Cooking with gas: a guest posting

Grant Barrett (of the Barnette-Barrett radio show A Way with Words — and a real lexicographer, one of the lexicographers I sometimes hang out with, even though I’m not of that tribe) tried to post this as a comment on my posting yesterday, “Now we’re cooking with carrots”, but it appears to have been indigestible to WordPress, so I’m publishing it here as a guest posting. Remember: what follows below the line is Grant, all Grant, not me (except for some formatting).

I did some legwork for someone else’s podcast about “now you’re cooking with gas” to follow up on our A Way with Words segment. Since we never used it on their podcast or ours, I’ll just
share it here.

Since we talked about “now you’re cooking with gas” on the radio show in 2014, some people who are against natural gas in the home, due to their belief it is harmful, have latched on to that segment of our radio show as evidence of gas industry malfeasance. They send it around to show that an industry promoting its product is devious and underhanded and if it weren’t for that campaign we would have all gone straight from striking flints to electric kettles.

So I’ve dug further into the expression (as I do with quite a few that keep coming up, whether from callers, press inquiries, pop culture, or my own interest) and I’ve uncovered a few things that have changed my mind about where the expression came from.

The main change is that the gas industry probably didn’t invent the expression; however, once it appeared, the industry quickly capitalized on it and made it their own, including recruiting some of the radio  stars of the day to help promote the product, something the gas industry was already doing with movie stars even before the phrase came along.

There are three main items which gave me the new information. The first is an opinion piece of a kind from the April 1941 issue of the “American Gas Association Monthly,” a natural gas industry trade journal.

Its key points that are relevant here:

— The expression “now you’re cooking with gas” already existed; the gas industry didn’t invent it.
— The gas industry noticed the expression in December 1939, when it was heard on the big radio programs of the day.
— The industry considered it free advertising.
— A writer at the radio show The Good News Hour overheard the expression and used it in a script.

The AGA’s advertising agency says it found that the expression was used by “travelling theatrical people” to mean “playing the big time,” since better gigs would have gas heat and stoves and worse ones would use coal or wood. A second wave of use of the term started in 1941.

Confirming “The Good News Hour” info is this that was widely reprinted in newspapers as early as April 28, 1940: “Those familiar with the Good News broadcast have knowledge of the running gag by Phil Rapp, ‘Now you’re cooking with gas,’ which was this week tabooed. Electric
outfits beefed.” Meaning, they complained.

Confirming that December 1939 date is a squib I also found reprinted in a number of newspapers, this time as early as January 11, 1940: “However pleased as the gas industry may be to hear the current expression ‘now you’re cooking with gas,’ which means now you’re
talking, it is baffled because no one seems to know who started it nor exactly why.”

The second confirming find is an article in the gas industry trade journal “GAS” from October 1941, which recounts how the industry capitalized on the expression once it realized it existed.

Its key points:

— The writer encountered the expression in 1940.
— To capitalize on it, they recruited radio stars such as Fibber McGee and Molly, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Baby Snooks.
— They ran print ads that included the stars. One is included in the article.

Generally confirming the overall popularity of the expression during 1940 and 1941 are a huge numbers of uses in periodicals during those years, in news articles, entertainment pieces, interviews, comics, and in advertisements for gas firms around the country. Many local and
regional outfits ran their own advertising using the expression, sometimes in large ads, sometimes in the classifieds, and in everything in between.

The third find is a clipping from the sports section of the December 17, 1938, issue of the San Francisco Examiner. The last line includes the oldest used I can find of the expression in print. Sports pages are often slangier than the rest of the newspaper, even today.

I have no doubt that the expression is older than 1938. It takes a while for new slang to show up in newspapers. HOWEVER, I have not been able to prove nor find any evidence that theatre-folk of any kind usedmit before it appeared in the late 1930s. (Theatre in the context of the quote above means any traveling performer: comedy, music, Vaudeville, you name it, not just Broadway-style theatre as we know it today.)

That’s all I know about the when it was first said. As for the who, in a now-archived discussion here Deke Houlgate II gives his father, marketing and public relations executive Deke Houlgate, credit for coining the phrase “now you’re cooking with gas.”

I don’t  give any credence to Houlgate as the coiner of the phrase, but Houlgate is the author of a March 1938 article about the American Gas Association product placement of gas ranges and appliances in movies, and he did other work in PR for the American Gas

In the January 1938 issue of that same journal, he’s mentioned as having given a speech titled “Industry Cooperation with Moving Picture Studios,” which no doubt is the basis for the March article that goes into more detail. Nowhere in either article is anything like “now
you’re cooking with gas” mentioned.

I also don’t give any credence to anything that credits John E. Bogan. One little industry bio says he “publicly engineered the national impetus for the movie and radio phrases, ‘Now You’re Cooking With Gas’ and ‘What’s Cooking.’” Which means what? He was the boss of someone
who ran the campaign? Sat in some meetings where it was discussed and agreed it should happen? (“What’s cooking?” dates to at least as early as 1932 and shows no gas company influence as far as I can tell so far.)

For what it’s worth, there is also a 1941 find that includes the line, “a feature of the president’s dinner was the appearance of Bob ‘Now You’re Cooking With Gas’ Hope.” Does that mean people believed he coined it? Or that he just said it a lot?

This is a good place to note that “now you’re cooking with gas” is probably modeled on “now you’re talking,” which means “now you’re making sense” or “now you’re saying something I agree with.” “Now you’re talking” dates to the mid-1800s.

It’s possible, though unproven (i.e., I have no data to confirm this), that “now you’re cooking with gas” is modeled on “now you’re talking” because “gas” has meant “a lot of talk, verbosity, hot air” since the late 1700s. That would be a typical snowclone, though there would be a flip in sentiment from negative — excessive talk — to positive — excellent stove cooking.

Other snowclones of “now you’re talking” include “now you’re logging” among logger communities (c1920) and “now you’re railroading,” (c1909), so “now you’re cooking with gas” could easily be another snowclone of “now you’re talking.”

This is also a good place to mention that “now you’re cooking,” which is far more common, is almost certainly a shortened version of “now you’re cooking with gas,” as it simply does not appear in print before, as far as I can find. Variants include “now you’re cooking on the
front burner / all four burners / the back burner.”



2 Responses to “Cooking with gas: a guest posting”

  1. Julie Taaffe Says:

    My friend: “Now you’re cookin’ with grease!”

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