A Latke By Any Other Name Is More Elite: Jewish Assimilation and The Settlement Cookbook

The Settlement Cookbook by Lizzie Black Kander, first compiled in 1901, is known to many American Jews as a beloved classic, and for plenty of people their copies are treasured family heirlooms. There is a great deal of sentimentality surrounding The Settlement Cookbook and all you have to do to get a grasp of its legacy is take a look at its Goodreads reviews or even just do a quick internet search. Over the last 120 years, it has had 40 editions and sold more than 2 million copies, making it the best selling American fundraising cookbook of all time. 

One of the interesting things about its long history is how much this cookbook has changed over time. The contents vary considerably between the earlier and later editions. Ironically, while it evolved into what is now regarded as a quintessential Jewish cookbook, it originated as an American cookbook intended to assimilate Jewish immigrants. Specifically, it was created by German Jews who had already established themselves and assimilated in the U.S and aimed to instruct the recently arriving Eastern European Jewish immigrants in doing the same. 

As the name suggests, The Settlement Cookbook was created on behalf of Milwaukee’s Jewish settlement house, simply called “The Settlement”. Founded in 1896, it was originally called the Milwaukee Jewish Mission – which tells you a thing or two about their intentions. The settlement house movement is generally characterized as having been a progressive social reform movement intending to aid the urban poor through support services and increased contact between social classes. This isn’t wrong per se, but this largely positive and simplistic explanation (which is essentially what I learned in high school) glosses over the complexities we may take issue with today. Like those of the broader movement, Jewish settlement houses were highly paternalistic and more uniquely, they were motivated by German Jewish American disdain towards the new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Where the German Jews were largely well-off and assimilated, the Eastern European Jews were poor and more orthodox. As such, the German Jews looked down on them and feared that these new, and highly visible, immigrants would threaten their own respectable reputation and provoke new waves of anti-semitism. 

This class dimension informed the efforts of the settlement houses. They were not just teaching immigrants how to be Americans, they were specifically promoting middle-class American ideals. This is evident throughout The Settlement Cookbook in the recipes like “pate de foie gras sandwiches” and “champagne punch for 12 people”. But more than that, it demonstrates the gendered manifestation of these ideals. In addition to recipes, the cookbook is full of various tips and instructions for household skills and knowledge. It is not simply a cookbook, but a manual in running a middle-class American home. The subtitle is “The Way to a Man’s Heart” and the book begins with a chapter titled “Household Rules”, which includes directions for hosting, like “laying the table” and “waiting the table”, and a number of household hygiene chores. It upholds the ideal of domestic femininity and the status and responsibility associated with the female homemaker role. It is worth noting that Lizzie Black Kander did not herself adhere to this role that she was such an ardent proponent of, and the women she prescribed it to were not of a class that they could readily afford to just stay at home and do the unpaid labor of the private sphere. Clearly her work was still wildly successful though. And given the home as a powerful cultural site and women as agents with great influence on the cultural character of the home and family, especially in a matrilineal ethno-religion such as Judaism, a guide such as this cookbook is a very significant and effective tool in shaping culture within a community. In fact, more than a couple articles I read cited The Settlement Cookbook as a sort of bible for many women.

[ID: book cover depicting a procession of women in chef’s hats and aprons reading a pamphlet and marching into a heart. The text reads The way to a man’s heart Settlement Cook Book. End ID]
Source: https://rarebooks.kennesaw.edu/blog/posts/settlement-cookbook-blog-post-2.php

This narrative of “Americanization” and assimilation is embedded in the even bigger picture of the history and origins of Reform Judaism as an assimilationist movement, and specifically in America, as a process of “Protestantizing” Judaism. This process was driven by a number of factors in the web of anti-semitism, respectability politics and acceptance, and, ironically, the desire to preserve Jewish identity. “Protestantizing” the religion was a way to protect the Jewish community from anti-semitism and Christian conversion. In order to support the survival of Jewish identity in America, as well as gain acceptance and status within American society, the German Jews who built up the American Reform Jewish movement opted to compromise on traditional Jewish observance and culture. 

This is reflected in the earliest editions of The Settlement Cookbook. There are all sorts of recipes for things like pork chops, ‘lobster a la newburg’, shrimp creole, and more. There are also recipes for chop suey and hot tamales, which paints an interesting picture of what “American” already encompassed by 1901. In addition to the glaringly trefa (non-kosher) character of the cookbook, there is also a distinct lack of Yiddish. This is no coincidence. The Jewish settlement houses promoted English and Hebrew while discouraging use of Yiddish, which was not seen as a legitimate or respectable language. While there are some Jewish recipes in the book, including brisket, kugel, and matzo balls, they are few, largely German, and not always immediately identifiable as Jewish dishes. That is, you won’t find anything called ‘latkes’, but there is a recipe for potato pancakes. In fact, there wasn’t even mention of the word Jewish at all, let alone kosher. But I did find three references to Easter.

Ultimately, the point I want to make is that the goal posts have shifted and our values have changed. What was considered progressive more than 100 years ago is not necessarily considered so today. For the immigrants of generations ago, assimilation was desirable, even necessary for survival. But now, those same immigrants’ assimilated descendants seek to reconnect to the traditions shed by their families and recover valuable cultural heritage and identity that has been lost or eroded. The Settlement Cookbook’s trajectory, and even to an extent that of American Reform Judaism itself, reflects that course.

American as Apple Pie

I made the recipe for Apple Pie (Chopped) with Matzos Pie Crust from the 1901 edition.

[ID: one and one half matzos, one tablespoon fat, one quarter cup matzos meal, two eggs, one eighth teaspoon salt, two tablespoons sugar. Soak matzos and press dry ; heat fat and add the soaked matzos. When dry add the matzos meal, eggs, sugar, and salt. Mix well and press into pie plate with hands as it is possible to roll this dough. Have dough a quarter inch thick. End ID] Source: https://d.lib.msu.edu/fa/66#page/338/mode/2up
[ID: Apple Pie (Chopped) four large apples, chopped, quarter pound almonds, blanched and chopped, three quarters cup sugar, one quarter cup raisins seeded, one quarter teaspoon cinnamon, one lemon juice and rind, or one quarter cup wine. Mix all together and stew five minutes. Cool. Line a pie plate with Matzos Pie Crust, page 302, or Murberteig, page 301. Place mixture on dough and bake in moderate oven. Beat white of egg very stiff, sweeten to taste and spread on top. Return to oven and brown slightly. Or, vary the amount of sugar according to the acidity of the apples, using two tablespoons or more for an apple. If the apples are not juicy, add from one half tablespoon to one tablespoon water, according to the size of the apple. The apples may be flavored with lemon juice, cinnamon or nutmeg, and should be dotted with bits of butter. Or, thick applesauce may be used on a baked crust. End ID] Source: https://d.lib.msu.edu/fa/66#page/338/mode/2up

The pie crust was tricky. I found the directions vague and confusing and the process was not intuitive enough to make up for the recipe’s lack of clarity. So the way it went is that I made my first attempt, tried to trust the process, did not like the resulting dough, and started over. On the second go-around, I refined my method and ended up with something much more workable, though I still was not confident that I did it as intended. 

Above are pictures of the soaked matzos from the first step of my two attempts. On the left is my first try. I didn’t finely break up the matzos, I mostly just let them fall apart on their own and then pressed them dry between towels. Suffice to say, that did not work well and I clued into that pretty quickly. But I wanted to first try making it by following the instructions exactly as they were written and see where that got me before I started guessing and tweaking. On the right is take two, where I deliberately crumbled the matzos.

Here is where I dried the soaked matzos. Again, on the left is the first round, where I pressed them dry between towels. The second time I had more of a mass that stuck together rather than loose pieces of cracker so I pressed out most of the moisture using a strainer.

At this point, I had melted butter in a cast iron skillet and added the soaked matzos. This part was somewhat confusing too, because the butter kept the matzos from fully drying like the recipe specified. So I moved on when it seemed like most of the water moisture, and my patience, was gone. 

This was what I was left with after adding the rest of the ingredients in my first attempt. I tried pressing it into my pie plate, but the texture was clearly not right. The matzos pieces weren’t broken down enough to mush into something resembling a dough and the mixture was too eggy. So it was at this point that I gave myself permission to start over and do things I thought I needed to do to even if Mrs. Kander did not expressly tell me to do them. So let’s try that again.

I added the rest of the ingredients to my redemption dough and was rewarded with this much improved mixture.

At last, I had a passable dough pressed into my pie plate, but I don’t think it was ¼ inch thick like the recipe instructed. I don’t know how my materials and ingredients compare to what was typical in 1901 though. Still, I felt more on track and was relieved to be able to keep on trucking. I waffled over whether I was supposed to pre-bake the crust, decided to go ahead and bake it, and then determined that I probably was not supposed to after re-reading the recipe for probably the fifth time and zeroing in on the wording of “Place mixture on dough…”. Oops. In my defense, my mom always pre-bakes her pie crusts and I trust her pie making expertise. Plus, not pre-baking seemed like it would result in a really soggy crust. 

Now for the filling. Here I’ve peeled and chopped my apples. 

Then I stewed the chopped apples with the rest of the ingredients. I went the lemon juice and rind route instead of wine and I did not have nearly enough almonds because my mom misremembered how much we still had and I was on a tight schedule. That being said, if the amount I used was a fraction of what was called for, then the amount in the recipe seems like it would have been a lot. I started feeling doubtful at this stage because the mixture had a lot of liquid and nothing to make it gel. I trusted that my apples were juicy enough so I didn’t even add any of the extra water she suggests. I stewed everything for a little over the five minutes directed and then made peace with whatever it would become. 

Here is the pie after baking. Of course, ovens in 1901 did not have the kind of precise temperature control of modern ovens, so I had to make an educated guess as to what an appropriate temperature was for baking in a “moderate oven”. I settled on 375 degrees Fahrenheit and baked for a total of about 40 minutes. I checked on it a couple times to make sure the crust wasn’t burning. When the crust was as brown as I could stand, I made the executive decision that it was done even though it still looked runny. “Maybe it’ll somehow set as it cools”, I desperately hoped. Clinging to my optimism, I left the pie alone to work on the meringue.

Et voila! What a beaut! The recipe only referred to a singular egg for the meringue, so that’s what I started with. But one egg didn’t cut it; it didn’t even fully cover the the surface of the filling, I progressively beat more and more eggs until I was satisfied with how it looked. But I have a perfectionist streak a mile wide that I often get carried away by, so I ended up using a grand total of six eggs. Again, I couldn’t help but wonder about the sizes and proportions of what someone in 1901 might have been working with compared to me because some things just were not adding up. And on that note, let’s cut into it for the real evaluation.

Well, you may notice the following: the filling did not in fact set. The final product had a lot of liquid combined with various loose ingredients that had hardly anything holding them together. My excessive meringue topping was the most cohesive part. As for the crust, it actually turned out a bit better than I expected, but that does not mean I liked it. The texture was odd; it was kind of chewy. While I did not expect anything akin to flakiness, it was not even crisp. I was glad I pre-baked my crust even if I wasn’t supposed to because I don’t like to imagine how soft it would have been if I hadn’t. It is likely that there were errors or inaccuracies in my preparation, but I’m not sure how much better a perfect execution of the recipe(s) would have been. Also, the lemon overwhelmed all the other flavors. I think my lemon produced a lot more juice than the recipe had in mind and is therefore responsible for a good deal of the issues with taste and runniness. But there was still nothing to make it gel in any way. Other than that, it was an entirely different take on apple pie than I had ever had before and I thought the combination of flavors and ingredients was interesting. All in all, I rated it as not awful but not good either. I guess I’d give it 2.5/5 stars.

Bibliography

Cohen, Sheila. Jews in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2016.

Ghent, Janet Silver. “’Good Food and Moral Guidance’ – The Story of a 1901 Cookbook.” J. Weekly, 24 Apr. 2018, https://www.jweekly.com/2017/01/27/good-food-and-moral-guidance-the-story-of-a-1901-cookbook/.

Hyman, Paula. Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women. University of Washington Press, 1997.

Sarna, Jonathan D., and Jonathan Golden. “ The American Jewish Experience through the Nineteenth Century: Immigration and Acculturation.” National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/judaism.htm.

Schloff, Linda Mack. And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1996.

Steinberg, Ellen F., and Jack H. Prost. From The Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways. University of Illinois Press, 2011.

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