This article was published online on March 14, 2021.
Last spring, early in the pandemic, the host of a radio food program called to ask whether I thought the lockdown would catapult women back to the 1950s. That sure looked likely: Families were home demanding three meals a day, and most of that food was coming from their own kitchens. I started wondering whether the pandemic would succeed where years of cajoling on the part of cookbook writers had failed. Maybe we really had been launched into a new era of cooking from scratch, and would see people joyfully plying their families with homemade grain bowls long after the return of recognizable daily life.
At this point I realized I was conjuring the Happy Housewife, that busy icon of the ’50s often seen transforming leftovers into attractive molded salads to be served on lettuce leaves. She wore high heels when she cooked, she kept two blond children by her side, and she was very, very happy at all times. So is she back?
Only as a refrigerator magnet, thank goodness. But I did sense a familiar presence hovering over the pages of Sam Sifton’s new cookbook, in which he declares right at the outset that he’s going to “make the act of cooking fun when it sometimes seems like a chore.” Fun? It’s a promise that has Happy Housewife written all over it. Not last century’s version, of course—the one I’m detecting in this book is a distinctly contemporary icon of unspecified gender, a casual figure in sweatpants and bedroom slippers. Eager to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients, the new home cook is wonderfully adept at tasting and tweaking until any mistakes with a recipe have been remedied. Actually, there’s no such thing anymore as making a mistake with a recipe. This enviable creature cooks with abandon, recipes optional.