I spent the last week picking up The I Hate to Cook Book and paging through its brittle, yellowed, I’m-an-old-paperback pages.
It’s not as funny as I remember it, although Bracken’s fuss-free descriptions and frank asides still make me smile. As one might expect from a book published in 1960, the text wears its somewhat curdled cultural sensibilities on its sleeve—husbands (and oh, yes, ladies, we all have them) must be fooled or foiled, children appeased with an eye roll, clothes mended with needle and thread, and meat added to most every dish.
That last tendency has, for my pescatarian self, proved to be the most challenging.
As I thumbed through Chapter 1’s “30 Day-by-Day Entrees” my eyes glazed. Beef items rolled into lamb, which transitioned to pork and ham, which segued into chicken and, finally, petered into a few fish and bean dishes. The leftovers chapter followed the same meaty trail: Ham-Lima Supper (egads), Turkey Tetrazzini, Beef Encore and something called, inexplicably, Let ‘Er Buck (which includes an entire jar of “mild-flavored processed cheese spread” and not one, but two, cans of mushrooms). I was going to have to get creative here or skip straight to the sides.
I returned to the fishy entrees in the first chapter and reviewed the options. Portland Pilaff [sic] with its ½ stick of butter and can of shrimp? No. Cancan Casserole complete with those staples of 60s cooking: cream corn, canned tuna and a green pepper? No thanks. Tuna-Rice Curry and its two cups of cream sauce? Blarg.
And then I spotted it. Clam Whiffle.
Would it be a soup? An aperitif? A dish that emits a gentle, salty steam reminiscent of the seaside? All I could picture was a swollen plastic bat and a ball shaped like a bivalve mollusk and studded with holes.
Bracken describes a “whiffle” as “a soufflé that any fool can make.” That promise, plus the name, was enough for me. I had to make it.
I told Jon what we were up to as Roxy and I prepared to go shopping on President’s Day.
“Whiffle. As in the game.”
“What is it?”
“Well, you’ve got to make it then.”
So we headed to the store, my helpful, sweet daughter and I, to pick up a can of clams, a green pepper and “soda crackers” (described by Bracken as “the ordinary two inch-by-two-inch kind,” so I bought Saltines), along with what I considered to be the real groceries on our list: red chard, fruit, milk and eggs.
Once we were home, I tied on my vintage apron with the ruffles and flower, skipped the swipe of red lipstick, and got to work. First, I crumbled 12 of the crackers—as dry and crumbly as plaster—into bits and put them in a bowl, along with a cup of milk, to soften for a few minutes. “Not a good start!” I felt like shouting. Was I preparing food for someone without teeth?
Bracken’s next step is to “add everything else.” Everything else is ¼ cup melted butter, 1 can minced, drained clams (I could only find a jar, so I estimated the amount based on a tuna can in the cupboard), 2 tablespoons chopped onion, 1 tablespoon chopped green pepper, ¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 2 beaten eggs and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
What was it with the 60s and green peppers? Were there no other vegetables around? What about leeks? Shallots? Celery? Zucchini? In the first 20 pages of The I Hate to Cook Book I must have read 12 recipes with green peppers.
I chopped, measured and beat as directed—actually finishing off my Worcestershire bottle in the process, which I’d always thought an impossible task akin to using up one’s cream of tartar—and then dumped the results, plus the milky cracker gruel, into a new, bigger bowl. I stirred it all together, trying not to stare too much at the unappealing, lumpy results.
Next the home cook must pour the Whiffle batter into a “greased casserole.”
“Where’s the noun?” I muttered, as I reread the scant instructions. “Casserole dish? Casserole bowl? Casserole nine by nine? Ramekin?”
But ah, I suddenly remembered. I was cooking with someone who hates to cook and doesn’t distinguish pan from pot. I’d be getting no help from Ms. Bracken.
I pulled out a flimsy, tin, nine-by-nine casserole dish that appeared in my cookware collection years ago (only our lid is junkier) and buttered its cheap, warped sides. Then I poured the batter into the pan, while Roxy watched from her perch at the kitchen’s “homework counter.”
“That looks ugly,” she said matter-of-factly. “Will it taste good?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged, scraping the final bits of green pepper and onion into the pan. “But it’s a Clam Whiffle! How could it be bad?”
“Clam Whiffle?” And for the next five minutes she begged me to say “clam whiffle” over and over again, as she shrieked with laughter.
To complete the whiffle, I baked it, uncovered, for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
The results: I asked Jon to sauté the red chard as our side dish, since it goes with everything. This he did, while the whiffle swelled and bubbled and browned in the oven.
When the 45 minutes were up, I pulled out the cheapo pan. In true soufflé-ish form, whiffle seemed to compact before my eyes from a healthy puff of several inches to a measly half-inch layer of baked eggyness. Disappointed, I grabbed a spatula, cut each of us a healthy square and piled a mound of healthy, familiar, soothing chard alongside. We were ready to whiffle.
We both sat down with our bowls and took a bite. Roxy had already eaten.
And really, it wasn’t bad.
“It’s like a Cooking Light recipe,” said Jon. “There’s flavor, but not a lot of substance.”
It was true. Even with the egg and all those minced clams, the baked results were too ephemeral—fluffy, warm, with a fishy saltiness and slight vegetable crunch, but no satisfying, gut-filling heft.
I won’t be making Clam Whiffle again.