Brackens banter is still cooking
Portlander's prose challenges ingrained ideas about domesticity
Visitors to Peg Bracken's West Hills home are offered a homemade ginger cookie and then asked to sign the kitchen tablecloth. Later, the slender hostess in the St. John Knits pantsuit will embroider over the name with colorful thread, creating a one-of-a-kind guest book.
Don't be swayed by the social niceties. Bracken, 85, is not your average 'LOL' (little old lady). Her 1960 best seller, 'The I Hate to Cook Book,' put forth the then-radical notion that for a lot of women, cooking was a drag.
Wielding wit as dry as a gin martini and as sharp as a paring knife, Bracken offered easy, clever ways to approach the culinary tasks that millions simply viewed as domestic drudgery.
Her fresh, irreverent attitude turned down the heat on women's self-imposed domestic expectations. And while they weren't on the same culinary level as James Beard's, her recipes helped the harried chef of the house create quick and delicious dishes.
In the next eight books, which spanned nearly 40 years, Bracken's humor and wisdom extended into the realms of housekeeping, travel, etiquette and most recently aging: 'On Getting Old for the First Time' was published in 1997.
During a recent interview, Bracken proved that she still possesses the keen perspective and no-nonsense humor that made her name recognizable worldwide. When asked her age, Bracken says dryly: 'No euphemisms, please. My birthday's this month, and I feel great except for a tendency to want to throw up when I look in the mirror.'
Bracken lives with her third husband, John Ohman, father of The Oregonian's political cartoonist, Jack Ohman.
Signs of the couple's opinionated mind-sets are everywhere, from the numerous thought-provoking books that lay open to the photo of Attorney General John Ashcroft that's taped to the refrigerator, a Hitler mustache drawn on his face.
Patience is a virtue
Bracken says friends provided the ingredients for 'The I Hate to Cook Book.' She simply stirred it all together.
'It all started with a group of friends that used to get together for lunch,' says Bracken, who was an advertising executive in Portland at the time. 'I said, 'Why don't you each give me a recipe that's easy, that you can count on, and I'll put them together and we'll exchange them.''
Another friend suggested the now-famous title, and Bracken knew she was on to something.
'I went to work on the book, but then I hit a speed bump,' she says. 'My husband who was also a writer was jealous. He said, 'You're wasting your time; who'd want a book like that?' He didn't want competition. He wanted to be the only writer in the family.'
After that particularly telling period in their marriage, Bracken says, 'I showed enormous patience and waited four more years until I left him.'
The episode led Bracken to believe that perhaps he was right about one thing: 'I don't think it's great for a couple to be in the same business.'
Nevertheless, this mother of one daughter has always believed that women should expect the world, at least in pieces. 'I think women can have it all but not all at once,' she says.
Revealing that she's got her finger on the pulse of popular culture, Bracken refers to the comical British best seller 'I Don't Know How She Does It' when discussing the challenges that women face in juggling home and career. 'I think a sense of humor is important. Mark Twain once said that there's no humor in heaven. He's nuts. I don't believe that at all. You have to laugh about it all.'
Seen and not heard
The occasionally brazen Bracken says that she wasn't encouraged to speak her mind as a child.
'My mother was a successful club lady, and I was always in awe of her,' the St. Louis native says. 'I knew when I'd crossed the boundaries; the bridge of her nose would become pinched.'
Bracken recalls being equally reticent on the sports field: 'I prayed that no one would pass to me; I never knew what to do with the ball.'
Bracken married after graduating from Ohio's Antioch College. Following a brief stint writing advertising copy for a department store in Cleveland, Bracken and her husband decided to move west.
The couple landed in Portland, where she was hired by the ad agency Botsford, Constantine & Gardner. One of her co-workers was Homer Groening, the father of 'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening. Bracken and Homer Groening co-wrote a syndicated cartoon called 'Phoebe, Get Your Man.'
'It was a sort of how-to cartoon about a gal eager to get married,' Bracken recalls. Incidentally, Matt Groening's mother, Margaret, now lives across the street from Bracken.
The surprising success of 'The I Hate to Cook Book' spurred Bracken to leave the agency and write follow-up books such as 'The I Hate to Housekeep Book,' 'I Try to Behave Myself: Peg Bracken's Etiquette Book,' and 'I Didn't Come Here to Argue,' a collection of vintage Bracken observations.
Bracken's literary accomplishments led to many high-profile appearances. She was a spokeswoman for Birds Eye Foods for several years and toured with a national speaking bureau. Bracken says that the twice-annual lecture swing was the least favorite part of her career.
'I can speak in front of a group now without having kittens, but at the time I hated it,' she says.
Despite the saucy confidence that characterized her writing, Bracken claims she possessed little of it herself, even at the height of her success, when an appearance on 'The Mike Douglas Show' was all in a day's work.
'I didn't feel that I could do anything,' she admits. 'And I don't think that I was unique in that way. Things have definitely changed for women since I grew up, when you were aware of the limitations of your sex. So many more opportunities are available now for either sex.'
Including the ability to call out for Chinese.