Top | Spaghetti on the Wall

Toffee bars

(article, Shoshanna Cohen)

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p(blue). Editor's note: We welcome our new columnist, Shoshanna Cohen. Shoshanna isn't new to Culinate, having blogged on the [/mix/dinnerguest?author=23020 "Dinner Guest blog"] for a while now; with Spaghetti on the Wall, she will continue her exploration of the cultural meanings of foods. 

My mom was a hippie and raised me in converted warehouses; we went to Sufi meetings and flea markets on weekends. That did not stop most of our life-giving sustenance from originating in the Betty Crocker Cookbook. Cultural traditions run deep, whether they be lefty bohemianism or Midwestern cooking. Both have been in our family for generations, and both continue with me. 

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When I talk about Midwestern American suburban cooking, this is not the rustic, classic American fare idealized by the foodie world like waffles, pie, and fried chicken (although my mom does make a killer biscuit). We’re talking tuna-noodle casserole and turkey schnitzel. Fettucini alfredo with shrimp and peas. Too boring to be considered cuisine, too functional to lose its place at the table, too processed to be nostalgically canonized — until now!

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Although I, like my mother, have embraced multiculturalism and dabbled in lentils, I too always return to the culinary traditions of suburban Illinois. Sometimes it has been self-conscious. When I was in college and dated an older guy, his friends would throw potlucks that were an exercise in one-upmanship: farro salad, hand-shelled fresh peas, blue-chard gratin, brined turkey. Everything was very evolved. It freaked me out, so as a subtle rebellion I would bring tuna casserole, which would remain untouched and congealing as everyone gushed about the flourless chocolate-espresso torte.   

But mostly, suburban cooking is just practical. This food will work for you. If I get home late from work, and I’m hungry and haven’t had time to shop, chances are I have the makings of an egg-salad sandwich, and I know I can get it on the table and down my throat in 15 minutes or less. It may not be a culinary masterpiece, but it resides in the real world, and it does the job. And if I need to remember how long to boil those eggs, I turn to Betty Crocker.

The Betty Crocker Cookbook, a.k.a. Big Red, was first published in 1950, with a panoply of postwar American recipes, and has been updated every few years since then to keep up with the times. It has been a guiding light for generations of nervous newlyweds (or hippies living in sin, in some cases) trying to figure out how to feed their families, because apparently the canned chili and Fritos you ate when you were single aren’t going to cut it. 

Betty Crocker, the person, does not actually exist. According to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, where they study these sorts of things, Ms. Crocker was invented in 1921 as a marketing ploy by the company that eventually became General Mills. Betty’s first job was answering baking questions from customers, and she has since been the subject of a radio show and “written” the now-iconic cookbook and its many revisions. Like the cookbook, Betty’s fake face has also received numerous makeovers, going through several iterations of friendly, conservative, brown-haired white lady to her ambiguously ethnic look today. 

While Betty Crocker as a personality has been somewhat downplayed in recent years, with her face used less frequently and content on bettycrocker.com attributed to Web editors, not Betty, the introduction to Big Red is still written in first person and signed with the familiar loopy signature (created by a secretary in a contest, according to the Rosenzweig Center). 

The Betty Crocker Cookbook my mom had (has, still uses) was the 1978 edition, given to her by her mother (who herself owned an earlier edition) when I was just a bun in the oven. Among its timeless classics, including oven-fried chicken and Toll House cookies, were signifiers of a country in flux between midcentury idealism and flower-child crunchiness: pickled egg hors d’oeuvres and ice rings, but also Pow (an allegedly invigorating drink made with beef broth and horseradish) and California Coffee, which (as I remember) included a raw egg. 

When I moved into my first apartment, I asked my mother for a copy of the current Betty Crocker, because as hilariously awesome as the 1978 version was, I wanted something tied to my own era. Years from now, I will look back and laugh at how dated and silly lemon poppyseed muffins, chicken satay, and risotto with sun-dried tomatoes all seem. But despite its timely additions (there’s now a vegetarian section with a “Tempeh and Tofu Know-How” chart), the 2000 edition still makes room for all the old favorites. 

While tuna-noodle casserole might be something people like only because they’ve grown up eating it, there are other suburban standbys with wider appeal. Toffee Bars, for instance. Not actually toffee per se, Toffee Bars are made of a layer of dense, butterscotchy cookie topped with chocolate “frosting” (really just melted and spread chocolate chips) and nuts. They're sweet, slightly salty, dense, and totally addictive. My mom used to make these all the time for holidays and for just gobbling at home. If I’m going to a potluck and want to bring something people will actually want to eat and not be alienated by, I’ll make these.

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The recipe in its modern form first appeared in the 1961 edition of Big Red. The 1950 original had something called toffee-nut bars, which were similar, but with coconut instead of chocolate. I wouldn’t say no to a plate of those, but when it comes to manipulating your friends, family, and co-workers, you’ve got to have chocolate — dark, milk, white, anything but carob (it doesn’t melt right). Sometimes if I’m making them for a holiday or birthday I’ll add colored sprinkles. The bars are also good naked, without the chocolate and nuts — more of a chewy, simple tea cookie.

Toffee Bars are quintessential Betty Crocker: an ideal formula of simple and fun preparation, fancy-ish presentation, and universal appeal. They require zero skill. And everybody — I mean everybody_ — loves them. They have a magical seriousness-neutralizing power that never ceases to amuse me. Everybody I know likes to claim he's “not big on sweets” or she “prefers to eat whole foods” or is “trying to avoid gluten” or carbs, or whatever subtly moralizing gustatory trend is in at the moment. But present a plate of toffee bars to any group of healthier-than-thou individuals, and they will suddenly become five-year-olds with chocolate on their cheeks. 

No matter how much the times change, or what part of the country you live in, whether you’re a radical hippie, a desperate housewife, or somewhere in between, there are two things that will make just about every American happy: a stick of butter, and another stick of butter.


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