by Anne Mendelson
“What is American cooking?” is a difficult question today. It would have been equally difficult in, say, 1776, if anyone had been using such terms. Certainly it was no cinch at the time of the Great Depression, when eager answers flew about with very little regard for the experience of eating.
Some authorities wanted American cooking to be a system for packing nutrients and caloric energy into everybody with a scientific dispatch befitting the world’s most enlightened modern society. Other leaders of taste encouraged the nation’s cooks to embrace sweetness-and-cream femininity in edible form, decoratively set off with Jell-O or canned pineapple. American food manufacturers and advertisers promised instant gratification to both parties through a stream of promotional literature for pre-processed packaged goods.
Meanwhile, various other sects that pursued their own notions between the World Wars included a faction of self-proclaimed gourmets. Perhaps the most showy embodiment of the breed was a fictional one: Nero Wolfe, the gormandizing detective created in 1934 by the mystery writer Rex Stout. Wolfe’s preference for money-is-no-object repasts requiring pheasant or fines herbes was implicitly steeped in Old World snobberies — until 1938, when Too Many Cooks, the fifth book in the series, portrayed a convention of European-trained maitres cuisiniers brought round to acknowledging the glories of American regional cuisine.
Stout’s secret weapon in this project was a chum in left-wing circles who happened to be the authority on American regional food. That she also detested the very word “gourmet” must have weighed on her high-strung conscience. But for a hefty fee ($2,000, according to Stout’s biographer John McAleer), she agreed to provide culinary lowdown along with an appendix of several dozen purportedly Wolfean recipes. Her name was Sheila Hibben.
Hibben (1888 – 1964) represented yet another wing of thought about the identity of American food: birthright good cooks fed up alike with epicurean poses, quasi-scientific cant, gussied-up visual effects, Madison Avenue strategies, and general amnesia about culinary traditions older than the middle of last week. She was, and remains today, one of the most original observers of the American food scene since there has been a scene to observe.
She had come to attention in 1932 with The National Cookbook, a composite culinary portrait of the United States beyond anything that had been attempted before. It treated American cooking as a cultural heritage both practical and inspiring — a lesson, during what she called a time of “economic readjustment,” in the “balance between what we have and what we make of it.”
Hibben, née Cecile Craik, was tall, angular, well-read, and politically conscious. She liked to speak her mind with a certain sting. From her affluent Alabama family she had inherited unconventional political opinions and an appreciation of true kitchen skills in either black or white hands. At about twenty, Sheila (the family nickname that she always preferred to Cecile) started intermittently transplanting herself to France. When war broke out she undertook arduous nursing duties (later to earn her the Croix de Guerre) for the Red Cross, and also fell in love with an American soldier-journalist-activist named “Pax” (Paxton) Hibben. They married in 1916. Pax traveled on many postwar food-relief missions in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; Sheila often accompanied him until she became pregnant. They had returned to the United States and were living in New York with their seven-year-old daughter, Jill, when Pax suddenly died of pneumonia in December, 1928. His widow faced single parenthood at forty.
In a 2001 interview, Jill Hellendale told me that her mother promptly thought, “What can I do? I can cook and I can write.” She also knew that Hibben was a name to conjure within journalistic circles. Less than four months after Pax’s death she had managed to place a magazine article in The Outlook titled “Food Is to Eat,” protesting the use of food to showcase cloying decorative fads. It was the first of many attempts to champion unaffected from-scratch cooking against what she saw as enemies let loose on twentieth-century American kitchens: cuteness, pretension, media-abetted sacrifices to fashion or convenience.
The 1932 National Cookbook was the biggest and most influential proclamation of Hibben’s culinary credo. It contained about 850 recipes, supposedly from almost every state of the Union. (Jill, who was of an age to help shuffle index cards into piles in their Greenwich Village apartment, recalled some gerrymandering meant to level out the contributions of over- and under-represented states.) Hibben’s introduction sounded a ringing challenge to do our heartfelt best by the regional blessings showered on this nation.
“We have better materials to work with than any other people in the world,” she announced, citing such proofs as pompano, canvasback duck, terrapin, Celeste figs, and “alligator pears” (avocados). “What country on earth has a better list to delight the heart of a discriminating glutton?”
To her, the real genius of American cooks was a generous instinct for letting such foods’ basic qualities shine through. Eighty years later the dishes she collected stand as evidence of how much has disappeared. Of course environmental casualties like canvasbacks and terrapin can never be replaced. But even less can the frame of reference that would tell today’s would-be sophisticates how peach blancmange, boiled dandelion or turnip greens, shad roe croquettes, calf’s brains with brown butter, pressed clabber doused in cream, clam omelet, beans baked with mutton, or lye hominy boiled in a pot “in a cabin, usually under a fig tree” could ever have brought joy to knowledgeable eaters.
A book-reviewing service would later describe The National Cookbook as “a cookbook that made history.” It could have made even more. Shortly after her husband’s inauguration in March, 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt announced a plan to devise White House menus displaying America’s culinary patrimony, both historic and regional. She invited Hibben, now the obvious go-to authority on such matters, to help choose the best dishes and approaches. But as Laura Shapiro related in a 2010 New Yorker article, the new consultant was rapidly sacrificed to Mrs. Roosevelt’s astonishing penchant for matching the larger U.S. Depression with the most grim and joyless fare ever to blight the White House table.
At first, newspapers touted the project. Hibben, having wangled a New York Times feature article on the comeback of sturdy old food traditions, tried to make Mrs. Roosevelt understand something of her own vision. The effort was doomed. After their inevitable parting, she didn’t mind blowing off some steam. Several years later a Life Magazine profile of Mrs. Roosevelt was able to mention Hibben’s frustration at being unable to persuade the First Lady, ”an indifferent gourmet whose one idea seemed to be to expound the recipes at her press conferences, that the dishes were meant to be eaten rather than printed.”
The National Cookbook had established Hibben’s reputation, but didn’t free her from the responsibility of putting a child through school and college. In 1934 she landed the gig that would be her mainstay for another thirty years: a column titled “Markets and Menus” for The New Yorker, covering news of interest to cooks or diners and irregularly published under the byline “S.H.” Eventually she was assigned another column on home furnishings. From time to time she supplemented the New Yorker income with freelance jobs — usually menu-with-recipes articles tailored to some theme — for women’s fashion and “shelter” magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and House Beautiful.
The permanent New Yorker berth must have been a fiscal godsend. At the same time, it probably was one of the reasons that Hibben’s name gradually lapsed into obscurity.
Unlike such contemporaries as Clementine Paddleford at the New York Herald Tribune and later Gourmet Magazine, “S.H.” retained little visible profile of her own outside the small world of New York food writers. Nor did she ever try her hand at a major all-purpose American manual a la Boston Cooking-School Cook Book or Joy of Cooking, dispensing soup-to-nuts advice to multitudes. Publishing any cookbook — above all a big kitchen bible — under orthodox commercial auspices means observing shibboleths of recipe-writing that as far as Hibben was concerned merely hindered real learning through smell, touch, and taste. According to Jill Hellendale, demands for stopwatch timings, scrupulously level measurements, or oven temperatures any more exact than “hot” or “moderate” drove her mother crazy. Her idea of enlisting Jill to help with measuring was “Take your baby spoon with the teeth marks and fill it x times.” Any appetite for further food writing cannot have been stimulated by her ladies’-magazine assignments, where editors generally expected just the concessions to cooking-by-numbers and gastronomic chic that most compromised her own instincts and convictions as a cook.
In other words, Hibben was too much of a prickly individualist ever to have become a prolific culinary star represented by a dozen books or successive editions of one best-seller. Consequently she failed to “brand” herself in a manner for twenty-first-century purveyors of pop culinary history to generalize about. The only way to get a sense of her mind and palate is to read her best work.
None of her few other books ever galvanized attention like The National Cookbook. The one that is easiest to find today is the treasurable American Regional Cookery (1946), a shorter and more gracefully arranged — though at the time less noticed — reworking of territory covered in The National Cookbook. Shortly before landing the New Yorker job in 1934, she had also done a collection of recipes using the British AGA stove, which the makers were trying to market in the U.S. Later she would collaborate with the gastroenterologist Sara M. Jordan on a work titled Good Food for Bad Stomachs (1951), the brainchild of The New Yorker’s ulcer-ridden editor Harold Ross, a Jordan patient.
In an era more friendly to culinary contrarians, she might have achieved lasting stardom. As it is, the only work in which one can fully appreciate Hibben’s peculiarly spirited mixture of natural rebel and back-to-first-principles traditionalist is A Kitchen Manual, published shortly before America entered World War II in 1941.
As she firmly points out, it is not a cookbook but an invitation to think about cooking in a probing, leisurely spirit. Nothing could have been more Hibben-like than divining, on the threshold of national crisis, that the mental concentration and hands-on effort involved in good cooking are no escapism but evidence of how a “true cook” grasps the role of cooking “in sustaining and cheering those around her, and knows it for something that touches not only the body of man but his spirit.”
Defiantly free of recipes or other concessions to conventional expectations, A Kitchen Manual announces itself as “a new kind of mystery story, a book of secrets, a homily on the hang of the thing.” Its mission is to make reader-cooks intuit the variables involved in, say, broiling a noble beefsteak or judging the magical fitness of certain flavor-combinations. Or making a really good consomme — a marathon effort that struck a chord with M.F.K. Fisher, a Hibben admirer. She thought that A Kitchen Manual “should be read at least twice a year” by cooks lulled into habits of neglect. “It takes courage today to write of spending ten hours on a pot of stock,” Fisher acknowledged, and added, “It takes courage even to read Mrs. Hibben, but there is a kind of purging excitement about it,” much as in reading Brillat-Savarin.
A Kitchen Manual seems to have attracted only a few admirers. And the immediate postwar years, as Hibben wryly noted in the introduction to American Regional Cookery, were not attuned to her unique sensibility: “Peace and Freedom have come to us riding on a tide of Ready-Mixes,” while once-fresh hopes of preserving heirloom American dishes had been cheapened into marketable ploys.
The national emergencies out of which Hibben had argued for skilled, lovingly meant cooking as a concrete social priority gradually vanished from America’s rear-view mirror. Prestigious food writers increasingly adopted gourmet airs, something that she had always detested as much in real life as in Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. As time went on, people tended to assume that M.F.K. Fisher had invented “serious” food writing. At Hibben’s death in February, 1964, a garbled Times obituary failed to include The National Cookbook among her works, and a tribute in The New Yorker — longer on affection than facts — neglected to mention that she had written even one book.
In recent years Hibben’s name has started resurfacing among American food writers, thanks to Laura Shapiro and a few other admirers. It remains to be seen whether her works will ever become celebrated for the qualities that most deserve celebrating.
Eighty-plus years ago, this woman was a champion of American regional food on its own uncontrived, unvarnished merits. She was a two-fisted denouncer of the age’s high-tech shortcuts for taking the cooking out of cooking, and a conscientious objector against perpetrating either cheesy or pretentious makeovers on simple dishes for the sake of journalistic spin. But above all, she believed in a link between mindful, capable, delightful cooking and the kind of world we make for ourselves in other ways; “good behavior is closely bound to good eating” was how she put it in American Regional Cookery.
This attitude was unfashionable even in her own lifetime. It harks back to earlier American domestic authorities like Catharine Beecher and Sarah Tyson Rorer — culinary patriots who unabashedly linked well-cooked food with private and public virtue. Sheila Hibben firmly believed in what Mrs. Rorer called “the moral influence of a good meal,” and she was able to make the case with more agility and savoir-faire than her predecessor. In the introduction to Regional American Cookery, she wrote of the direct, unfeigned happiness with which her elders used to reminisce about food: “‘That,’ my mother would declare, describing a delicate Madeira jelly eaten with thick yellow cream, ‘was the best thing I ever tasted.’” Everyone, Hibben thought, must have an analogous “best I ever tasted” touchstone — a sort of better self in the taste buds, that can be appealed to as motivation for cooking instead of can-opening. When that has happened:
“Then hunger will truly be fed, and women — and maybe men, too — will know the satisfaction of nourishing with their own strength and skill those whom they love.”
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has written and worked as a consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).