My lovely, talented, smart, sweet niece Sophie Javna has been studying the history of settlement work in Chicago. Hold onto that information for a paragraph or two.
I don’t get to see Sophie often enough since she’s at Colorado College and I’m in Manhattan. However, we converged at her parents’ home in Ashland, OR (also home of a wonderful indie bookstore called Bloomsbury Books) in mid-October for her mom’s birthday celebration.
Sophie is a serious food person, but being a mere twenty-one she didn’t grow up with the same cookbooks that her aunt (formerly a serious food person, and author of ten cookbooks) did. I began cooking in the mid-1960s, when The Settlement Cook Book [sic] was right up there with The Joy of Cooking.
I owned the 1965 edition, and the recipes were wonderful—but the chapters that were not about food and that were addressed to young immigrant women in late nineteenth-century Milwaukee made it more compelling than any ordinary cookbook. And that’s what ties right into Sophie’s study of the settlement house movement, as you will see from my article below, written for Eater’s Digest: 400 Delectable Readings About Food and Drink, published in 2006.
the story of the settlement cookbook
Mrs. Simon Kander was not, reputedly, a warm and fuzzy person. She was, however, a formidable lady who got things done. In Milwaukee in 1896 she and a group of other Jewish women opened a settlement house for Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to teach them English and other useful skills that would assist them in assimilating into American society. Not least of these skills—at least in Lizzie Kander’s opinion—was cooking.
In 1901 Mrs. Kander observed that in the cooking classes (some of which she taught herself) the high school girls were spending precious time copying down the recipes that the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. It occurred to Mrs. Kander that many hours could be saved and much more progress made if each girl were given a printed booklet containing those recipes, along with instructions on various other household matters such as cleaning, stain removal,, and building a fire. The settlement could sell the booklets, too, for a bit of income.
She applied to the Settlement Board (all men, of course) for eighteen dollars to fund the project. They turned her down, though they added—famously—that they would be happy to “share in any profits from your little venture.”
Little venture? The Way to a Man’s Heart…The Settlement Cook Book was printed with the help of Mrs. K’s friends and connections, and the 1901 edition was not a booklet after all: it came off the press at 174 pages. The first thousand copies sold out in about a year. The cookbook committee enlarged the book and printed 1500 more. By 1910 it was doing so well that profits from the books were used to purchase land for a new settlement house, and more cookbook profits were used to help build it.
In 1917 there was so much cookbook action that the ladies had to hire office help; in 1921 the committee incorporated as the Settlement Cook Book Company and agreed to take a twenty-cent royalty on each book. Mrs. Kander’s “little venture” continued to yield money for all involved, and along the way the book became a classic. Many editions have been published, and over 2 million copies have been sold; in 1978 it was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame. The popularity of The Settlement Cook Book spanned most of the twentieth century, and many a young woman started married life with a couple of saucepans and a copy of the book.
From its inception, The Settlement Cook Book was not just a book of recipes; it was a document of culture, a manual of what was considered proper, important, and useful for girls and women to know in the kitchen and the home. When an immigrant girl read Mrs. Kander’s authoritative advice on what to serve for dinner or how to lay a table, she felt confident that she was on good, solid American ground. And she was.
SIDEBAR: Noodling around online, I found this delightful post about The Settlement Cook Book. I don’t know this writer at all, but I love the piece and thank her for it.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
William Stout Architectural Books, San Francisco, CA
Subterranean Books, St. Louis, MO
Head House Books, Philadelphia, PA