Mable Hoffman dies at 88; slow-cooker pioneer wrote ‘Crockery Cookery’

Food stylist and home economist Mable Hoffman had been married a good 30 years when a wedding gift caused her career to take an aromatic detour.

The recipients of that early 1970s present -- a Crock-Pot -- were newlyweds unsure of what to do with the newly invented electric slow-cooker. But the bridegroom’s family owned a publishing company, and he proposed a cookbook featuring the appliance.

The job of developing the recipes and writing the pioneering book went to Hoffman, whose test kitchen amounted to 20 slow cookers lined up in her Solana Beach home. The resulting “Crockery Cookery” (1975) was an instant bestseller.

It was “the right book” at “the right moment,” the New York Times declared in 1976, adding that 20 million Americans who had bought slow cookers “were eager for tips.”

Hoffman, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died Feb. 9 at an assisted-living facility in Del Mar of complications due to a seizure and pneumonia, said Jan Robertson, her daughter. She was 88.

The initial infatuation with such slow-cooker recipes as her simple “Round Steak With Rich Gravy” or “Mission Chicken” (with grapes and topped with slivered almonds) would wax and wane. Yet the shift in American culture that first helped popularize the gadget -- the rise of the working woman -- also secured its future on kitchen countertops.

“The craze from 20 years ago had died down a bit, but a whole new generation with jobs and children are finding that this very handy appliance can have dinner ready when you come home from work,” Hoffman said in 1996 after she had updated “Crockery Cookery.”

The revisions reflected changing tastes and times. Alongside such slow-cooker standbys as beef stew and pot roast were more pasta-based dishes and recipes that featured less fat and ethnic-influenced offerings such as Thai chicken.

She thought critics who dismissed the slow cooker because it had a tendency to make everything taste kind of the same “had somewhat of a valid point,” her daughter said. In later crockery books, Hoffman tried to emphasize adding herbs or another ingredient at the end of several hours of cooking to “brighten” the dish.

A prolific and award-winning cookbook writer, Hoffman published 18 cookbooks over 25 years, working with her husband, Gar, and daughter Jan. Only a third were dedicated to the slow cooker, and two books emphasized speed -- “Cookies in Minutes” (1993) and “Pasta in Minutes” (1994).

She was born Mable Simpson on July 26, 1921, in Buckingham County, Va., to Henry and Nell Simpson. Her father was a postman and ran a jewelry-repair business.

While at the University of Maryland, she became aware of regional differences in food. Later in life, the outgoing Hoffman nurtured this interest by traveling with food writers to faraway places.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in home economics, Hoffman prepared food marketing reports for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In the late 1940s, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband and became a recipe developer and consultant for Sunkist Growers.

Several years later, Hoffman established a consulting firm, serving as a food stylist for Better Homes and Gardens magazine. She also worked with Hunt Foods and other companies.

When her husband, a civilian administrator for the Navy, was transferred to San Diego, they moved in 1971.

Soon, she started building a collection of slow cookers so large that she eventually lost count of how many she owned.

Gar, her husband of 52 years, died in 1993.

Besides her daughter Jan, of Encinitas, Hoffman is survived by another daughter, Linda, of Cape Coral, Fla.; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

A bon voyage party featuring Hoffman recipes and a fair number of slow cookers will be held at 1 p.m. March 7 at Encinitas Community Center, 1140 Oakcrest Park Drive, Encinitas.