photo by john sherman

The copy I inherited is a portal into my grandmother’s kitchen

John Sherman
January 31, 2018

My grandmother has a few reference books in her house that are always close at hand: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a world atlas, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book. Each volume has its designated questions to settle, but cases in which “the Furness” is consulted over “the Bittman” comprise the canon of my family’s cooking.

The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book was first published in 1954 by Simon and Schuster. The mustard-yellow first edition I keep in my apartment is a time capsule, both in its extreme fiftiesness—tomato aspic, anyone?—and in the more palatable recipes my mother and grandmother have been making, to the letter, my entire life. My grandmother’s copy has faded into an emerald green and its binding is hanging by a thread, but it endures.

The dedication reads, “This book is dedicated to you, a busy homemaker who gladly prepares three meals a day for your family, and who delights in doing it.” This line still sets my grandmother’s eyes rolling. Neither she nor any of the women in my family has ever been interested in homemaking, at least not in the sense intended by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. My family’s relationship to food is more “make yourself a sandwich” than sit-down lunch, and so eating is only rarely a shared experience. The source material, however, is often the same. 

The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book was written by Julia Kiene, who is identified as the director of the Westinghouse Home Economics Institute, whatever that was. The book was an extension of the company’s marketing for its household appliances, primarily stoves and refrigerators. Betty Furness was an actress who did live televised Westinghouseproductdemos, and whose only appearance in the book other than its title is in the preface, where she dutifully plugs her own “magnificent Westinghouse kitchen.” 

With the exception of a working 1950s Westinghouse refrigerator my father rescued from the town dump, no one in my family has ever had a “Westinghouse kitchen,” unless you count a horde of physical copies of The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book. My grandmother owns at least two, my mother and several of her sisters have at least one copy each, and I have mine. My grandfather once assembled a binder of some favorite recipes from family reunions, but nothing has been as constant as the Furness.

It’s unusual, perhaps, to be so familially attached to a 64-year-old out-of-print book. I assume my grandmother got her first copy as a wedding present, but I’ve never asked. It’s not nearly as intimate as the handwritten recipe cards cherished by many of my friends, assembled from aunts and great-aunts and mothers and their friends, but Kiene’s recipes dazzle with their pragmatism. They ought to be written on my family’s crest. 

The Furness includes four recipes for pie crust, none with more than five ingredients, including water. My preferred recipe is for a two-crust pie made with hydrogenated vegetable shortening, or Crisco. Two cups of all-purpose flour, one teaspoon of salt, one-quarter cup of water, and three-quarters of a cup of shortening produces the sort of pie crust that elicits wide-eyed questioning from pie-eaters about where I bought the dough.

I was finally gifted a Furness of my own after asking my mother one too many times if she could please send me a photo of the recipe for English apple pie from her copy of the book—six to eight apples, half a cup of margarine, one cup light brown sugar, and three-quarters of a cup of all-purpose flour. But more than simply converting my mother’s digital labor into my analog labor, getting my own Furness was an induction into the family as a household unto myself. 

Family recipes are best away from family, their scent and flavor taking the shape of Christmas dinner at times when the feelings they stir seem lost impossibly to the past. On some homesick afternoon in Brooklyn, a place my grandmother has never been, I can live in her kitchen over a steaming pot of minestrone, close my eyes and breathe deeply like a woman in a chocolate commercial, transported elsewhere. 

As long as The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book can be found in used-book stores and on eBay, my grandmother’s kitchen is a place between the fraying covers of a longform Westinghouse ad, usually attainable in no more than six ingredients. 

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