This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.
When The Mystery Chef and his eponymous radio program first appeared on NBC’s Boston affiliate WBZ in May of 1930, they were an almost immediate hit, and were soon being heard nationally over the network. The Great Depression was hitting hard at this point, and in spite of his name, there was nothing mysterious about his easy to follow low-cost recipes or his genial, respectful manner and cultivated English accent.
In spite of his considerable popularity over the next twenty-one years, he is perhaps even more mysterious today. Very little of his broadcast work survives in the NBC Collection at the Library of Congress: only a lone program from 1949, and an informative interview from 1951. Since he regularly published his recipes in articles and books, NBC may have seen little need to keep reference recordings of him.
He was born John MacPherson in Scotland in 1877, though he only divulged his name to the public very late in his career. Back home, he had prospered in his father’s advertising business, and he was sent to the States to learn American business methods. Apparently, his father thought he was spending too freely, and cut back his allowance severely.
He found a boarding house to live in, but recoiled at the food that was offered. He started to cook, pooling funds and resources in a small apartment with another refugee from boarding house food. He wrote recipes down on cards, and eventually amassed thousands of them.
He prospered in his chosen field during the ‘teens and twenties, but lost his health and wealth late in the decade. He was in his fifties when the Great Depression hit, and was told bluntly and repeatedly that he was too old for the few jobs then available.
He never the lost his salesman’s spirit however, and during the spring strawberry season in 1930, he managed to get an appointment with the president of the R.B. Davis baking powder company. He talked him through his recipe for strawberry shortcake, and convinced him that with the Davis company’s sponsorship, a radio show in which he demonstrated recipes that used their product would be a hit. It was, and Davis was his sponsor for the first five years of his radio run.
He withheld his real name out of consideration for his mother, who thought it unmanly for her son to be a known as a cook. Early on, line drawings of him wearing a domino mask were published, and on his cookbook covers the eyes in his photos were blacked out, or he was seen in profile silhouette or with his head turned.
He began every program with the words ““Thank you for honoring me by inviting me into your home,” and closed with the admonition “Be an artist at the range, not just someone who cooks.” His programs were 15 minutes long, and though his delivery was slow and clear and he repeated each ingredient and measurement, if you missed anything, you could send him a self-addressed stamped envelope and the written recipe would be sent to you.
Throughout the years of the Depression, he gave sound advice on inexpensive but satisfying cooking. In 1951, Ben Grauer, who’d served as the Chef’s announcer and foil for a time in the 1930s, interviewed him as part NBC’s Silver Jubilee programming. MacPherson recounted with pride how he had provided a week’s worth of recipes for four for $1.48: “I gave them three meals a day, meat for five days and fish two days for $1.48,” he told Grauer.
This seemed like an impossibly low sum even in 1951, but MacPherson reminded Grauer of these Depression years prices: chopped meat cost 19 cents a pound, butter was 27 cents a pound, eggs were 17 cents a dozen, flour was 6 cents a pound, sugar was 23 cents for 5 pounds, pork chops could be had for 5 cents each, breast of lamb was 25 cents for three pounds, and ground coffee sold for 19 cents a pound.
During the war years, he gave tips on coping with shortages of meat and butter. He also recalled for Grauer how in the more prosperous and plentiful year of 1948, he had provided to Colliers magazine a fancier menu “using only the best that money could buy that came out to a $18.39” for a family of four.[i] He said that when it was tested independently “they came within 24 cents of my price, greatly improved the meals they were having and saved ten dollars on their food budget.”
More poignantly, he recalled his grief over losing his wife, Laura Maria “Peggy” MacPherson on December 14, 1949. The next day he had to make his regular broadcast and he told the story of their years together. For forty years, they were inseparable. He cooked their meals every night, and together they answered his considerable fan mail. Throughout his radio years, his voice was often recognized by people that he met, and he was moved now that strangers would take such opportunities to offer condolences. One told him that after she heard his tribute to his wife: “I went home and I tried to write you a letter. I wrote three letters and I blotted them all with tears and I was unable to write.”
NBC tried the Mystery Chef out on television briefly in 1949, and he found some success in the new medium on local television in New York and Philadelphia. He stayed on NBC radio until late 1951, and was heard on WOR in New York for another two years. He seemed to call it a day in broadcasting in late 1953, when he revealed his name on an ABC radio network broadcast, though transcriptions of old programs continued to air around the country in the mid-1950s.
He never fully retired, continuing to publish, answer fan mail, and make the occasional public appearance. He died at his home in Stonybrook, Long Island at the age of 85 on April 23, 1962.
Interested in digging deeper into the history of radio or other radio broadcast collections at the Library? Learn more about the Library’s NBC Radio Collection or how to conduct further research with our guide, Recorded Sound Research at the Library of Congress. Don’t hesitate to contact us at the Recorded Sound Research Center or through the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.
[i] “Jack the Cost Killer” by Nina Wilcox Putnam, Collier, February 7, 1948, pp 33-50.