mustard in the book.
Those are the biggies. I would say also more global flavors. All the big three: the Latin flavors, and Asian flavors and Italian flavors, those feel so assimilated into our regular eating. But more Middle Eastern flavors and some Moroccan, Indian influences now are starting to creep into the book, which is how it should be. We really have a greater demand for more interesting flavors, as we're eating out too, so people are wanting to definitely bring those into their home.
Suzy Chase: This has been the go to cookbook for more than 80 years, and a crazy fact is that the one millionth copy of the New Cook Book was sold in 1938. That boggles my mind.
Jan Miller: Isn't that amazing?
Suzy Chase: That's crazy!
Jan Miller: I mean, I think we're somewhere in the 37 to 38 million now.
It started, like you said at the start of this podcast, it really has an emotional tie to it. Mothers love this, they write in the pages, they send it, they pass it on to their daughters. Or grandmothers to their daughters, on to their granddaughters. There's just so much love that is associated with the book, that it just kept it going.
We get letters even from people that, if they've been in, I don't care if it's been the hurricanes or just a personal loss of the book, so many people want their edition replaced because there is that tie. So it's got a great story and a great history.
Suzy Chase: One thing that I read was Better Homes and Gardens really pioneered exact measurements. None of the "little bit of this" or "little bit of that" or "bake until done". I love that one, "bake until done". Okay.
Was this because housewives were fed up with vague measurements?
Jan Miller: Yes. I think housewives ... once again, they were really trying to speak to the woman who was in charge of her house. I mean, this was part of her just being on top of things and so, yes, exact measurements were so important to help make sure that she didn't have any more, you know, fails.
I will tell you though, still in the first edition, there is a lot of "bake until done", and there was a level of knowledge that the home cook just knew then. We can't say that now. We can't say-
Suzy Chase: No. Uh uh.
Jan Miller: You have to practically say: take it out of the oven, put it on the counter, take the lid off, take the temperature-
Suzy Chase: Turn your timer off.
Jan Miller: Yeah. There's so much now that we have to tell.
But exact measurements, and they did speak to that in that first editor's letter too, saying you can follow directions for mixing and handling and time and temperature, and we will also give you all exact measurements. And that was part of the test kitchen that started that.
It used to be called the Better Homes and Gardens Tasting Test Kitchen, and that drove a lot of that language in the book.
Suzy Chase: Let's go over some highlights of the different eras.
Jan Miller: Okay. [inaudible 00:09:03].
Suzy Chase: What was the original publishing date of the very first cookbook?
Jan Miller: 1930.
Suzy Chase: And then first in the '40s, during the wartime era, there was rationing. How was this dealt with in the cookbook?
Jan Miller: You know, it's interesting, as I can look through the collection of the books, you can see where they did different printings of the editions. Even, they would keep the guts of the book the same, but then they would add in certain things. And some of them were free little standing pamphlets that were tucked in. And so, you could see where they did things on victory gardens, at the end of the war, and some rationing pamphlets throughout. So, I would say, all of the recipes were always very efficient and used ingredients that were appropriate for the day, and so you see that reflected in just the general collection in the books back in that day.
There's a lot of dates. There's a lot of nut breads in the dessert times. You can see there's a very practical nature about the meat recipes. Nothing fancy or over the top. And you start to then see some of that change as you get into the '50s. And what I loved about the '50s, we started to add grilling in 1950, because that started. The backyard barbecue.
So it is fun to flip through all of the editions and see. It's definitely a reflection of what was happening in our homes.
Suzy Chase: In fact, during the '50s, Better Homes and Gardens coined the term "tossed salad". I thought that was funny.
Jan Miller: Yeah. Yeah.
You know, it's funny, we talk about that and, I will be honest with you, I'm not sure we have had good luck going back to get the full story on the background of that. We see it in our pubs but I wish there was more detail there. And there just hasn't been. I wish I could find it.
Suzy Chase: On to the '60s, where housewives started getting interested in foreign food and gourmet meals. Also, the cook at the table phase and fondue were two biggies.
Jan Miller: Oh my gosh.
Suzy Chase: Describe the at the table phase.
Jan Miller: At the table, that was a big deal. That's the thing that I love about this at the table phase, it's reflected in the pages of some of those cookbooks and the tables are so done, you know with the different serving pieces. Fondue, you know what you're expecting, with the forks and the trays of the things to dip and everybody's around the table. But, I'm trying to think of what examples of the some of the food, but it just is amazing at the level of serving pieces.
And the themes that we started to see, I think that's when some of that became very prominent in our "entertaining". You saw tropical themes, you saw Spanish themes. It's very fun and some of the photos, I feel like, look like illustrations from that time period and I just love them.
Suzy Chase: I think of Doris Day when I think of that time.
Jan Miller: Love that, me too.
Suzy Chase: I love her.
Jan Miller: Me too.
Suzy Chase: So, in the '70s, women started going to work because of inflation, so the cookbook introduced microwave meals. Talk a little bit about that.
Jan Miller: Yeah. Well, that was the big deal. That appliance was huge and so women wanted to know how to use it. And I think, when microwaves came into our world, they just thought that we were going to use that as our meal prep for the entire meal, and so they needed more guidance on how to not ruin a good piece of meat if you were going to do it in the microwave.
So the testing in our test kitchen really was pretty extensive then, in that you had to have a variety of microwaves, a variety that had different watt levels so that you could give your home cook time ranges depending on what the wattage of their microwave was. And so baking was a big deal. There were so many things that came out to help people try to brown their baked goods in the microwave, so there was a lot of testing around that.
Just a lot of guidance was required because there's good reason why now we just use our microwaves to pop popcorn and boil water and maybe bake a baked potato -
Suzy Chase: Totally!
Jan Miller: Because it just was not the best food. And again, so much help needed to navigate that. And we did whole cookbooks on that as well, so yes, certainly it was part of the New Cook Book, yeah.
Suzy Chase: I remember in the '70s, when my mom divorced my dad, finally, and my dad had this bachelor pad and he had this brand new white microwave and I was mesmerized by it.
And he was like, "Suzy, how do I work this?"
I was like, "I don't know."
We didn't even know how to work it. Ah, the good old days.
Jan Miller: But, it was the rage and everyone had one.
Suzy Chase: It was.
So onto the '80s, there was increased interest in low fat meals and nutrition information was added. And also, my favorite, table setting information was dropped. How come?
Jan Miller: Oh my gosh. You know what? You'll be happy to know that that was added back in not long after that.
Suzy Chase: Oh good.
Jan Miller: And we did include it in the new edition too because so many people want to know how to set their table. It's important.
Suzy Chase: It is. It is.
Jan Miller: The '80s were ... we definitely felt like we needed to look at our cholesterol and our sodium and fat. You know, fat was the big, bad nutrient. So people wanted to know what was in their food, and I would say the recipes weren't severely restricting of those nutrients, but as time went on, they got more so. I would say in our ... Oh my gosh. By 1996, that edition was very healthful and there was a section on health, and the recipes were ...
Oh my gosh, well, I worked on the 12th edition as a very young editor here at Better Homes and Gardens, and so that was the edition that followed right after that '96 edition. And I remember us all sitting around taste panel saying, oh my gosh, we've got to put the flavor back in some of these recipes. Where is the butter? Where is the salt? Where is the pepper? We're going to be okay here, we've got to do something.
And so, I would say that was the mark of just sort of walking away from that a little bit, but not entirely because to eat a healthful meal, makes everyone feel good. You know, moms feel good about putting wholesome nutritional food on the table and there's so many ways to accomplish that, and so I think, through the years, even from that point, when I kid about adding more flavor, we try to be very conscious about good, wholesome food and know that there are times that we want to splurge too and so there's certainly a lot of splurge recipes in the book as well.
Suzy Chase: So the '90s, you added preparation times to keep up with the fast-paced lifestyle. How did you figure out you needed to add that?
Jan Miller: You know, it's funny, we also added numbered steps for recipes. You just don't think about those things until you start to compare. But I think we just knew, and Meredith, we've always done a lot of research and known ... we've had a lot of conversations with our readers over the years and that just became so important to them. There was only so much time that they felt like they wanted to spend in their kitchen on a weekday, especially as both parents were working. And it got to the point where we knew that that's sort of how they started to filter some of their recipes of what they were willing to cook through the week.
And so it needed to be included and it needed to be at the top of the recipe so that they could see it and use it as a "Mmm, I'm not going to do that one tonight, but maybe that's a weekend recipe."
Suzy Chase: Now, for the first time, the 17th edition has a photo with every recipe and helpful guidance. Talk a little bit about that.
Jan Miller: Think about how our world has changed, just in terms of how we look at recipes. There's so much. We, admittedly, do a lot online. Instagram is such a visual social media outlet. But we knew that the formatting from the past years, home cooks when they had more skill, as well, they didn't necessarily need a photo of a finished food and they certainly didn't need as much step-by-step photography and so, as the years have gone on, we just know that step-by-step photography was needed in places where you just needed an extra helping hand.
And so, there are so many more how to images that have language about how to work through that step if it's really a key step. We tried not to put things in that were how to that just were how to images to fill a page because we wanted people to see what they really needed to see, when they needed to see it.
But we did commit to a finished food image with every recipe, and that is no easy task in this book.
Suzy Chase: I can't imagine. How long did it take to put this book together with all of that?
Jan Miller: It really is a year of solid work. And I know that our edit team spent probably more days down in our studio than they did at their desks, so it was a process. But, you know, it's an awesome process because it's another chance to look at the recipe, because we test it up in our test kitchen and then the editors that are working on the project, they also are down on the photo shoot too, and so it's kind of fun to see, to get the reviews even from the studio staff, because we all tasted it, tasted things at the taste panel, we knew some of the things that we loved that were some favorites and it's good to hear all the love come back upstairs too, when they're eating. Because we prepare the food like it is written for camera.
We do some things like maybe take back the amount of sauce, so you can see through, so that you see ingredients very well, but for the most part, our food stylists are preparing the food according to the recipe.
Suzy Chase: So you work out of an incredible test kitchen in Des Moines, Iowa. Give us a little background on the test kitchen, or as they used to call it the Taste Testing Kitchen.
Jan Miller: Yes, well that really has evolved as well. But I believe that we are the first test kitchen of this level and the length of longevity, I would say maybe we are the longest living test kitchen. But that started as just a way to give another stamp of endorsement. I think women, again, were needing a little bit more guidance and they wanted to make sure that they knew that they could trust a recipe.
It's funny, some of the first images from our test kitchen were illustrated. I mean, back in 1926, I think, the first images that they put in the printed magazine, to show off the test kitchen, they were illustrated and it was just a small little crew of maybe three to four home economists, but they worked so hard, those women.
Our Meredith Campus here in Des Moines, there's two buildings and the older building originally housed the test kitchen. And they would talk about how some of the executives would smell what was happening down in the test kitchen and take a wander down their way. There's so many wonderful little stories.
But it has, of course, evolved and grown and now there's eight kitchens for, I think we have six full-time home economists and they all test about five recipes a day. We have people who shop so that time isn't taken up by them being out and about shopping, and they can test more recipes. We have a multiple array of appliances that the home cook would have in their own home, so that we know that we're not testing on anything that's too high end or not going to be a similar experience to the home cook. It has to be that we're using appliances that they would use and brands of pretty much everything.
And I love that we're in Des Moines, Iowa because I think even when we're testing recipes for ingredients, we're a good example of what you can find across the US, in terms of ingredients.
So that kitchen is a key to our success here, definitely, and we couldn't do this book without them, for sure.
Suzy Chase: If you're including classic recipes in cookbooks, do you still have to run through those in the test kitchen?
Jan Miller: Yeah. We do. We do. Because it's funny how, our expectations maybe change of what that should be. So nothing is, I guess, assumed that it's going to be good enough for that new edition. There's times where we have put just a good old basic chocolate cake ... I mean, there was one day we had four chocolate cakes side by side, because I don't think you really sometimes know the nuances of the difference between a recipe until you taste them side by side, so we did quite a testing to make sure that we had the best chocolate cake. It was not painful to do, but it's just what makes the book relevant every year.
I mean, the best pumpkin pie. We've sometimes messed with our chocolate chip cookie formula, even to help with longer storage. So there's things that I think every classic recipe is up for a scrutinization, every time we do a new edition.
Suzy Chase: Have you seen on Etsy where people are patching and renovating their five ring binder Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book to make journals?
Jan Miller: Oh my gosh, I haven't but now I want to.
Suzy Chase: Oh my goodness! I went down the rabbit hole with that the other day on Pinterest. It's darling. It's so cute, you've got to look it up.
Jan Miller: Oh my gosh, I will.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Jan Miller: Oh my goodness. I think ... We did, this is going to sound crazy-
Suzy Chase: No, it's not.
Jan Miller: Maybe. It might.
We did this incredible fattoush salad. Doesn't that sound nuts? It sounds nuts maybe. There's just something about the fresh and the ... Oh my god, I just loved that thing.
Suzy Chase: Describe the fattoush salad.
Jan Miller: Let me find it for you. Well, I think probably what gets me is ... well of course, there's a little pita bread in it, and so it's like a twist on a panzanella. But it's got a little pita bread in it and then the dressing is olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, and we did include a little bit of sumac, which was really yummy because it kicked the lemon up a little bit. And it had torn romaine, and cucumbers, and radishes, and green onions, and then ricotta salata cheese. It was delicious.
I don't know. I just love that. And then the herbs were mint and parsley, and I just love that mint parsley thing. I don't know what it is.
Suzy Chase: That's perfect.
Jan Miller: But that was delicious.
And then I would end on a double chocolate cake, because if you ever ask me, I'm always an eat dessert first kind of person and I just could never turn down a great piece of moist chocolate cake. So, if that doesn't tell you you can trust the chocolate cake in this book, I don't know what does.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook on the web and on social media?
Jan Miller: So if you just go to bhg.com and search red plaid, there is a link to purchase the cookbook. Otherwise, it's available anywhere ... this is our standard, anywhere quality books are sold, so you should find it on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, at Costco and big box stores, and Walmart. I think everybody's carrying it this holiday.
Suzy Chase: Who knew a cookbook born in the lean and difficult years of the Depression would become America's favorite cookbook.
Thank you Jan for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Jan Miller: Thank you for having me. I so enjoyed the conversation.
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