Girl Talk

Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Instructions?

The introduction to Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook says that “Barbie can’t remember when she first fell in love with kitchens. She thinks it all began at the instant her mother allowed her to scrape and lick the cake batter left in the giant yellow mixing bowl.” The imagery makes me wonder if Barbie might be confusing her love of kitchens with her love of cake, but the point is that Barbie was racking up kitchen experience at a very young age, which is obvious from the way that the directions are often written out in her cookbook.

Barbie’s Baked Custard recipe starts by telling us to “scald milk.” That’s something I’ve done a few times before, but it’s not a typical feature of everyday cooking. And many recipes I’ve seen, even the ones from the vintage Good Housekeeping set I’ve been looking through lately, write out more detailed descriptions for that kind of process.

These days a novice cook can poke around online if they need more thorough instructions on scalding milk or to setting up a makeshift double boiler. But the girls who got Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook back in the 60s didn’t have Google. If they needed help, they were expected (as one early recipe suggests for separating eggs) to ask Mother.

The assumption that any young person has a mother (or another nearby adult) with the time and ability to walk them through kitchen tasks is a solid reminder of the target audience for Barbie products of that era. Barbie’s late-50s image as a teen fashion model was considered too sexy by many parents (unsurprising considering that she was partly inspired by a German doll based on an adult cartoon), so during the next decade Mattel softened the doll’s look and gave Barbie a steady boyfriend, a few family members and a girl-next-door best friend. Barbie’s Easy-As-Pie Cookbook was released in 1964, the same year as the first doll for Barbie’s little sister, Skipper, who appears in several of the cookbook’s stories.

With Barbie repositioned as a more stereotypical, but still glamorous, white, middle-class young woman, I guess it makes sense for the writer of her cookbook to assume that it would mostly be used by girls who already had, or at least had access to, a certain level of cooking know-how.

And it’s not as if the recipes are all that difficult to follow. There’s a glossary in the back too, which has a brief entry on scalding should any befuddled aspiring custard cook with no Google (or mother) around remember that the glossary exists. It’s just that even as an experienced home cook, some of these recipes send me looking for clarification. Other recipes are surprisingly time consuming or finicky for a cookbook meant for young people. Barbie absolutely relies on a few convenience-food shortcuts, but for every frozen chow mein or canned biscuit she uses, there’s also a scratch-made marble cake or a dish that will burn almost instantly if you give it a few seconds too long under the broiler.

I haven’t read any other vintage cookbooks for kids, but I did recently pick up a copy of another of Barbie’s cookbooks: Barbie Fun to Cook from 2001. It’s a DK book, so there are photos of every single step. The recipes chosen are a little more basic, and there’s also a reminder for young cooks to get adult supervision whenever they use the stove or touch a knife. And Fun to Cook shows you how to use a heat-safe bowl and saucepan to melt chocolate instead of just assuming that there’s a double boiler in every home. Making something from it would be a very different experience.

While some of the recipes in Easy-As-Pie seem abrupt to me, all of the ones we’ve tried so far have worked. Some were under-seasoned or involved a combination of flavors we didn’t care for, but we haven’t run across the kind of spectacular failures that I half-expected from a fashion doll tie-in cookbook. At least not yet.

My guess is that despite having some real effort put into its recipes, Easy-As-Pie was partly aspirational. The kind of thing a Barbie fan might like because it let them picture themselves as the happy, competent Barbie of its stories rather than the easily overwhelmed Skipper. That sense of “I could be like this” is a common element of a lot of Barbie toys—as well as a lot of today’s glossy, photo-heavy cookbooks.

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