PHILADELPHIA — In 1978, at the height of the Crock-Pot fad, Phyllis Pellman Good received one as a gift. “Here,” said the neighbor who bestowed it, “you need this.”
Good was a working mother of two small girls and, while husband Merle was great at cleaning up, the cooking fell to her.
No stranger to the kitchen, she and her husband were founders of Good Books, the Intercourse, Pa., publisher that specializes in cookbooks and other works about Amish and Mennonite life, and she already had several titles under her belt and a local following.
So she tried this new countertop appliance embraced for its ability to cook one-dish meals with a low, moist heat, over many hours, without anyone needing to be in the kitchen. “But it didn’t work. I wasn’t very impressed,” Good recalls.
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All that changed in 2000, when she and her husband were heavily lobbied by their Good Books staff to produce a slow-cooker cookbook.
“I kept saying to them, ‘How many ways can you make beef stew?’ ” she says skeptically.
Eventually, she solicited slow-cooker recipes from friends, local cooks and visitors to the People’s Place, the Goods’ Amish-Mennonite educational center in Intercourse. About 2,000 recipes poured in.
“I was totally overwhelmed. I had to take this seriously,” says Good, a convert to what she now calls “a near-miracle appliance” that, according to the NPD Group, a consumer market research firm, 83 percent of Americans own.
Channeling their workhorse forebears, the newer slow-cooker models can still turn out aromatic buckets of chili and stew. But their aerodynamic lines and sophisticated safety features and heat and temperature controls herald a new day, and a year-round culinary repertoire that includes meat, fish, vegetables, bread, pizza, pasta and desserts.
Here, Good, 64, a Mennonite who learned to cook only after she married, has found her niche. You might even call it an empire.
Over the last 30 years, Good has written 15 cookbooks, including seven for a slow-cooker series called “Fix-It and Forget-It.” In 2002, without advertising or marketing, that first “Fix-It” cookbook was the top-selling trade paperback in the country. (With 5 million sold, it remains one of the best-selling cookbooks ever.)
That same year, the second “Fix-It” was 15th on the list.
In 2013, Good released two more in the series, one with the American Diabetes Association. Another is due out in fall. “You have to be careful,” she says, anticipating a visitor’s question. “If you bring them out too fast, you can cannibalize yourself.”
In all, this modest, self-taught home cook has sold more than 11 million cookbooks. Yet she remains unknown to all but her fans, people who, as Good puts it, “cook because they must.”
“I’m not a celebrity. I’ve never been invited on a TV cooking show,” Good acknowledges, although she’s a regular on QVC.
She explains: “My heart is with people who want to feed their families at home, who work, whose kids’ schedules are crazy, who are involved in their community, but who see the value of sitting at the table every night.
“Slow-cookers take the pressure off between 5 and 6 p.m., the horror hour,” she says.
Good is particularly attached to her cookers — two at home, eight more at her Good Cooking Store in Intercourse, where she gives cooking classes — from Thanksgiving through Super Bowl season.
“People are home. They’re always around, for all kinds of meals, not just feasts,” she says.
Slow-cookers range from 1.5 quarts to 8, costing $20 to $200. They free up oven space, always a plus at holidays, and don’t heat up a room, which puts the lie to the notion that they’re cold-weather appliances only.
The new models do, however, cook hotter and faster, increasing the risk of drying things out. It even happens to Good once in a while.
During a lengthy interview for this article, she lost track of time, and while the apples and sweet potatoes in the pot still had nice texture, the pork loin was dry.
“Pork is particularly susceptible to drying out,” Good says. “You need to get to know your cooker. It takes some dancing to get used to.”
Good has some advice:
Make the first recipe in your new slow-cooker on a day when you’re at home. Cook it for the shortest amount of time the recipe calls for, check to see if it’s done, and adjust accordingly. Write your findings next to the recipe, for next time.
By then, you can just “fix it and forget it.”