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Peg Bracken: a no-frills approach to home, hearth, and good food

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 1981



New York

Author Peg Bracken, who aims most of her wit and words to "reluctant cooks and harried housepersons," actually thinks a lot about home, hearth, and good food.

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Despite her love-hate relationship with cooking and cleaning that has existed ever since "The I Hate to Cook Book" came out 21 years ago and "The I Hate to Housekeep Book" a few years later, Mrs. BRacken has continued to come up with homemaking hints and dependable, simple recipes. She continues to have no interest at all in "glazes, sauceS, boning things and simmering them all day." And she continues to say that her best shortcut to housework is simply to take off her glasses.

Home for Peg Bracken and her artist-photographer husband, Parker Edwards, is a modest modified A-frame abutting some rolling sugar cane fields a few miles out of Lahaina, on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. Eight years ago they moved from their home in Bolinas, Calif., to the lively old sea village of Lahaina, with its restored wooden buildings and picturesque inns.

They did not make the move precipitously, but only after many visits and a few seasonal house exchanges with friends who live in Hawaii. So far, they are glad they made the move, although the author admits that she is not a "tropics-around-the-clock" sort of person and has to "get off the rock" as often as possible to experience snow, snappy weather, and autumn leaves.

Peg Bracken was in New York to see her publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and to talk about the eighth and most recent of her books, a memoir called "A Window Over the sink." Our conversation revolved around life in the couple's A-frame, the new kitchen, and its remarkable window that enables her to "escape the dailiness of things and to delve into the far green meadows of the mind."

It all began, she recounted, when she and her husband got tired at coping with the small, cramped, windowless cell called a kitchen that came with their house. "So we tore out the mess," she explained, "and built a n ew kitchen on the other side of the house.

"We discovered the exhilarating experience of watching 3,000 cubic feet of backyard being transformed into a new kitchen, dining room, and hall. We also had the not-so-exhilarating experience of having the new addition cost over $65, 000, but I chalk that up to the fact that the lumber for it was shipped 2,800 miles."

Mrs. Bracken says her approach to interior decoration is hardly "island" in flavor since, "like Queen Mary and those Boston ladies who have their hats, I have my furniture. It is chiefly Victorian and Early American because it belonged to my mother and my grandmother, and they liked maple and walnut and marble-topped tables. It cost $350 just to have four old captain's chairs sent over, so I consider my well-traveled furniture now to be worth its weight in gold. I do not intend to part with it."

She says she pulls everything together with white walls, cool celadon-colored fabrics, the glossy dark green of foliage plants, and a few paintings and collages by Hawaiian and Balinese artists. If she were starting over, she'd probably choose white wicker. Because the couple dislike air conditioning, they also placed big ceiling fans in every room "to give the trade winds an assist every now and then."

Peg Bracken agrees with C. S. Lewis that "being happy at home is what the whole thing is all about." To her, that means a pleasant place that is "reasonably clean, orderly, and attractive, that you can pull in over your head at the end of day, with good smells coming out of the kitchen, and nice things to eat." She does bow to the Hawaiian custom of wearing a muumuu around the house and wouldn't be without her colorful collection.

Mrs. Bracken does her own weekly vacuuming and dusting, explaining that she is not a white-glove purist. Several times a year she hires a commercial cleaning outfit to come in and do rugs and floors.

Her chief obstacle to good housekeeping, she declares, is paper -- those gift catalogs that rise like bread dough, and the nonstop flow of newspapers and magazines.

"I read a lot when I'm in the mood," she says, "but I will never be a quidnunc, in spite of the fact that we subscribe to the London Observer." A "quidnunc," according to her definition, is a person who always appears to be "with it -- on top of all information and able, at the drop of a hat, to discuss the latest cover story in Harper's magazine. Quidnuncs, she says, make her feel both tired and guilty.

This author, whose humorous books have been translated into six languages and have sold millions of copies, still insists she doesn't cook much, but she does bake a lot of bread. She and four friends periodically buy 1,000 pounds of hard winter wheat together. Then she grinds her own wholewheat flour before each baking session.

Besides her own good bread, she also keeps in her freezer a supply of Portuguese bean soup and Cornish pastries to help out on quick meals when guests arrive unexpectedly. Although she calls herself a "competent, though absent-minded, awkward and reluctant" cook, her recipes are almost never-fail, and they do successfully feed the many guests each year who descend on the A-frame at Lahaina.

To accommodate her writing career, Mrs. Bracken rents an office in the village and works there from 5 A. M. to 11:30 A. M. each morning, brownbagging her lunch because she refuses to pay $5 for a hamburger and drink at one of the chic little restaurants in town. She spends her afternoons playing tennis, visiting friends, reading, and doing what she terms "general puttering."

What is she working on in that little upstairs office where ship captains from New England used to read their mail and play pinochle? A novel, she says, with nary a recipe nor household hint.