The non-essential cookbooks every chef should have on their shelf.
Recipe Card Library
In 1971, Betty Crocker published its first Recipe Card Library. A complete set, which could be collected piecemeal via coupons or purchased outright, consisted of 648 cards and came filed away in a mustard-yellow box.
Today, these iconic cards—photo on one side, recipe on the other—appeal as much to our sense of humor as to our taste buds. Betty Crocker’s recipes date from a time of outlandish culinary innovation: Artificial colors were in, conventional divisions between sweet and savory were most definitely not. If a food item could be suspended in gelatin, frozen, molded or creamed it was, and flamboyantly so.
But in the 1970s, Betty Crocker’s Recipe Card Library was a kitchen countertop icon that reflected radical changes in American society. Women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and domesticity had fallen out of fashion. For cooking to be considered a worthwhile pursuit, it had to be deemed cutting-edge. Processed foods and quick cooking styles such as microwaving were thought of as sophisticated. Perhaps most importantly, the modern woman was a hostess, not a homemaker: The Recipe Card Library placed a disproportionate emphasis on cooking for guests.
Recipe cards were not unique to Betty Crocker. The concept had sprung up alongside women’s magazines, which would offer mail-out recipe cards to subscribers to promote consumer loyalty. They grew in ubiquity from the 1930s onward, in line with the exponential popularity of women’s titles.
Betty Crocker came to the recipe card trend from the position of canny advertiser. To the surprise of many, the eponymous Betty was never a real person, but rather a friendly face created in the 1920s to front a flour brand. Being imaginary meant that she was uniquely malleable. 1920s Betty was a bouffant housewife who taught women how to bake cakes; 1970s Betty was a socialite and self-professed feminist with an effortless knack for entertaining.
The recipe card format was a smart way of transitioning the Betty Crocker brand toward its modern identity. The cards were aspirational—an affordable sliver of the lifestyle sold by glossy magazines. But they were also evocative of tradition—a descendant of the handwritten recipe cards that had been lovingly passed down within families for centuries.
By the mid-1980s, cookbooks had become easier to mass-produce. Recipe cards faded in popularity and lost their purpose entirely with the advent of the internet. But, almost a half-century on from the publication of Betty Crocker’s Recipe Card Library, they are now getting their due as objects of unique futuristic beauty.
In 2015, the surrealist artist Maurizio Cattelan and his frequent collaborator, Pierpaolo Ferrari, styled Betty Crocker recipes for an extravagant front-page photo shoot in The New York Times Magazine. It was a madcap celebration of party food: In one image, a woman with shrimp for fingers serves up a radioactive pink terrine; in another, a man stirs his coffee with a hot dog—a wry reference to the 1970s enthusiasm for incorporating hot dogs into pretty much every dish.
For some fans, it is the simplicity of the recipe card format that lends it a contemporary edge. This year, the British photographer Rick Pushinsky has made a collection of cards based on his father’s much-loved family recipes. Called Haimisha, the project is a corrective to the plush, expensive cookbooks currently in fashion. “Recipe cards are lightweight and easily shared and, I suppose, sit somewhere between the weightless internet and a heavy cookbook,” Pushinsky explains. “They’re easily propped up in the kitchen or stuck to the fridge with a magnet and, if made with the right materials, easily wiped clean of Bolognese.” Pushinsky adds that he likes that the recipe cards are so evocative. “The format reminds me of my childhood in the ’70s and ’80s, and I think, for many people, it’s very nostalgic,” he says. “Perhaps it’s time for a comeback?”