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Tradition in the Kitchen : Settling America

April 04, 1993|LISA KINGSLEY | Kingsley is food editor of Country Home magazine, in which this article first appeared.

The Keep Klean Mission was founded in Milwaukee's Jewish ghetto in 1896. It was set up next to a brewery in order to take advantage of the unlimited supply of hot water; for a penny, anybody could take a bath. In time, however, it became better known for its cooking classes and ultimately as the home of one of the best-selling cookbooks of the 20th Century. In the nearly 100 years since "The Settlement Cookbook" first came out, the book has gone through 34 printings and has sold more than 2 million copies.

Between 1883 and 1900, almost 4,000 Russian, Polish and Romanian Jews landed in Milwaukee, having escaped religious persecution and poverty in their native countries. Once in America, they continued to struggle to escape poverty. The native Jews of Milwaukee were motivated to help because their brethren were in need--and because they wanted to prevent the newcomers from embarrassing the established Jewish community.

"The original idea of the (Milwaukee) mission was to make the children have a jolly time and through games inculcate a few of the primary ideals of good citizenship," wrote Helen Van Valkenburgh in the Milwaukee Free Press in 1910. "The mission had a large assortment of these games with which to beguile the youngster into the guild hall, games such as Parcheesi and checkers and messenger-boy, but strangely enough, these failed completely."

Rather than games, the children demanded work. So founder Elizabeth Kander began after-school cooking lessons for girls, teaching her charges about American foods and economical preparation while preserving many of the students' ethnic foods.

Part of the lessons involved hours of laborious recipe-copying from a blackboard, which took up a lot of time. Kander realized that if these recipes were printed and bound into a volume, the children would take them home to their families, where they would most certainly be put to good use.

When she approached the all-male settlement board for the $18 to do such a project, they sniffed at its "extravagance" and joked that she could go ahead and do it with her own funds--and they would gladly share in the profits.

Kander turned to Gussie Stark Yewdale, who persuaded her husband, Merton Yewdale, the owner of a local printing company, to assist Lizzie in soliciting ads for the manual and in printing it.

In 1901, a 174-page volume called "The Way to a Man's Heart: The Settlement Cook Book" appeared. It contained 500 heirloom recipes gathered from women who, the book boasted, "set the best tables in Milwaukee." Also included were 24 lessons on everything from rendering fat and making kuchen (coffee cake) to building a fire and dusting a room.

*

Books not needed for the classes were sold for 50 cents a copy, and within a year, the 1,000 original copies were gone. The profit was turned over to the settlement board (which should have hung its collective head in contrition) to be distributed to local charities, most of which served children.

After repeated demands for the book, a second printing came out in 1903--and rapidly sold out. Several printings later, the settlement committee realized "The Way to a Man's Heart" was not just a fleeting fancy, and they made a more permanent arrangement. In 1921, the Settlement Cook Book Co. was created. It consisted of a board of women in charge of revising the book to suit the needs of the times and directing its profits to deserving causes. The company continues that work to this day.

In 1953, after bids from several major publishers, Simon & Schuster took over publication and expanded the book to 665 pages. The 1976 edition still had instructions for homemade wine, but in the most recent 1991 edition, called "The New Settlement Cookbook," there are instructions only on how to choose a wine, not make one.

The most recent edition has 1,200 recipes that reflect the whole country's immigrant history: meat ravioli, pad Thai, rosettes and paprika schnitzel , to name a few. But this edition retains at its heart the flavor of Kander's original idea, in the tastes of Milwaukee rye bread, tortes of all kinds and gefilte fish, which once adorned both the finest tables in turn-of-the-century Milwaukee and the humblest tables of the immigrants who lived in the ghetto.

Many of the classic recipes in various editions of "The Settlement Cook Book" have been repeated and refined through the years. Others are relatively new additions and reflect the change in the ethnic fabric of American culture.

Except where noted, these recipes are reprinted, and slightly adapted, from the most recent version of the cookbook, entitled "The New Settlement Cookbook."

MIXED VEGETABLE SPRING STEW

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 pound new potatoes, scrubbed and cut in half

10 to 12 baby carrots, scrubbed

1 pound green onions, white parts only, trimmed, blanched and cut in half

2 cups shredded lettuce

2 cups shelled peas

1 pound asparagus, trimmed, stems peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

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