In 1950, perhaps noting the huge success of the Better Home & Garden Cookbook which was first published in 1930, General Mills introduced Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, also in a ring binder. However, unlike BH&G, the Betty Crocker cook book made no effort to encourage housewives to add their own recipes and didn’t include blank pages with which to add recipes. But, it WAS a picture cookbook, often providing step by step photographs or graphic art illustrations.
Before the first red-and-white cookbook was released to the public, however, employees of General Mills received a special limited edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, with a presentation line on which an employee’s name was written, and below it was printed “With the Warm Good Wishes of General Mills …. And signed underneath that was the handwritten name “Betty Crocker.”
Some years ago, my supervisor at the office where I worked – who had become a good friend as well – offered this special limited edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book to me; the person it had been presented to had been her MOTHER although it was her FATHER, who had worked at General Mills. I happily accepted the book which came in a cardboard case of the same dark blue as the book itself. Unlike the first edition released to the public, the limited edition had a red, yellow design on a blue denim-like background—kind of a Pennsylvania Dutch motif. The book has been kept in the case for over fifty years so, needless to say, it’s in very good condition.
The binder edition of the Betty Crocker picture cook book that was released also in 1950 has a red background and a white design (actually, the design is identical to the limited edition except the limited edition has a red and yellow Dutch design while the binder cookbooks has a white design on a red background (I think I have seen this design on quilts). I have four of these first edition cookbooks; none have held up very well; the covers have deteriorated over the years and I discovered that some of the first pages are missing in almost all of the books. I think only one of them is completely intact. Because of the way the books are put together—in a binder which can be opened and closed – it was easy for the holes to wear through the paper and perhaps pages were simply lost.
It’s easy to see why they are so desirable amongst collectors; the graphics are especially charming and Betty Crocker begins the cookbook with the assumption that her readers don’t know a thing about cooking. We learn how to measure, we learn the meaning of terms; there are explanations of herbs and a dictionary of special and foreign terms.
The original Big Red Cookbook was immediately popular with a postwar audience seeking basic cooking advice and simple recipes that took advantage of several then-new convenience products.
After selling more than 3,500,000 copies of the first Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (and many printings), a new and revised edition was published in 1956. I believe this is the book with a cover depicting a pie, roast turkey, corn on the cob and cookies. I am unable to find a copyright date in either of my copies of this edition, which was published by McGraw-Hill.
In 1961, Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book was published and this is the edition I first owned but now my memory has suffered a lapse. I have believed for years that this book was a wedding present – but I got married in December of 1958 – so how could this be? I can’t explain it. The 1956 edition doesn’t look as familiar to me as the 1961 one does.
In any case, the 1961 edition had undergone a complete facelift. Many of the cookie recipes in this cookbook are the very same ones I began experimenting with as a young bride. It was this 1961 edition with its paintbrush cookies that I began making for gift-giving. I remember making salted peanut crisps, Jumbles, Kaleidoscope Cookies and Brownies. From the chapter for Desserts I learned how to make tapioca cream and old fashioned rice pudding, old fashioned bread pudding and Lemon Cake Pudding. There was also a Hot Fudge Pudding and Pineapple Upside-Down Cake that I made frequently for my family – by then a husband and one son. And once, I tried my hand at the Baked Alaska. It didn’t turn out right and I wrote to Betty Crocker to complain. General Mills sent me a response that is buried in my cake file somewhere—I never tried to make Baked Alaska again, though.
Instruction was and still is the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book’s strongest feature, and any beginner cook can benefit from the many how-to features. These include step-by-step directions with photos, tips for kitchen timesaving, and troubleshooting advice. The book also includes several comprehensive glossaries (those on cooking terms and ingredients are particularly good).
So, what cookbook was a wedding present in 1958? I don’t know. My emotional attachment is to the 1961 edition. And, I hadn’t started buying cookbooks in 1958 – or 1961. That didn’t start to happen until 1965 when I began searching for club and church cookbooks.
I guess I’ll never know! Meantime I have 8 of the ring binder cookbooks, dating from 1950 to 1961! (*I was non-plussed, as I googled the cookbooks trying to pin down publishing dates, how MUCH some of those old cookbooks are selling for—five hundred dollars? You have to be kidding!)
Happy cooking – and happy cookbook collecting—and may all your cookbooks be worth a fortune!
Sandra Lee Smith