Who Says We Can’t Cook!

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger's picture

A What is a Recipe? contribution by Kimberly Voss, PhD (Journalism, University of Central Florida)

One of the most interesting fundraising cookbooks is the 1955 cookbook Who Says We Can’t Cook! by the Women’s National Press Club. The members stressed the book was not a defense of their culinary talents, thus the “!” rather than a “?” Among the 140 contributors were the top press names in Washington, D.C. The introduction noted: “This book may indeed include more famous bylines—over more exclusive copy—than any other volume in history.” 

The cookbook was a fundraising venture so the members could rent space for a clubhouse. The initial cookbook had a press run of 5,000 copies, and they were sold out in the first week. For the next three years, the cookbook was regularly reprinted, with requests coming as far away as Australia. It is filled with interesting recipes and food stories. The recipes represent the challenge that working women of the 1950s faced as they pursued their careers while still maintaining the traditional role of homemaker at dinner time. 

A story by the journalists accompanied each set of recipes. In one example, Beth Campbell Short submitted what she called “Sudden Super.” It was a meal menu rather than an individual recipe and was written in narrative form. It included sauted (sic) liver and noodles, peas, lettuce and tomato salad, peached cobbler and iced tea. Her audience was a working mother (she was the mother of three) who needed to get dinner on the table quickly. She wrote: “I can have it on the table 15 minutes after I walk in the door if the children set the table.” 

Another contributor was Henrietta Poynter, the editor of Congressional Quarterly and mentor to many of the reporters in the women’s page section of the St. Petersburg Times, the newspaper owned by her husband. She described her kitchen experiences as a young girl:

I learned to cook at about 14 when my mother went on a three-month speaking tour for suffrage and left me to keep house. Whatever I saved out of the budget was mine, so I specialized in recipes for making cheap cuts of meat delicious and managed, without starving the family, to indulge in new clothes, theatre tickets, and other things not covered by my allowance.

Poynter’s contributions were for “Heavenly Hamburger” and “Cheese Wafers.” She explained that the dishes “are quickies that can be made between deadlines time and when the guests arrive.”  The hamburger dish—which sounds like a current meatloaf—included ground chuck, white bread, egg, onion, mustard and ketchup. After browning the “cutlets,” she recommended serving the meat with a gravy made from the ketchup and mustard. 

Her recipe for cheese wafers was described as a “canapé” with the texture of a “petits fours.” It came from poet Elizabeth Buchtenkirk and featured three ingredients: 1 stick of butter, a cup of sifted flower, and a roll of prepared snappy cheese. (There are several references to "snappy cheese"  online. One recipe from epicurious on September 24, 2015 included cheddar cheese, ginger ale, hot sauce, evaporated milk, and mayonnaise.) The mixture are made into balls the size of a walnut and baked at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Both recipes were simple and used everyday ingredients. Nutrition was not much of an issue with the recipes—it was more of an issue of ease of cooking for working women.

It is worth remembering that women journalists who helped create this cookbook were excluded from membership in the National Press Club until 1971. Important politicians and significant celebrities delivered speeches at the press club and prior to 1955, women were not even allowed in the club building to cover the speeches that made the newspapers. That year, the male members came up with a plan that allowed women journalists to cover speakers from the balcony of the ballroom; but they had to stand—because the balcony was too narrow for chairs—while their seated male colleagues ate and drank below.

While the women fought for equality in their professional lives, they also had fun. While convenience foods would become popular in later years, working women lad long looked for quick meals. These recipes reflect the challenges that women faced while balancing careers and getting meals on the table. The recipes in the cookbook reflected the entertaining lives they led—especially significant in Washington, D.C. These women were hardcore journalists who were interested in cook while balancing the work of feeding families. Bess Furman added a poem (her sister Lucile Furman shared the family recipe for a lemon pie) rather than a recipe to the book:

For forty years I have been looking
For time to taste the Joy of Cooking
But Fate, elusive to my wishes
Sent me the time to do the dishes.
Still, none the less, my sis and I
Proudly present our lemon pie
Not got from nabobs writing books
But from Back Home, where cooks are COOKS.