January 30: She Cooked Up the Recipe for Success, and Set the Table for Those Who Followed


Before the fictional Betty Crocker and the very real Julia Child, Gordon Ramsay, Paula Dean, Bobby Flay, and Rachel Ray, there was Ida Bailey Allen. Born today in 1885 in Danielson, Allen used training in domestic science, a tireless entrepreneurial spirit and a faultless instinct for the potential of mass-market communications to create the now ubiquitous cultural icon of “national celebrity chef.” She became, for millions of Americans, “the Nation’s Homemaker.”

Ida Bailey Allen in her kitchen.

Allen, who studied domestic science and nutrition at schools in Massachusetts and New York, published her first cookbook – simply titled Mrs. Allen’s Cookbook – in 1916.  During World War I, she became a popular lecturer and educator for the U.S. Food Administration,and subsequently landed editorial positions as a food writer at several national publications. As the writer of the “Three Meals a Day” column for Good Housekeeping, she pioneered the now standard concept of the “taste-tested” recipe. Allen became a nationally known food writer through her magazine work, but it was her performance in radio that transformed her into a national celebrity.

In 1923, Allen created The National Radio Home-Maker’s Club, a popular two-hour national radio show on food and cooking,and served as its talent, producer and advertising director until 1943. Allen built a loyal following by encouraging listeners to send in recipes, awarding monthly prizes for the best submissions. As advertising director for the program,  she pioneered the concept of  radio spot advertising, interspersing individual product commercials throughout a broadcast rather than, as was common at the time, having a single brand sponsor the entire broadcast. Ever keen to marketing’s possibilities, Allen also wrote a popular book on entertaining ( “What To Do, and How”)  in cooperation with the Coca-Cola company because, as she told her readers, “Coca-Cola is the great beverage of American hospitality.”

By the time television began to overtake radio as the public entertainment medium of choice Allen was there, too, and with her program Mrs. Allen and the Chef she became the first woman to host a TV food program.

Allen was not simply a media personality, though; she backed up her public efforts with solid culinary background and a genuine passion for convenient everyday food. She earnestly believed her contribution to culinary arts was as “a liaison between science and the kitchen.” As a chef and a public figure, Allen always worked to make cooking accessible for everyday audiences, using a combined emphasis on technique, know-how and frugality. Admittedly Allen’s work relied on old-fashioned gender roles – she did not contemplate women envisioning any sort of life beyond the home, and her encouragement of prim, subordinate homemaker roles for women (or the idea that good cooking could decrease the divorce rate) seems especially outdated  (dare we say “in poor taste”) to modern readers.

A Works Progress Administration exhibit showing the wide network of Ida Bailey Allen’s reach and influence.

Over the years Allen wrote 55 books on food, entertaining and etiquette, though she once commented “I hesitate to keep writing more books because with each new one, I gain 15 pounds.” Overall, her works sold more than twenty-million copies. Allen served as food editor for a wide slate of familiar home magazines, from Family Circle and Parade to Good Housekeeping.

Allen’s emphasis on budget cooking served her well during the Great Depression and both World Wars, In addition to helping cooks manage the strictures of rationing and limited availability,   she promoted a cheaper-than-butter margarine product called Nucoa,  promoted the Works Progress Administration and put her cookbook focus on thrifty titles like Ida Bailey Allen’s Money-saving Cook Book: Eating for Victory and Mrs. Allen’s Book of Meat Substitutes.

Ida Bailey Allen died in Norwalk in 1973, having set the table for the generations of celebrity chefs who followed in her footsteps. She was still writing cookbooks.

Further Reading

“Video: Ida Bailey Allen Serves Tea,” Guest Etiquette

Ida Bailey Allen Cooks On the Radio,”  winnetoba

Ida Bailey Allen, the ‘Original Domestic Goddess,’ Promotes the WRA,” New Deal of the Day

Scratch Chicken and Dumpling Soup,” Food Historian