This I have learned

Mary Jo Bellner Swartzberg

Ever since I was a little girl I enjoyed being in the kitchen. I must admit that the very first time I had that tactile experience of forming something “food like” was when I was about six years old and I made mud pies! I was hooked by the feeling of creating something that, well, looked kind of food-like. In retrospect, the shaping of those mud pies was not unlike making meatballs for a spaghetti dinner! I know – yuck!

I have always enjoyed watching recipes being created on television. Not surprisingly, collecting cookbooks (and recipes) is a passion of mine; hence, I cannot escape looking at recipes in newspapers and magazines and then trimming them out for my ever-burgeoning recipe collection. And, of course, it is always special to receive recipes that have stood the passage of time from family members and friends.

My cookbook collection is quite eclectic, from a signed copy of a Jacques Pepin cookbook, to a Jell-O Brand Collection cookbook, to The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne and, of course, cookbooks by Martha Stewart. But the oldest and dearest cookbook of mine is The Settlement Cookbook, which was given to my mother when she was a teenager. The pages are yellowed and there no longer is a cover to the cookbook. The author, Lizzie Black Kander, became involved with the Progressive Era reform movements that helped Americanize immigrants. Kander first became involved in local reform efforts in 1878 when she joined Milwaukee’s Ladies Relief Sewing Society. It was as president of “The Settlement,” Milwaukee’s first settlement house, that Kander made her most lasting contribution.

In 1901 Kander raised money from the local business community and produced the first edition of The Settlement Cookbook, which combined her recipes with instructions on cleanliness, food storage and general housekeeping tips. There is a section on how to render fat from cows and there is even a section on how to care for and prepare food for invalids, among other necessary domestic instructions. When I was a little girl I would page through the cookbook. For me, The Settlement Cookbook represents a time capsule of late 19th and early 20th Century life for European immigrant women. But, more than that, it is a reminder of the hardship women endured to insure that their families were nurtured and taken care of before the advent of buy-off-the-shelf grocery stores.

By 2004 The Settlement Cookbook had gone through 40 editions and sold over 1.5 million copies. It is one of the most successful American cookbooks of all time. And Americans continue to buy cookbooks.

According to Statista, cookbook publications in the U.S. have steadily increased from 1,956 in 2002 to 3,168 in 2012, despite the fact that any type of recipe can be obtained off of the Internet. Also, Americans continue to be entranced by the plethora of cooking shows by top chefs on television. Obviously people like me enjoy the kitchen experience. This I have learned—.