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!