UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY OF THE MYSTERY CHEF

While going through some cookbooks—mainly rearranging some of them—I came across a first edition of The Mystery Chef Cookbook. I looked through it and wondered – who WAS the mystery chef? Why didn’t I know more about him?

Well, you know, Google is the greatest, fastest resource for information—so I googled, asking “who was the Mystery Chef?” and was richly rewarded.

The Mystery Chef was a man named John MacPherson who hosted a Philadelphia cooking program “The Mystery Chef” on NBC in 1949. It was one of NBCs first daytime programs and the show ran on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from March 1st through June 29.

MacPherson was a former chemical engineer who arrived in the USA from London in 1906. He started on radio in the 1930s when he took over a program for a friend and soon began to share his love of cooking with his listening audience. His “Mystery Chef” radio program ran from 1932 to 1945 – a period of time in which radio recipe programs were in their heyday. (What baffles me is that I never came across the Mystery Chef when I was writing about radio recipe programs…first for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, and more recently, on my Blog.

Radio recipe programs were enormously popular almost from the inception of radio and continued for decades. NOW you have television recipe programs, a forum that started very simply and has grown until we have the Food Network and dozens of television chef celebrities!)

MacPherson’s programs featured recipes for a limited budget, which makes perfectly good sense considering that in the 1930s the USA was in the throes of a Great Depression. He was very popular with thousands of people who requested copies of his no-fuss recipes. In 1934 MacPherson copyrighted his recipe book which was published in 1936 under the title “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cook Book” by Longmans, Green and Co.

We have MacPherson’s own words in the introduction:
He asks “How did I, a man, ever come to take up cooking as a hobby?” (Presumably a period of time when male chefs were rare?) “Well, the answer is—I didn’t take up cooking as hobby. Some would say I drifted into it by accident, though I myself don’t believe such things happen by accident. I am a Scot, and therefore I see design I all things…”

MacPherson writes that he came to America in 1906 from London where he owned a rapidly growing advertising business. He came looking for American business and later decided to stay and learn American methods. He left the London business in the hands of his father who was a director for various large companies. His father often complained that John made money so easily and spent it much too freely; he thought if his son stayed in America it would be an opportunity to learn the real value of money. His father, who had been sending him 100 pounds decided he would change the amount to 2 pounds a week…all of which led to a quick change in John’s way of living. He gave up hotel living and found rooms in a boarding house. “The house was fine” he writes, “but words fail me when I try to tell you how bad the meals were…”

In the boarding house, John joined forces with a man who, like himself, had been used to the best of everything. The two friends left the boarding house, found a furnished apartment – and began to cook some of their own meals.

“At first we broiled chops and steaks,” John recalled, “then I roasted a piece of beef. It was good. I roasted chicken, cooking vegetables as well as potatoes, and we began to feel that were getting somewhere so we invited our first guests to dinner…”

He says if his first guests had said that someday Royalty* would ask to be invited to dine in his home, he would have thought they were crazy—but that is exactly what did happen. Many famous men and women dined as guests in the home of John and his wife.

(*MacPherson does not share with us what members of Royalty dined in his home).

It is John’s opinion that once you treat cooking as an art, it will quickly prove itself to be one of the most fascinating of all arts (to which I agree, wholeheartedly). He says it seems strange that so few people find pleasure in it or know that many of the world’s greatest men have found pleasure and relaxation in the art of excellent cooking.
Among those who have made cooking their hobby, he writes, are Alxandre Dumas, Whistler, King Edward VII…Luther Burbank, the wizard of plant life, George Eastman of Kodak and Enrico Caruso and many others. He says he could almost fill this book with their names – kings, prime ministers, princes, presidents, cardinals, great generals, admirals, scientists, great painters, authors, musicians and sculptors. MacPherson says that the only strange thing about his taking up the art of cooking as a hobby is that he should dare to tread where so many of the world’s greatest men have trod.

“Now among the arts,” writes MacPherson, “cooking is the only one I know that can be immediately handed on to another. You may have never coked anything in your life yet with directions clearly given, you can prepare a delicious meal…”

MacPherson also explains why he began calling himself the mystery chef. “The reason was a good one at the time I decided to us it,” he writes. “My dear mother, who was alive at that time, was horrified when she first heard that I had taken to cooking as a hobby…” (Apparently, mama thought having a son doing a cooking show on the radio was simply not acceptable).

In any event, the Mystery Chef was a popular fixture in Philadelphia for a long time. Other radio recipe personalities were crowding the airwaves as well. (I have written about some of these in my article “When Radio Was King Part 1” posted on June 21, 2009 on my blog and When Radio Was King, Part 2 posted on July 27, 2009). There are also some photographs of the old time radio program cookbooks posted on those two months).

There was, for instance, Aunt Sammy, a fictional character developed by the US Department of Agriculture. Aunt Sammy was so popular that recipe booklets written by Aunt Sammy were published; I have a couple of these in my collection.

If none of these names ring a bell, maybe you have seen cookbooks by Ida Bailey Allen, or Kate Brew Vaughn, both radio recipe ladies who went on to publish a number of cookbooks, or perhaps Mike Roy, who, along with the Mystery Chef, infiltrated this mainly female domain. These ladies (and sometimes gentlemen!) along with many others like them, were pioneers of another sort. They hosted radio recipe programs when radio was in its prime. Perhaps radio recipe programs is not the right term. It’s too limiting. They were friends, like neighbors, who came into your home and shared every day things with you, like recipes, or homemaking, or the trials and tribulations of every day living and making ends meet. For now, there was the Mystery Chef, in Philadelphia.

Some contemporary writers find it hard to understand, from today’s viewpoint, how simple radio recipe host and hostesses could talk about kitchen tips and household cleaning or tell jokes or read recipes on the airwaves. What many fail to understand is that farming was far bigger in the 20s than it is now, nearly 100 years later. There wasn’t any television, only radio, and that radio might have been the housewife’s only connection with the outside world from day to day. One writer asks, “Did the radio-powers-that-were really think women needed so much instruction, so many tips and suggestions to do what they’ve been doing for centuries?” The writer thought not, but I think they did. I collect old recipe boxes and handwritten recipe journals, and you’d be surprised how often a recipe was tidily written, with the note “from the radio” or more simply “radio cake”. Not only that but many of those recipes ended up in cookbooks, sold either for a very small amount, like a dollar, or were given away free and as a collector I can tell you that many of those books turn up all over the USA. And, during the Great Depression, women often had very few resources for obtaining recipes, aside from “on the radio”. It was a very poor time for our country, a time we can’t begin to imagine unless we had mothers or fathers (or grandparents) who went through it.

And, there was the Mystery Chef in Philadelphia. There was, apparently, plenty of room on the airwaves for all the radio recipe personalities. What made the Mystery Chef’s recipes stand out above many of the others?

Possibly the chatty commentary played a part. The recipes, many of which are the Mystery Chef’s own creations, come with very detailed, exact directions.
I’ve been going through the book trying to decide what stands out or might be considered spectacular by 1930s standards. Here is a recipe for Potted Red Cabbage. I’m at a loss as to why it was called Potted Red Cabbage. It wasn’t put into a pot or jar like Liver Pate might be. It seems pretty much like the red cabbage I have cooked a few times (it goes well with pork chops).

POTTED RED CABBAGE

1 red cabbage
2 TBSP bacon fat or drippings
1 medium size onion
2 green apples
1 TBSP lemon juice
1 TBSP sugar
Salt & pepper

Cut cabbage up small (recommend shredding it). Place the two tablespoons of bacon fat or drippings into a pot. Finely chop medium size onion. Put pot on fire and when drippings are hot, add the finely chopped onion. Then put in the finely chopped cabbage and cook 30 minutes without water. Add the apples which have been cut up small and add tablespoon of lemon juice and the tablespoon of sugar. Salt and pepper to taste and allow to cook for 30 minutes more, turning it over occasionally with a spoon. It is then ready to serve.

I can’t help but wonder if the Mystery Chef served his potted red cabbage to royalty. We’ll never know.
As a collectible cookbook, it has some merit; however the paper on which it was printed is the inexpensive type that has discolored. Recipe clippings someone left inside my copy have left deep stains on the pages. I’m not sure how you would categorize “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cook Book” – personally, I will keep it filed with my collection of radio recipe cookbooks.

Actually, for a long time I was under the impression that the Mystery Chef and Mike Roy were one and the same person. My bad! I stand corrected.

Happy cooking and happy cookbook collecting!
–Sandy

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30 responses to “UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY OF THE MYSTERY CHEF

  1. I am going to try this and see if it works. All of my e mail addresses were lost when Karen set up my computer so have to start all over getting them. I sent you a letter and a box of books, cook and other kinds. A lot more to come as I am short on space for them here. I know a lot of them you will like. They will go to a good home.

  2. Betsy, received this message. dont know if you have the same email address but will try sending a message to you with my email addresses in int. I hate when this happens. I keep a paper copy of most of my emails for this very reason. Hope you are doing well. xo Sandy

  3. Nice to see someone talking about the Mystery Chef as that’s the cookbook I learned to cook from! I must have made 80% of the recipes in the book, many of them many times (family favorites), and as far as I can see, there is not a dud in the book. You cannot, by the way, interpret past times with contemporary social attitudes. A ‘home cook’ that was the male of the household was downright subversive until quite recently. (Oddly enough, professional chefs were almost always male.)

    • Thank you for writing! I can only interpret how well received my posts are…by the responses received. Do you have one or two special favorites from his cookbook? – Sandy

  4. Definitely believe that which you stated.Your favorite justification seemed to be on the web the simplest thing to be aware of.I say to you, I definitely get annoyed while people consider worries that they plainly don’t know about.You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people can take a signal.Will probably be back to get more.Thanks

  5. hello!,I like your writing so much! share we communicate more about your article on AOL? I require an expert on this area to solve my problem.May be that’s you! Looking forward to see you.

  6. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand.It seems too complicated and very broad for me.I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  7. Hi my friend! I wish to say that this article is awesome, nice written and include approximately all important infos.I would like to see more posts like this

  8. I’ve just discovered your blog; my husband has a first edition copy of The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook and refers to it often. As a matter of fact, I used it last night to cook up a couple of small salmon steaks we’d been given. After dinner (which was marvelous!), I sat down with the book for a few minutes and became absolutely fascinated by his writing style and the recipes. I’m looking forward to exploring the book in more depth.

    Another commenter wrote that we cannot “interpret past times with contemporary social attitudes”. He/she is correct. In that era, cooking was considered women’s work; men had their own work. I’m certain the Mystery Chef’s mother would have been appalled that her son was interested in “women’s work”… as a hobby! It was not his occupation (chef), it was a hobby. Today, that is perfectly acceptable; back then, not so much. That said, I’m quite sure that, in the end, she was probably quite proud of her son and his accomplishments.

    • Thank you for writing, Ev – I am always delighted to get a postive feedback about one of our forgotten cookbook authors (turns out they are rememembered somewhere by someone….The Mystery Chef said, himself, that his mother was appalled by his cooking career, which is a little baffling when you consider all the famous MALE chefs spanning centuries – but I hope his mother became reconciled to it when he became famous & had a cookbook published. I hope you will read some of the other posts I have written about other “forgotten” chefs. And I agree – those “scratch” recipes all hold up in the kitchen today!

  9. I just found a signed 8×1 glossy photo of the Mystery Chef and also a signed photo of his wife in a box of items I bought at a flea market!

    • What a find! Do you want to share it with me? I dont think you can send it to sandychatter — are you on facebook? You could send it to me there. My FB name is Sandra Lee Smith and in I am the Antelope Valley of California. maybe I can upload it and add it to the article about the Mystery Chef. Thanks for writing, Lynn. – Sandy

  10. I have a authentic the mystery chefs own cook book.

  11. I have a authentic cook book of the mystery chef ! Great book .

  12. Hi Sandy, My Mum was given “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cook Book” as a wedding present in 1947 here in Australia. Our favourite dishes growing up were from his recipes and we still have a few well worn yellowed pages from that original cookbook. I managed to find a later copy for my Mum but several of our favourite recipes were omitted from the later edition. Today is my Mum’s 89th birthday and I just tried to replicate one of them, a cake we called ‘Cinnamon Topping’ – I don’t know if that’s what The Mystery Chef called it – but I’m really hoping that you could share that original recipe with us as we all agreed that the one I just cooked was not ‘like Mother used to make’. Thanks for your interesting post. All the best, Victoria

    • Dear Victoria, As soon as I read your messages I began searching for my copy of the Mystery Chef cookbook–it wasnt where I thought it should be so I extended my search until I was going through all the shelves–and THEN remembered packing a lot of very old cookbooks into boxes and putting them in a closet earlier this year. and I found the book. I THINK this may be the recipe you are searching for:
      cinnamon crumb cake
      1 1/2 cups sifted flour
      1 tsp baking powder
      1/4 tsp salt
      3 TBSP sugar
      2 TBSP butter
      1 egg
      1/4 c. milk (see directions)
      sift together flour, baking powder, salt & sugar. stir to thoroughly mix. add butter and cut into pieces with a knife. then squeeze the lumps into flakes with the fingers and thumbs. when the shortening is flaked and no lumps remain, then lightly rub the mix between the hands keeping the fingers stiff and slightly apart. continue to rub until the butter is completely mixed ito the flour mix. beat well the whole egg. then add to beaten egg sufficient milk tomake one cup. add milk and egg slowly to the flour mix and stir to mix. spead the batter in a layer cake pan and sprinkle the top with the following mixture:

      CRUMB MIXTURE
      4 tbsP GRANULATED SUGAR
      2 TBSP BUTTER (SOLID)
      1 TBSP FLOUR (LEVEL)
      2 TSP CINNAMON
      WORK THESE INGREDIENTS TOGETHER WITH A FORK UNTIL WELL CRUMBLED AND SPREAD. BAKE IN MODERATE HOT OVEN (400 F) 25 MINUTES

      if YOU HAVE ANY TROUBLE WITH THE ABOVE TYPED VERSION, LET ME KNOW AND i WILL SCAN THE PAGE AND EMAIL IT TO YOU. I KNOW WE ARE A DAY APART SO HOPE YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO MAKE THE CAKE FOR YOUR MUM. I AM CROSSING MY FINGERS THAT THIS IS THE RIGHT RECIPE. – HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOUR MOTHER. – SANDY

  13. Thank you so much Sandy!
    Mum was very touched, as I was, by the effort you put into finding this recipe for us and even typing it out. She asked me to say “How very kind of you” and also to thank you for the birthday greetings from across the globe. It certainly is the right recipe and we are so looking forward to tasting it again after all these years. Many thanks from all my family – and especially the ‘Birthday Girl’.
    Victoria
    p.s. By the way, Mum says that in fact she bought The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook herself in the first years of her marriage, so in the late 1940’s.

  14. Hello Victoria,
    Thank you for writing! I thoroughly enjoyed your message, and your mother’s too. I know you are in Australia–but what part? I have had an Aussie penpal since 1965; she lives in western Australia, previously in Perth but now retired in Busselton. Then a British childhood friend of hers immigrated to australia with her hushband and I correspond with her too. Also western Australia. I have had a keen interest in Australia ever since I became penpals with Eileen in 1965. And we MET in 1980 when she & her husband came to the USA–I was living in Florida at the time. It was a wonderful meeting. I have found it really interesting how many people knew about the mystery chef and how timeless his recipes are. Let me know how your cake turns out! And thanks for writing back. A special thank you to the birthday mum as well. – best wishes, Sandy

    • Hi Sandy
      Thanks so much for your response. We live in Sydney but some of Mum’s oldest and dearest friends are from Perth and we’ve both been over there quite a few times. It is, of course, at least as far as you are from the East Coast but without many people coast to coast.
      Since we did indulge in the less-than-fabulous attempt to replicate the Mystery Chef’s Cinnamon Crumb Cake we’ll wait a little while to cook the ‘real thing’. I’ll be sure to let you know when we do:).
      Thanks again
      Victoria

  15. Thanks, Victoria. I’ve always thought of our west coast (I’m in California) as similar to Australia’s west coast (Perth) but you have a lot more open spaces (outback, nullabar) than we do…it’s about 2400 miles from California to my hometown in Ohio–I think coast to coast is about 3000 miles. and while your tropical area is in the northreast, ours is in the southeast. Interesting!
    thanks for writing. I appreciate it. Sandy

  16. Elsin Ann Perry

    Ah, the Mystery Chef’s biscuits! The pie crust! Love this book. I’ve had it for, oh, maybe 50 years. I think my twin sister gave it to me. I’ve enjoyed reading all of the comments here!

    • Which cookbook Elsin? I will look up the recipe – I can always use a new recipe for biscuits!

      • Elsin Ann Perry

        Oh! The “Mystery Chef’s biscuits!” The ingredients are “flaked” with the fingers. Best I’ve ever made. Or…when I think of it…they’re the *only* biscuits I’ve ever made! Ha! I just now realized that! Love that recipe.

  17. Sandy, I inherited a 96 page booklet titled: “Be an artist at the gas range – Successful Recipes By the Mystery Chef.” It was published by Longmans, Green & Co. The forward states that his “visit to your home by radio” and the “little book” are both made possible by “your Gas Company.”

    The booklet promotes modern gas ranges and refrigerators. I’d never heard of gas refrigerators, before. It’s hard to tell if Your Gas Company was trying to convince people to replace wood burning stoves because it touts recent improvements in gas ranges, including thermostats in the oven, but it’s possible.

    I haven’t explored the whole booklet, but I’ve picked through it a bit. It’s fun to see the instructions to “turn oven heat regulator to” and “put the pot over gas flame”. There is even “A gas hot water heater gives you hot water instantly at any time of day or night.” in a tip on washing dishes.

    If you’d be interested in having the booklet, it’s free to a good home. It has obviously been used a lot, but isn’t stained.

    • Sharia, I would love to have the booklet for myself – I could do an update on the Mystery Chef. Makes me wonder if he was a spokesperson for any other appliances…this might be something worthwhile to research. I am going to try to send an email directly to your email address. I would be happy to pay for the postage! what a great little find! Thanks for the offer – Sandy

    • The gas refrigerators are for people who weren’t yet hooked up to electricity, but got gas tanks. You can still find the propane version for RVs.

  18. Found this with a Google search on Mystery Chef. We used to rent a summer home that had his cookbook. I’m pleased to see he was in real life what he claimed in the book, or near enough. I was amused back then by his anonymity because I was the family’s B-team cook (after my mother). (My own kids grew up thinking most dads did the cooking, because that’s the predominant choice on this block!) I liked the recipes and the writing style; I think I’ll go looking in the various old book sales.

    • Hello Andrew – thank you for writing and sharing your mystery chef stories–good one! it may not be too hard to find a decent copy in a used book store or just an online search. I think I paid less an a dollar for my first one. thanks much!

  19. I’m so glad I found this article! We recently moved from CA to the Lone Star State and most of my cookbooks didn’t make the move. This one did. I have a very plain copy with a copyright date of 1945. I couldn’t remember if I had picked it up at the library used book sale during college or gotten it from my grandmother. After perusing I found a hand-written recipe for “Harvard Beets” that was clearly in my grandmother’s writing. Perhaps it was from the radio show? :) My grandparents married right after WWII ended so it would make sense that she would get this cookbook for setting up her house. ;). Such a fun discovery!

    • Hi, Marisa – I’m so glad you found your grandmother’s recipe for Harvard Beets in her handwriting–it could very well have come from the radio show & then perhaps she bought the cookbook.
      I hope your cookbooks didn’t get LOST in the move!!! Please tell me that someone is keeping them for you. I HAVE lost boxes of cookbooks–most recently was a box of cookbooks I bought at a bookstore in downtown Cincinnati (my hometown) – I couldn’t get another box of books on the plane so my nephew promised to mail them to me. he did but the books didn’t make it. One book turned up at the post office in Bell, California, and was forwarded to me because I had an address label inside the book (it was the one I was reading on my flight TO Cincinnati. the books never turned up. I was sick, sick, sick about it for months. moral of the story is, take address labels with you where ever you go where you might be buying cookbooks and put the labels inside them regardless of how you are transporting them home. Thanks for writing! – Sandy

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