our household. Also, it’s not about a human baby, because really, for that to happen now, there would have to
be a star in the East.
What it is about is a cookbook.
Those who know me, and those who read this blog, know I collect vintage American cookbooks.
They’re not just for display. I use them—a lot.
Because of its nostalgic value, my favorite is my mom’s 1950, first edition Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book—written for the I-can’t-even-boil-water, post-World War II brides. It’s obvious how much I get mine out, since the spine is held together with duct tape. I also depend on an exact facsimile of the 1953 “Red Plaid” Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, formatted in a user friendly three-ring binder. It was the perfect birthday present from The Hubster a few years back.
Too, there’s the 1960s four-book set of good eats titled Favorite Recipes of America, which I bought from a long gone cookbook store in beautiful downtown Burbank. Added to these are more than a dozen smaller books and pamphlets, each one stashed in my kitchen corner. These publications always provide at least one dish that’s worth a return visit.
Now, I expect to be making many happy returns to my new addition--The Settlement Cook Book.
Purchased at a library sale for two dollars, I'd never heard of the title, but it called to me. With its mustard yellow cover, it's the opposite of fancy schmancy, with only a red heart, its name and a tiny sketch of a female cook on the front. It's utilitarian inside, too: there are no photos, not even grainy black and white ones, but it's still nearly 600 pages, and weighs in at a couple of pounds.
Yet as it turns out, there's a remarkable story behind the story with The Settlement Cook Book--one that's far more layered and therefore, goes far beyond great recipes.
First, it's the most famous, and most successful, fundraising recipe book of all time.
Indeed, this past summer saw the cookbook's 40th edition come out (mine is the 33rd edition, from 1976); it was also its 116th anniversary. Breaking down the numbers a bit more, this book has also sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide, and remained a best-selling cookbook well into the 1970s.
Given this success, as well as how long The Settlement Cook Book has been around, I have no idea how I missed this particular circus ring.
But I’m happy to learn about it now.
The cookbook’s origins began at the turn of the last century, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at a place called The Settlement House. A sort of combination social service agency and community center for the urban poor, it serviced a large population of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. To help these strangers adjust to America—so many were eager to learn about the life and ways of the United States—the volunteer run center offered free sewing, English and cooking classes.
The latter was taught by Lizzie Black Kander, who founded the center and, no surprise, was a terrific cook. But
soon, Kander came to regret the fact that her excited students had to spend so much time carefully copying recipes
from a blackboard.
So, she came up with an inspired idea: why not print out the recipes and lessons that went with them?
The female volunteer committee at The Settlement enthusiastically approved the plan, but the conservative males who held the purse strings refused to authorize the $18 that Kander needed. Instead, they suggested that the women come up with the funding themselves, and then laughingly offered to “share in any profits from your little venture.”
Undaunted, the ladies raised the money themselves—more than enough, in fact, to make the project a more ambitious one than previously envisioned.
Recipes were collected from not only original committee members, but other friends, as well as European dishes from the students and their families. Finally, in April of 1901, 1,000 copies of a slim (174 pages) book appeared--The way to a man’s heart…The Settlement Cook Book. One more thing: since it was designed for Settlement clients, one didn’t have to know much English to figure out the recipes.
(Another aside: although many of the cookbook’s devoted readers consider the book to be a Jewish one, early editions actually contained very few Jewish recipes. The new arrivals, after all, already knew how to make those dishes.)
There’s no question that Kander, whose own parents were German Jews, and the other women who worked at Settlement House, wanted to help the new immigrants adjust to, and even flourish in, their new country.
But there was an elephant in the room, too—one having to do with self-survival over selflessness.
To be blunt, Kander and so many others noticed that these new arrivals looked, dressed, worshipped and ate very differently than the already established Jewish community, mostly German Americans, of Milwaukee. This latter group was also a generally prosperous one, and it was feared that this latest influx of immigrants would pull them down.
Worse, it was thought by many that they would inspire a new wave of anti-Semitism.
In short, Kander felt it was crucial for her students and their families to “Americanize”—the swifter, the better—in order not to reflect negatively on the Jews who already had firm roots in Milwaukee. To that end, Kander’s cookbook helped pave the road toward near-total assimilation.
It’s all a fascinating back story. But the book still wouldn’t mean a whole lot to this foodie if the recipes aren’t
So far, I’ve only tried two, but both have proven so tasty that I’ll absolutely be making them again.
One is a Thousand Island dressing, which, until I read the Settlement recipe, meant putting together ketchup and mayonnaise, and if I felt ambitious, some pickle relish and a bit of cream to thin out the mixture. The Settlement recipe has only one tablespoon of ketchup, but that’s all that’s needed, because there’s also chili sauce, green peppers, pimiento, onion juice and a finely chopped hard-boiled egg.
The other is a vegetable beef soup that requires a hunk of beef shank (two pounds worth) to simmer in two quarts of cold water for four hours before anything else is added. When I later put in the vegetables—cabbage, carrots, celery root, parsley and tomatoes—it occurred to me that I was also making bone broth. (However, I will not be making the book’s chicken broth, which calls for 10 chicken feet, scalded and skinned, nails removed.)
Perhaps it all comes down to this: so often, the best ideas—and that includes the best eats—are the most tried and true ones. Thinking about The Settlement Cook Book, I couldn’t agree more.
How about you? What are your favorite cookbooks and/or recipes, and why?
P.S. Learn more about Lizzie Black Kander at http://www.wi101.org/?story=elizabeth-lizzie-black-kander