I am an avid cookbook collector. I have community cookbooks, celebrity cookbooks, novelty cookbooks and vintage cookbooks.
One of my favorites is the 1931 edition of “The Settlement Cookbook,” written by a Milwaukee social worker named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Black Kander. I don’t know where I found my copy, but it was probably in a thrift store and I’m certain I paid no more than the original price of $2.50.
The author’s family was one of over 200 German-Jewish families who lived in the Milwaukee area during the mid-1800s. Lizzy was valedictorian of her class at Milwaukee East High School.
In her valedictorian speech, she said there was a “need to restore economic individualism and political democracy to American cities.” She believed that “social decay could not be entirely blamed on the effects of rapid industrialization, urbanization, or capitalism, but from the general wiliness of women to escape personal responsibility.”
After graduation, Lizzy joined the Ladies Relief Sewing Society (later renamed Milwaukee Jewish Mission) whose task was to collect and repair used clothing for needy families.
Lizzy later became a truancy officer whose role was to inspect living conditions of Russian immigrant families. After seeing the conditions in many of the homes, Lizzy developed a goal to Americanize immigrant mothers to speed acculturation.
At the same time, the Milwaukee Jewish Mission combined with the Sisterhood of Personal Service to establish a settlement house, an inner-city institution that would provide educational, recreation and other social services to the immigrant and impoverished community.
Lizzy served as president of The Settlement House. Utilizing her leadership skills, Lizzy suggested pragmatic and practical solutions to problems. In one project, excess steam from a local brewery was used to heat water for community bathing facilities.
The settlement house had to find a source of funding to maintain its operation. Lizzy suggested publishing a cookbook, but the Settlement House Board of Directors nixed the idea. Lizzy independently raised the money to get 1,000 copies of her first book printed in 1901. It was called “The Settlement Cookbook,” subtitled “Way to a Man’s Heart.”
The cookbook contained traditional recipes from several European cultures and had tips for cleaning spills and setting a formal table. It included recipes for kishke, borscht and challah. There were also recipes that called for pork and other foods not associated with Jewish cooking. It was written in clear direct language.
At 50 cents each, the first edition sold out in the first year, so Lizzy had less difficulty raising money to publish a second edition.
“The Settlement Cookbook” documented and defined Jewish cooking in America and was the go-to book for Jewish home cooks. Much of the contents remain relevant today, years after its first publication. By 1925, royalties from cookbook sales reached $50,000 and were used to support activities at the Settlement House.
Since 1901, there have been more than 40 editions printed and more than 2 million copies sold. While Lizzy was living, all proceeds went to Settlement House. It was the highest-selling fundraising charity cookbook ever published. Until her death in 1940, Lizzy personally updated each edition.
The Settlement House, later renamed the Milwaukee Jewish Center and then Jewish Community Center, continued to publish the cookbook until the 1970s. They reorganized the chapters and changed many of the recipes and tips to reflect modern times.
Simon & Schuster published “The New Settlement Cookbook” in 1991 and did away with the “Way to a Man’s Heart” subtitle. That edition includes ingredients to lower cholesterol, microwave cooking instructions, and recipes for Asian-inspired dishes like pad thai.
Although I haven’t seen the most recent edition, I am glad to see recipes were updated, because the canning recipes in my 1931 copy would make home economists and the regulators at USDA squirm. Gone are the days of sealing jams and jellies with paraffin wax. Most recipes in my copy do not have cooking or baking times nor temperatures as we have today.
Besides being active with the settlement house, Lizzy headed Milwaukee’s Food Conservation Council during World War I, teaching immigrants how to conserve food. She established one of the first food exchanges in the country where women cooked large quantities of food that was sold at a nominal price.
She also wrote a cooking column for the Milwaukee Journal. Lizzy became one of the first women to win election to the Milwaukee School Board. As an advocate for vocational education for women, she helped establish a girl’s trade school and a nursery at the Milwaukee Teachers College.
In 1939, Lizzy was honored as one of Wisconsin’s outstanding women.
James Beard, father of modern American cooking, was asked to name his favorite cookbook. He said, “If I consult a cookbook at all, it is likely to be by one of these sensible, flat-heeled authors like the famous Mrs. Kander,” he replied.
I, too, am happy to have a copy of “The Settlement Cookbook” in my collection.