Cookbooks are often symbols of a society. They reflect tastes and customs. Thus my correspondents assure me that the Great American Favorite Brand Name Cookbook, first issued in 1993 and now described by publishers Abe Books as belonging in the “literary genre,” is seen in the US to be suited to the national taste for safe foods and familiar trademarks. For the English, Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book was described as the standard guide in British homes for more than a century. First published in 1861, it is named after Isabella Mary Beeton, a journalist, editor and columnist who produced the kingdom’s “extensive guide to running the Victorian home.” The book itself has long been part of middleclass memories of a cosy existence. Isabella died in childbirth aged 28, in August 1865. Her husband sold her publishing business for a song, but the brand was later recovered in part by the family. It is now offered as a literary cookbook, Mr Beeton’s, written and compiled by Colin Beeton, and also published by Abe Books. The Germans obviously have their own “gemütlich” atmosphere placed in the kitchen bookshelf, and so does just about every nation and community.
Right here on the local doorstep, we have our own national cookery book. The latest edition of Doña Petrona’s recipes reached number 103 on June 29, the lady’s birthday, issued by the Planeta imprint. (Regrettably the publishers put only three and a bit copies in the launch and blamed logistics. A very Argentine recipe.) The occasion was important for the local trade and press because it was the first time Doña Petrona’s 1,000 recipes have been edited in a culinary order and almost as orderly are details of measures and references. In many of her early kitchen prescriptions precision was omitted (such as, “a drop in a glass full,” but did not say how big the glass should be or, on television, that a recipe needed “three eggs, this size, no smaller”).
The book was launched at the Museo Doña Petrona C. de Gandulfo (1896-1992), which nobody seems to know about. The memorial exhibition opened a year ago, also on the birthday in question, at Avenida Jujuy, on the corner of Garay, appropriately in the gastronomic wholesalers section of the San Cristóbal area of Buenos Aires. The building that houses the minimuseum is part of a Panamá-based investment group called Goody, with rep offices in Argentina, Uruguay, USA and some Asian countries. Mr Richard Saavedra, house manager, explained that the company’s ground floor sells work clothes and a variety of commercial kitchen utensils, including very sharp-looking knives hanging on the wall at shoulder height. Two of Doña Petrona’s grandchildren, Marcela Massut and brother Alejandro, were among those at the launch, with the publishers and TV diet consultant Alberto Cormillot, aged 79. The popular TV figure recalled how way back decades Doña Petrona went to Para Ti magazine, where her articles were published, and asked him to help her produce her first book of recipes.
Petrona Carrizo was born in La Banda, Santiago del Estero. For most Argentines her maiden name and her age were confidential secrets, perhaps known only to national security. She was married twice, the first mate was Mr Atilio Gandulfo, whose name she kept for life and whom she met when he was a farm manager in Santiago del Estero. She was the establishment’s cook. After they were married the couple took up residence in Buenos Aires. He went to work for the Post Office. She found a job with the then-named Primitiva de Gas company. Her task was to make personal shop-front appearances, at which she explained the benefits of gas cooking over wood or kerosene stoves. The company produced a brochure advertising her advice and their stoves. With that simple printing, her career began.
She started to supply domestic advice on the ancient Radio Argentina long-wave station, then moved to Radio Excelsior and from there to Radio El Mundo, then owned by the Anglo-Argentine Haines family (who also owned the newspaper by that name and the magazine El Hogar).
Her first book (she has about five, plus numerous plagiarised copies of varying quality) was published in 1933 and received wide acclaim. It collected recipes, but also home-help advice and tips for domestic competence. The cookery books would eventually be bestsellers, the real kind, where sales of copies were only second to those of The Bible. Editions were seldom edited. They were more like thrown together, as she handed publishers the recipes added to a previous printing just as her assistant could type them. Some of her pages made cross-references to illustrations that were excluded from succeeding printings and there was little order in her weights and measures (I’m looking at a 1980 edition right now as I write). The illustrations showed huge confections in cakes and pies that few readers could afford to bake but thoroughly enjoyed leafing through.
Doña Petrona’s next step after radio was television in 1952, when she put her toothy grin on a variety of stages. The big-time break came in 1960, when she launched her cookery programme titled, Buenas tardes, mucho gusto, a trade name that would become a popular cliché among Argentines. And here on screen she produced huge constructs, of cream chapels, sugar ships and chocolate-tiled homes for special occasions, birthdays or whatever. Women watched in awe at the sheer size of some of her constructions. Petrona often donated her bakings but also tried to prevent studio crew from pilfering all or parts of the afternoon’s fare.
Her assistant, “Juanita” Bordoy – who was bossed about in menial tasks and was asked for opinions that were barked down – would become something of a trade name in her own right for the rest of the cookery star’s life. According to unidentified sources, Petrona relaxed at home in evenings after programmes drinking a large Scotch and smoking a cigar, as she had seen was the regular practice by Hollywood stars.
She died of a heart attack at her home in Olivos on February 6, 1992, assisted by the loyal, long-serving Juanita.
The Doña Petrona museum shows much in the way of press cuttings, comments, books and pictures of colleagues from all over the world. It is open to visitors Wednesdays to Saturdays.