Allison Robicelli will be taking on a different vintage cookbook every other week—this week is her first.
“Don’t you dress, make-up and hair-do to please a man? Cook with the same idea in mind; season with A-1 Sauce, and hear some rave reviews of your home cooking!” —1941's “Cooking for a Man” by A-1 Steak Sauce
Once upon a time, a woman read that statement with a completely straight face and nodded in agreement. I read that statement and slapped my husband over the head with the book. The poor bastard didn’t do anything, and he’s a feminist, but I believe I have a biological reflex built in that assists me in fighting the patriarchy. I want to take this book and walk down the street slapping all the men with it, to avenge the lost brain cells of all the women who had to live by—or even listen to—this claptrap.
But this isn’t meant to be a series about slapping! It’s about trying. It’s about cooking for others, discovering how we cared for each other through history, and learning how we communicated through food, because that’s what cookbooks used to be for. It’s also apparently a column about anger management, because I sincerely underestimated my propensity for rage in the face of abject idiocy when my editor and I came up with this idea.
Cookbooks weren’t always coffee table tomes full of our generation’s most socially acceptable form of erotica photography. They weren’t celebrity vanity projects that remind you that you’ll never get to a point where you consider half an avocado a sinful indulgence and thus your life as a whole is essentially garbage. They weren’t self-indulgent recipe-dotted memoirs filled with dirty words, like my Piglet-nominated cookbook Robicelli’s: A Love Story, With Cupcakes (available where fine books are sold). Cookbooks were nearly always about cooking with the intention of pleasing someone: The man in your life, your fussy children, your friends and neighbors at cocktail parties. They were almost never about mug cakes or soup for one, and when they did wade into the darkness of the lonely hearts club, they were passive aggressive enough to remind you that unless you eventually learned to wow the masses with canapés and meat jelly, your ass was dying alone.
Cookbooks were nearly always about cooking with the intention of pleasing someone.
Let’s kick this off by cooking for the most helpless of creatures: Men. There is no shortage of vintage cookbooks entitled “Cooking for a Man,” perhaps because if us ladyfolk don’t cook for them, they’ll all die. I’m madly in love with my husband, and have managed to keep him alive for the past 11 years, but have I really been pleasing him? It’s about time I found out.
“Matt, how am I doing as a wife? On a scale from one to ten.”
“I’m not answering that question.”
“It’s for work.”
“It’s entrapment and I’m not an idiot. You just slapped me with a book 30 seconds ago for no reason.”
“Shut up and give me a number.”
“Okay, then 8—because you hit me with the book.”
“Is any part of that 2-point deduction due to the lack of A-1 Steak Sauce in our marriage?”
“Is Food52 going to make you do weird shit?”
“No, they’re going to make me prepare a jellied veal loaf with hard boiled eggs for you so I can be a better wife.”
“Now you’re a 2.”
Jellied veal loaf was clearly out, so I dig deeper and find a recipe that sounds très romantique: Salmon Casserole a la Heublein. A little research tells me that Heublein was a restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut, that evolved into a liquor distribution company, and then survived prohibition by acquiring the American rights to A-1 from Great Britain. I found a menu from the Heublien, and hot damn was it something! Oysters on the half shell, Beluga caviar, sweetbreads under glass Veronique (I have no idea what that one is but it sounds fancy!).
You wouldn’t just please a man with this sort of stuff—you could please all the men. We're talking the casserole you put on the front stoop to attract the mailman, the garbage man, the milk man. Ladies who are “in the know” understand the wafting scent of salmon and A-1 Brand Steak Sauce is a surefire sex lure.
Yes, the mixture looks like regurgitated cat food. Yes, it has the texture of runoff from an industrialized slaugher house. But if you look past those things, it has extraordinary and subtle zest with sophisticated international flair! I put on a pair of latex gloves and go hard on smooshing everything together, because I’m thinking the key to this dish is knowing your man is incredibly tired after a long day at the office, and it helps to have his food predigested. Your extra effort will allow him to concentrate less on smashing his teeth together to pulverize his dinner, and more on the foot rub you’re giving him. (There are no notes on slathering his feet with A-1, but I'm guessing that’s a given.)
You wouldn’t just please a man with this sort of stuff—you could please all the men.
As the casserole bakes, my house begins to fill with the aroma of toasted canned fish. Perhaps this was irresistibly erotic in the 40s? I place it on the table, touch up my hair and makeup, and arrange myself sexily on the couch, hoping that he’s turned on by the A-1 stains I’ve gotten on my bra. That’s right, my bra. I went all in on this.
Half an hour later I hear keys at the front door and arch my back for maximum impact. (Important note for those of you who are going to try this at home: Find out what time he’ll be home before you do this, because being sexy on the couch for 30 minutes is hard and will give you many cramps).
“Oh, goddamnit—what are you doing?”
“I’m pleasing you for work.”
“I hate Food52. Hate them. You put that in the article so they can read it.”
“This is important historical research! It’s not too bad. This is the sort of stuff your grandpa liked.”
“You are terrible at this.”
Verdict: Matt made me put this directly into a garbage bag, and then put that bag into two more garbage bags. I then had to take it directly outside, and was told that I could sleep on the couch and under no circumstances am I allowed to do this again. So next time we’re just not going to tell him!
Up next: Cooking for children with Betty Crocker’s 1957 Cooking for Boys & Girls. I will not rest until every member of my family hates me.