“COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS – IN SEARCH OF BETTY WASON”
She first came to my attention with the acquisition of her book, “COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS,” published in 1962. I was writing “PEEK INTO THE PAST” at the time for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange.
“This is the first and only book,” claim Doubleday, the publishers, “which traces the history of cookery from the days of primitive man up to the present day of the Four Seasons Restaurant and gourmet supermarkets…”
Since I now have nearly two bookcases full of books on the history of food – I wondered – is it true? Was Betty Wason first to explore, in depth, this fascinating subject? I’ve been going through my collection, checking publication dates – and so far haven’t found any that precede 1962. Interesting! (I’d venture to guess that, since Betty Wason’s book was published, many other food history books have been published—I have quite a few of my own.)
“COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS” is packed with culinary history. It opens with a description of feasts in ancient Greece – inspired, no doubt, by Betty’s visit there during World War II. She covers the subject of cookery in the Far and Near East, all of Europe, and the New World. The last four chapters of this book are devoted to the United States—from Thomas Jefferson to the Harvey Girls and Betty Crocker. (It seems to me that almost all American food historians have had something to say about Betty Crocker!).
But “COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS” is only one of more than two dozen books written by Elizabeth Wason Hall, whose pen name was Betty Wason. Her writing versatility stretched from cookbooks to a book about the Greek resistance during World War II, to a book published in 1999 about macular degeneration. If my calculations are correct, Betty Wason has been publishing books for 56 years!
Betty Wason was born and grew up in Delphi, Indiana, in 1912 where she studied classical violin and painting. She eventually enrolled in Purdue University hoping to become a dress designer. Wason graduated from Purdue in 1933 with the Great Depression in full swing. Work was not easy to come by and she settled on a job selling yard goods in the basement of Ayres Department Store in Indianapolis. giving cooking lessons for a utility company, and then working as an itinerant cooking teacher throughout Kentucky towns. Later, her first experience broadcasting was gained conducting a radio program for women in Lexington, Kentucky. Eventually, she moved to New York, where she became an assistant food editor at McCall’s Magazine.
“I was young and wanted to see the world. I had no money, so I decided I would become a journalist,” she said in a 1997 interview
“Long before I was old enough to handle saucepans,” Betty writes in “COOKING WITHOUT CANS”, “I used to stand around in fascination watching Mother tossing up delectable dishes and begged to be allowed to try my hand at the game. My love of cooking is surpassed only by my love of eating. And so my quest became one of finding new and exotic blends of flavor, and on bright Sunday afternoons when other girls were probably playing with paper dolls, I plunged into old cook books and read of strange combinations of foods, and revelled (sic) in imagined taste thrills.”
Betty’s first trip to Europe was as a free-lance journalist with credentials from Transradio Press; her first connection with Columbia Broadcasting System, at the time of the Nazi invasion of Norway, was as its staff correspondent in Stockholm. Later, she became correspondent as well to NEWSWEEK.
Between trips to Europe, Betty joined the research staff of the New York Newspaper PM, which was then in organization, and she planned the paper’s food page. Returning to Europe in the winter of 1939, she abandoned cooking and recipes to cover a long series of War fronts, from Finland and Norway down to the Balkans. “Betty Wason first became known to many Americans as the CBS correspondent, who always managed to be on the spot when headlines were being made in World War II,” claims one of her publishers.
Between the summers of 1938 and 1941, Betty Wason covered virtually every country in Europe, managing to be on hand where ever major journalistic events “broke”: Czechoslovakia during the Munich crisis and after, Vienna for the first post Munich conference; Hungary during the occupation of Slovakia; Rumania at the time of Codreanu’s execution; Yugoslavia during its Orthodox Christmas celebrations; Rome during Chamberlain’s visit to Mussolini; Paris during the end of the Spanish Civil War; Italy during the early part of the Second World War…..and the list goes on and on. (from the dust jacket of “Miracle In Hellas”). Betty Wason was on her way to Norway after the Nazi invasion began. Her cross into Norway was anything but routine. She eluded border guards and hitched a ride in a truck across the mountainous terrain where she hid in the woods to wait out an air raid. She interviewed numerous wounded British soldiers and found out just how poorly the Allied defense had gone. She returned to Stockholm and her broadcast by hitching rides and walking. But none of that mattered to the bosses at CBS. Despite her daring hard work they still asked her to find a man to read her copy. She left Sweden in the spring of 1940 in search of the next big story (and) she soon ended up in Greece after short stops in the Balkans and Istanbul. With an expected Italian invasion of Greece on the horizon, CBS again hired Wason. She also started stringing for Newsweek during this time. In October, 1940, when Italian forces began to move into Greece, a cable came from CBS: “Find male American broadcast 4U.”
Though CBS saw her gender as an impediment Wason strove on. During her six months in Greece her voice on the radio, Phil Brown, a secretary at the American embassy, introduced each broadcast with, “This is Phil Brown in Athens, speaking for Betty Wason.” Wason remained in Athens through the winter of 1940 and refused to leave the next spring. In April 1941, German air attacks ramped up in Greece’s capital. When the Nazis took Athens, Wason was stuck in the city for several weeks. Though America still remained “neutral” in the war Wason was kept, along with several other reporters, by the Germans who refused to allow anyone to broadcast.
Eventually Wason left Athens on a Lufthansa plane bound for Vienna. Also on the plane were Wes Gallagher of the Associated Press and George Weller of the Chicago Daily News. Once in Vienna the Gestapo detained the entire group under suspected espionage. Soon the male reporters were released but Wason was kept another week for, according to her, “reasons never divulged except that the police wanted to know more about me.”
When a CBS executive intervened, the Gestapo released her. She had married a Mr. Hall by 1943. On her return to the United States, Wason was inundated with interview requests, lecture requests and press attention. She recalled, “Everyone made a fuss over me but CBS,”
Wason wrote. “When I went to see (news director) Paul White, he dismissed me with, “You were never one of our regular news staff”
“then what, she wondered, had I been doing for CBS all that time in Greece?”
Wason authored 24 books after leaving CBS, mostly about one of her long time favorite hobbies, cooking, though her most successful book was her 1942 story “Miracle in Hellas: The Greeks Fight On”. She wrote that the book “was a resounding success. But the tough struggle to make it as a woman correspondent, ending with the cruel rebuff by CBS, cooled my desire for more overseas war reporting.”
In 1998, at age 86, Wason wrote about macular degeneration, an affliction which stole most of her eyesight and rendered her legally blind. Macular Degeneration: Living Positively with Vision Loss was written, in part, with a grant from the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind.
In the Introduction to “COOKING WITHOUT CANS”, published by
Smith & Durrell, Inc., in 1943, she explains, in part, “This recipe book has been prepared in the hope that it will inspire the artists in the kitchen to turn their skills to the creation of new and savory dishes, not only overriding the bugaboo of wartime shortages, but perhaps even paving the way for a new era in American cuisine.
Many of the recipes,” she continues, “listed in the pages which follow have been adopted from peasant dishes of various European countries—recipes learned during the course of travels during the years 1938-1941, in countries either on the precipice of war, or already plunged into conflict, where rationing was often far more severe than any this country has yet to suffer.
In occupied Greece, where I was forced to remain during the first two months of German occupation we had to pound our own salt out of rock crystals, substitute grape dextrose for sugar (when we could get grape dextrose), dried chick peas for coffee, and a bricklike hunk of what tasted like gravy sawdust for bread. Our only fats were inferior olive oil, rationed to approximately eight ounces a month, and occasionally, white ‘sheep’s butter’ – mutton fat. There was virtually no meat. Yet we had meals, and some of them were surprisingly good….”
If the title, “COOKING WITHOUT CANS” piques your curiosity, it should be noted that the American food industry had worked diligently, prior to World War II, to convince American housewives that the easiest way to prepare anything began with opening up a can. You want soup “just like mama used to make?” open a can of condensed soup and add water—voila, ‘homemade’ soup. As a matter of fact, I think my own mother was one of those completely brainwashed by the food industry. The only fresh vegetables or fruit we ever had were potatoes, carrots, celery, and in the summertime, an occasional watermelon or cantaloupe. Everything else came out of a can. So, along came the War – and the tin used by the food industry for tin cans was, like almost everything else, needed for the War effort. Tin cans were melted down and cast into solid metal “pigs” for re-using in the war industry. (James Trager, author of “The Food Chronology” notes, in 1943, “U.S. housewives wash and flatten tins for recycling: one less tin can per week per family will save enough tin and steel to build 5,000 tanks or 38 Liberty Ships…”). On a personal level, I remember how we rinsed out the cans, removed the labels, opened both ends of the tin can, and then flattened it. It’s one of the very few things I actually do remember about the War years. I was a baby when World War II began.
Consequently, canned goods were restricted, although home-canned fruits and vegetables were not. (During peak war years, an estimated 20 million Victory gardens were growing in the USA, producing over a third of the vegetables available in this country). For the duration of the War, American women would have to learn “COOKING WITHOUT CANS”, which was, I believe, Betty Wason’s first cookbook.
“DINNERS THAT WAIT”, published in 1954, may have been Betty Wason’s second cookbook. I happened to find a paperback copy of “DINNERS THAT WAIT” in a used book store some time ago. Not only was I delighted to find something else written by Ms. Wason – it only cost a dollar! This little book is aimed at “every hostess who feels that her guests, as well as her meal, should be enjoyed…” The solution, offered in “DINNERS THAT WAIT” was a collection of main dishes that were delay proof, that could be prepared hours or days in advance. Again, the author draws on her European exposure, offering recipes such as Moussaka, that she learned to make from Greek friends, Smorgasbord, and – everybody’s favorite, Kidneys with Mustard sauce. “It’s too bad,” notes the author, “kidneys are so little appreciated in this country. When properly prepared, they are superb, worthy of the most discriminating palate….”
One of the best features of this little book is that it provides step by step directions—literally—right down to Step 5: Set table. Put water and coffee in pot. Get dressed. This would be a great cookbook, even today, for young women who are unaccustomed to entertaining. (I think I will try Intoxicated Pork or the Chicken Tetrazzini the next time it’s my turn to host a dinner party at my house).
In 1963, Doubleday & Company would publish “THE ART OF SPANISH COOKING” by Betty Wason. She notes, “I thought I knew so much about Spain that I could, if I wished, write a book about Spanish cooking, based simply on the many Spanish cookbooks in my own library. Fortunately, a little nagging worry beset me. I should really visit Spain before writing about the country. So, I did. I made a speedy eight hour flight to Madrid on a TWA jet, and I traveled over as much of the country as I could cover in a month’s time, eating, eating, eating, wherever I went….” Betty’s nine-year-old daughter, Ellen, accompanied her mother to Spain, offering her candid view of Spanish food. The Introduction to “THE ART OF SPANISH COOKING” provides a capsulized history of the history of Spanish food that I think you would find interesting. I was particularly intrigued with what she had to say about olives, olive oil, and sherry.
“Sherry,” writes Betty, “is a mysterious and unique wine. Its history goes back to antiquity. The Phoenicians brought the first grapevines to the area where all the world’s supply of true sherry is still produced, and they named the city Xera…Whether the wine produced in Roman times was the same as the sherry of today no one knows; however, after the vineyards had been destroyed by the phylloxera disease in 1894, new disease resistant vines were brought from the United States to be planted in Jerez, and lo and behold the wine was the same as ever….”
The entire book is written in this style, recipes and history stirred together to create a banquet of Spanish cooking. It is exactly the kind of book that cookbook readers enjoy.
In 1966, Galahad Books published Betty Wason’s “ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHEESE & CHEESE COOKERY”, which is presented as her 11th book. The publishers note, “She has written extensively about travel and world affairs, and served as a CBS correspondent in Greece during the German occupation in 1941. Her articles have appeared in VOGUE, HOUSE & GARDEN, HOUSE BEAUTIFUL, ATLANTIC MONTHLY and AMERICAN HOME”. At the time “ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHEESE” was published, Betty was also a consultant to the Spanish Oil Institute and other firms.”
“THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHEESE” is divided, (similarly to The Everything Cookbook that would come a few years later), into four parts. Part I – the Wonders of Cheese, offers an armchair history of cheese, while Part II is a Glossary of the World’s Cheeses. Part III explains how to serve cheese (there is a Cheese Etiquette, in case you didn’t know), and Part IV – Cheese in the Kitchen – presents us with recipes that range from cheese soups to cheesecakes.
“All my life I have been a cheese lover,” writes Betty, “but until I did the research for this book, I had no idea cheese was such a complex and fascinating subject…but the only way for anyone to really learn about cheese is to taste it….”
Once again, it becomes evident that Betty’s prior exposure to other places and other things provided some of the inspiration for yet another book. She explains, “My passionate interest in archaeology provided to be a further help in delving into the early history of cheese-making, for in several museums in Spain I saw tools of cheese-making dating from the Bronze Age, and in archaeology books, in my library plus translations of the classic Greek and Roman writers, I came across many interesting anecdotes about cheese in ancient times…”
Curiously, “A SALUTE TO CHEESE”, published the same year but by Hawthorn Books, is identical to “ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHEESE & CHEESE COOKERY”! I was so pleased when I found a copy of the former in a used bookstore, complete with dust jacket, for only $6.00. It was only after I got home and began leafing through the pages that I realized it was the same book, recipe for recipe, page by page. Both books were also published in 1966. (One can only guess at the reason why the same book was published by two different publishers at the same time. Perhaps one of the two cost less than the other?)
In 1967, Doubleday & Company published “THE ART OF GERMAN COOKING” by Betty Wason. Again, she visited the country. “Like most Americans today,” she writes, “I chose to fly to Germany in order to spend all my available time in the country itself, using the speedy transatlantic services of Trans World Airlines between New York and Frankfurt. Later, taking a cruise on the North German Lloyd’s luxurious new motor ship Europa, I realized how lovely it would be to have the leisure once again to cross the Atlantic by ship. At least, during the Caribbean cruise, I was able to talk with Chef Herbert Burmeister several times and to get from him recipes for some of the superb German specialties served on the Europa….” Betty describes the Germany she visited in the mid-1960s, but recalls, “It was in the late thirties, on the eve of World War II, when I visited Germany the first time as a journalist.
During the Hitler era, elegance was frowned upon, at least for the people as a whole. The women were not permitted to use make-up and their clothes looked as if they had been designed to make every woman as dowdy and shapeless as possible…I was in German twice during the war years, before Pearl Harbor, and again in 1950 I visited Munich, Frankfurt and Stuttgart when those cities still had the rubble of aerial bombardments cluttering their streets and most shops offered only the barest necessities of life. To visit the richly prosperous, gay West Germany of today (1960s) is almost like seeing another country altogether. One is staggered by the change…”
She notes that for her, the most revealing things about people are found in little things. She says she always loved wandering through markets looking at the foods on display as a way of learning what kinds of foods go into home cooking. She also explains that one of the most difficult things about studying German cuisine was the language. “I once had the naïve idea that Germans all spoke the same language” she writes. She goes on to explain the differences—which reminded me of a conversation I once had with my German grandmother. Many different German foods and recipes are called by different names, depending on the region. Betty explains many of these differences. In this book, she presents a cross-section of recipes from the German cuisine of today (that is, in the 1960s) with new specialties born of today’s prosperity and old favorites which reflect the customs and traditions of another age.
“THE ART OF GERMAN COOKING” offers a great deal of history, along with recipes. I decided to quote Betty on the subject of sauerkraut, since this particular topic was discussed at my cousin Dan’s 4th of July cookout one holiday. (I make sauerkraut every few years*, and can it. My cousin loves it so I keep him and his wife supplied. My cousin’s brother in law informed us that he learned how to cook sauerkraut while in Berlin and so knows the best way. I said oh, I just cook it with bratwurst. (I cook it pretty much the same way my mother did. We always have mashed potatoes and creamed peas along with it). (*my sauerkraut making days ended after moving to the Antelope Valley in 2008 and losing my big heavy special crock)
Betty writes, “After my recent gastronomic tour of West Germany, I concluded that one cannot dismiss sauerkraut simply as a vegetable. It is part of the German way of life.
Yet until the Mongol (or Tartar) hordes swept into Eastern Europe in the 13th century, sauerkraut was unknown in Germany. According to legend, at least, it was the Chinese who invented the dish, during the building of the Great Wall when the coolies were fed from barrels of cabbage preserved in sour rice wine. Salt was too precious to use then; wine (or vinegar) was cheaper. The Mongols learned about the sour cabbage when they conquered China, and brought it with them to Hungary. From Hungary it traveled to Austria, and from Austria to Germany. Which just goes to show,” Betty concludes, “how history plays strange tricks on people’s food habits..”
She goes on to explain that the ways of preparing sauerkraut in Germany are many. Along with regional differences they are differences in personal preferences. While some people like it cooked long and slow until very soft (which is how I cook ours), other people like it very sour and crunchy. Betty says that every region in Germany has at least one favorite sauerkraut dish. She also offers a recipe for making your own sauerkraut. “THE ART OF GERMAN COOKING” offers a great deal more than recipes for sauerkraut, however. If you ever happen to find a copy, this book, like all of Wason’s cookbooks, makes for enjoyable reading.
Another formidable undertaking would be “THE EVERYTHING COOKBOOK” published in 1970. This is a nice thick cookbook containing more than two thousand recipes!
“THE EVERYTHING COOKBOOK”, published by Hawthorn Books, is described by the publishers as five books in one: Book One is the “ABC’s of FOOD PREPARATION”. Book Two contains “MENU PLANNING AND WEIGHT CONTROL”, while Book Three offers “RECIPES”. Book Four is a “GUIDE TO ENTERTAINING” and Book Five “ALL ABOUT WINES AND SPIRITS”. This is a big thick cookbook that would compare favorably to almost any new comprehensive cookbook being published today.
In the course of her career, Betty Wason has worked as a food specialist and consultant. She was an associate food editor of WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION and editor at General Foods Kitchens. In addition, she wrote articles for HOUSE AND GARDEN, VOGUE, AMERICAN HOME, WOMAN’S DAY and other leading magazines. At one time, she was the woman’s editor for THE VOICE OF AMERICA.
At some point in her career, Betty Wason married and became Betty Wason Hall, and the mother of at least one daughter, Ellen. Ellen undoubtedly provided the inspiration for “COOKING TO PLEASE FINIKY KIDS” and “ELLEN: A MOTHER’S STORY OF HER RUNAWAY DAUGHTER”.
Betty moved to Pleasantville, New York along with a large collection of new and old cookbooks. Hunter Books, publishers of Macular Degeneration, indicate that as of 1998, Betty Wason was living in Seattle. Betty did not limit herself to writing cookbooks—she has, apparently, over the years written books about a variety of subjects.
The talented young lady who started out teaching cooking lessons traveled far and wide and experienced a versatile career that most of us can only dream about. She was, quite obviously, interested in a wide range of subjects, from archaeology to macular degeneration. And imagine this—her book on macular degeneration was published when Betty was 86 years old! Luckily for us, who love cookbooks, she wrote about those too.
Before closing, I want to make another comment about one of Betty Wason’s non-cookbook book accomplishments. In particular, I want to mention “MIRACLE AT HELLAS” which took some intensive searching to find, but was worth the search and the price.
I can only recommend that, since so many of Betty Wason’s books are out of print, you search diligently in your used book stores or internet websites such as Amazon.com for anything with her name on it.
Betty Wason is an author whose work has spanned six decades. I think you will be as impressed as I am over the quality and timelessness of her work.
Betty Wason passed away in February 2001 at the age of 88.
BOOKS BY BETTY WASON
• COOKING WITHOUT CANS, 1943, SMITH & DURRELL, INC. PUBLISHERS
• DINNERS THAT WAIT, 1954/DOLPHIN BOOKS (PAPERBACK EDITION)
• COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS, 1962/DOUBLEDAY
• THE ART OF SPANISH COOKING, 1963, DOUBLEDAY & COMPANY
• BRIDE IN THE KITCHEN, 1964 (publisher?)
• TRAVEL FAIR; HOWARD JOHNSON’S TIPS FOR TRIPS FOR FAMILIES ON THE GO, 1965 (publisher?)
• ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHEESE COOKERY, 1966, GALAHAD BOOKS
• A SALUTE TO CHEESE, 1966, HAWTHORN BOOKS
• THE ART OF GERMAN COOKING 1967/DOUBLEDAY
• IT TAKES “JACK” TO BUILD A HOUSE; A DOWN-TO-EARTH GUIDE TO BUILDING AND REMODELING BY BETTY WASON, ILLUSTRATED BY B. STEPHEN SALTSBERG, 1968 (publisher?)
• THE LANGUAGE OF COOKERY, 1968 (publisher?)
• COOKING TO PLEASE FINIKY KIDS, 1969, ASSOCIATED PRESS
• BETTY WASON’S GREEK COOKBOOK, 1969/MACMILLAN
• HAIR TODAY & GONE TOMORROW, 1969 (publisher?)
• ART OF VEGETARIAN COOKERY, 1969 (publisher?)
• THE MEDITERRANEAN COOKBOOK, 1770 (publisher?)
• THE EVERYTHING COOKBOOK. 1970/HAWTHORNE BOOKS
• MEDITERRANEAN COOKBOOK, 1973 (publisher?)
• GIVING A CHEESE & WINE TASTING PARTY, 1975 (publisher?)
• IMPROVING YOUR HOME FOR PLEASURE & PROFIT, 1975 (publisher?)
• ELLEN, A MOTHER’S STORY ABOUT A RUNAWAY DAUGHTER, 1976 (publisher?)
• SOUP TO DESSERT HIGH FIBER COOKBOOK 1976 (publisher?)
• MACULAR DEGENERATION, 1999 (publisher?)
–review by Sandra Lee Smith
Updated March, 2017