Tune the television to so many rapid-fire cooking shows today, and it seems eventually you’re bound to witness some kind of shouting match. It’s enough to make the stomach nostalgic for the kinder, simpler days of Marian Manners and Prudence Penny, the newspaper celebrity chefs who politely offered home cooks practical recipes and tips for avoiding domestic Kitchen Nightmares.
From Los Angeles to New York, Marian and Prudence led a call to arms against greasy meatloaf and fallen popovers through their popular weekly cooking classes, live radio programs and Dear Abby-style recipe request columns. These ladies had it all -- the approachability of Ina Garten, the family-friendly cooking style of Paula Deen and practical entertaining advice even Martha Stewart would surely approve of.
The only thing America’s first celebrity chefs were lacking were Social Security numbers.
Marian Manners and Prudence Penny were pseudonyms for the cooking instructors and writers, and later the food editors, of the Los Angeles Times and Hearst newspapers, respectively. As such, they didn’t really exist, except on the newspapers’ pages and cooking stages and in the minds of their grateful readers.
For her 1931 debut, Marian Manners, otherwise known as local cooking instructor Ethel Vance Morse, was given the title director of The Times’ new Home Service Bureau, a precursor to today’s Food section, which aimed to address “all the thousand and one intermediary problems and snags that confront the housewife daily.”
Behind the bylines
While there was only one Marian Manners at a time, there were many Prudence Pennys. Because wiring a recipe via telegraph was costly, each Hearst newspaper employed a local writer and culinary instructor to play the role. Though the identity of the first Los Angeles Prudence Penny is unclear, the former editor of a California poultry industry newsletter, Mabelle Burbridge, took on the role at the New York Daily Mirror. The Chicago Herald-Examiner’s first Prudence was Leona Malek, formerly the domestic science director at a Chicago slaughterhouse (information politely left out of her bio once she became Prudence).
The charming domestic goddess image made Prudence Penny and Marian Manners instant hits. In 1939, the year Fleeta Louise Hoke took over the role as Marian Manners, more than 7,000 home cooks attended her three-day cooking seminar at the Shrine Auditorium (Hoke later became the first editor of The Times’ Food section, a post she held until 1964).
But these fictional domestic goddesses didn’t survive for more than 50 years on ladylike advice alone.
“Now add the vanilla and beat! Beat! Beat!,” urges Hyman Goldberg, a.k.a. Prudence Penny for the New York Daily Mirror, in a 1963 column describing how to make rum pie. “If you are too beat to beat anymore, you are a quitter!”
In another column, Goldberg, a former police beat reporter who once had been laid off for drinking on the job, further suggests “roundly” cursing butchers who refuse to honor simple requests such as larding a beef roast with salt pork (a laborious process of inserting small bits of fat into a lean cut to lend more flavor) and keeping a rum bottle handy while cooking in case “you’d like to get a little glazed yourself.”
That’s hardly the tone William Randolph Hearst had in mind when he created the prudent (Prudence) and frugal (Penny) columnist. Like Los Angeles Times Publisher Harry Chandler, who named Marian Manners after his wife, Marian, Hearst’s vision was more of a mother-hen type.
“Come to Prudence with confidence!” begins Burbridge, Prudence Penny for the New York Mirror during the 1920s. “Your letter is not departmentalized, rubber stamped, or form-letter-answered. If you have never received a letter from Prudence Penny, you have a sweet experience before you!”
Characters such as Betty Crocker and Aunt Sammy, the wife of Uncle Sam created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for radio programming, set the stage for Prudence, Marian and their ilk. These imaginary characters were easy for the public to like (in theory, no personality flaws) and had the added benefit of immortality. The Times introduced the fictional Marian Manners within weeks of the death of former in-house cooking expert Mabelle Wyman (who had, in turn, succeeded her late husband, Arthur Wyman).
Though the characters’ names may have been imaginary, they were certainly real to their audience. During her first year on the job, Burbridge answered more than 70,000 reader letters addressed to Prudence Penny. Not half bad for someone who didn’t exist.
Many requests were for restaurant recipes (at The Times, the Culinary SOS column eventually replaced Marian Manners). A Los Angeles Examiner reader in 1928 begged Prudence for an at-home version of the unusual “pomegranate juice being served at soda fountains.”
Others were more like “Top Chef” Quickfire challenges with Prudence and Marian inventing dishes based on one ingredient. A Southern California woman who wanted to use the wild cactus growing in her backyard received instructions for making cactus candy (chop down a cactus, remove thorns and simmer in simple syrup for several days).
Other requests were focused on quelling “Real Housewives” drama. Marian Manners came to the rescue of a Times reader in the 1930s who blamed the Los Angeles heat for disrupting her dinner plans. Marian offered a fruit “soup” recipe (fruit juice slightly thickened with gelatin) to be served with crackers for a light summer meal. An Examiner reader requesting urgent help to curb her husband’s foul mouth (“my husband swears when eating grapefruit . . . it splashes on him”), received a recipe for “slemenola,” a grapefruit juice drink thickened with beaten eggs and sugar, from Prudence.
Throughout the Depression, Marian and Prudence were, not surprisingly, particularly busy creating “mock” recipes. Prudence had a knack for turning just about anything into “faux oysters” (tripe, eggplant, green tomatoes, parsnips) -- it just had to be breaded and deep-fried. Marian offered war-lorn moms creative rationing ideas such as substituting breakfast foods for dinner when meat was unavailable (for example, topping pancakes with asparagus and cheese -- American cheddar, of course).
But even imaginary celebrities have to work at maintaining their public image. Though the Los Angeles-based cooking duo wrote for competing newspapers, they frequently made joint appearances to endorse products and judge local cooking contests.
A 1937 Times advertisement boasts that both columnists visited a dairy plant and “inspected and marveled at the ingenious machinery” used to make a new milk bottle cap. (The Times’ Morse and her Los Angeles Examiner sidekick are glamming it up for the camera in hard hats.)
The former penny pinchers revamped their image again in the 1950s when Marian Manners welcomed a new decade of “items to fit in with the popular trend of kitchen and housekeeping shortcuts.” At both newspapers, simple, fresh ingredient-focused recipes such as chicken salad studded with apples were soon buried beneath boxes of Minute Rice, instant mashed potatoes and canned whipped cream, a surprising “mixture that squirts out of a container.”
Maybe it was one too many shots of Reddi-wip that inspired Hyman Goldberg, one of the last writers to write as Prudence, to shake things up with his signature brusque manner and boozy recipes like gin-poached fish and “loaded meatballs” swimming in copious amounts of bourbon and vermouth (with a few dashes of bitters to balance the sauce, of course).
Surely there were some Prudence and Marian fans pining for the good old days when readers were called “sweetie” and toasted fig-pecan bread slathered with butter was a perfectly acceptable accompaniment to afternoon tea.
But despite less than one year on the job, Goldberg would become one of the most popular celebrity chefs of his day and notably the only Prudence Penny who was a household name in his (her?) own right. His cookbook “Our Man in the Kitchen” was credited not to his fictional alter ego, but to “Hyman Goldberg, formerly Prudence Penny.”
Ladies, welcome to Hell’s Kitchen.