May 23, 2011

Who is that Masked Man?

This week I'll be going through a little gem of a cookbook by the Mystery Chef, who has long since been revealed as early radio/TV chef John MacPherson. The Little Book of Excellent Recipes was published in 1934 under the sponsorship of Davis Baking Soda and includes a few hundred recipes plus 81 "Cooking Tips" that range from "How to keep horseradish from bothering the eyes while grating" (clench a 1/4 slice of ordinary bread between your teeth) to "Putting out a fat fire". MacPherson has an unusual and interesting back story, as summarized by blogger Sandra Lee:

“MacPherson writes that he came to America in 1906 from London where he owned a rapidly growing advertising business. He came looking for American business and later decided to stay and learn American methods. He left the London business in the hands of his father who was a director for various large companies. His father often complained that John made money so easily and spent it much too freely; he thought if his son stayed in America it would be an opportunity to learn the real value of money. His father, who had been sending him 100 pounds decided he would change the amount to 2 pounds a week…all of which led to a quick change in John’s way of living. He gave up hotel living and found rooms in a boarding house. “The house was fine” he writes, “but words fail me when I try to tell you how bad the meals were…”

Thus it was that he moved to an apartment with a fellow former boarder and began his foray into the culinary arts. Given his cooking skills, the enjoyment he received from cooking, his ability to put information into clear and simple terms - and no doubt that British accent (he was a native Scotsman) - it isn't surprising that a one-time stint as a fill-in for a friend's radio program led him to a new career as a popular radio chef. 
Why the "Mystery Chef" moniker? His proper mother was "horrified" by the thought of her son taking up cooking as a hobby, let alone actually working as a chef, especially one announcing himself over the airwaves. During her lifetime, he used his alias to protect her from the shame and embarrassment of his chosen profession. 

One thing that's very surprising about his recipes is that they seem much more contemporary than those in cookbooks from the 40's through 60's, with their 'all things in aspic" style. As a post-Depression radio host speaking to ordinary people across the country, The Mystery Chef kept his repertoire interesting, simple and affordable, though not plain or bland. For example, MacPherson is credited with being the first to introduce Beef Stroganoff to the American palate.  

The recipes in this book almost all stand the test of time.  The "Tips", less so.  We've tested this first tip, so I guess the following  can be considered "Frightening Food Investigative Report #2.

How did it turn out? Exactly as you suspect it would when you add 6 TABLESPOONS of sugar per grapefruit. Of the three testers, I was the only one who ate my serving, and that was only after draining the grapefruit syrup off.  Perhaps they were celebrating the end of sugar rationing with a bit of excess consumption?

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