I never paid much attention to my mother’s cookbook collection as a kid. And yet, thinking back to my childhood home, I can clearly envision a copy of The Settlement Cook Book. I can see its spine, faded and tattered, the way a well-loved book should be. And I remember thinking its cover—a simple drawing of apron and chef’s toque-wearing women bustling toward a large heart—was at once odd, dated, and hopelessly charming. What I did not realize at the time was that the unassuming community cookbook perched in the alcove of my mother’s red secretary desk is one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time.

My mom’s copy originally belonged to my grandmother, who got it at her wedding shower in Minneapolis in 1940. “It was the gift to give back then,” my mother told me. And how. Most community cookbooks end up pristine and forgotten, lying on the discount table at the local library book sale. But The Settlement Cook Book, first published in 1901, sold out its 1,000-copy run within 12 months. Over the better part of the next century, nearly 40 editions were published, with sales totaling close to 2 million copies. By comparison, Julia Child’s iconic work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, has sold around 1.5 million copies.

I also had no clue that the book had distinctly Jewish roots, being the brainchild of a turn-of-the-century Jewish reformer and philanthropist named Lizzie Black Kander. The late-19th- and early-20th-century wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to America is best documented on New York City’s Lower East Side. But the same pattern played out in other cities as well. During that period, thousands of Jewish refugees settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Kander lived.

As in New York, the more established German Jews who had arrived in Milwaukee a few decades earlier greeted these immigrants with skepticism and disapproval. Compared to their largely well-to-do community, their Eastern European cousins seemed provincial and impoverished—traits they did not want to be associated with.

Cooking Class at The Settlement, 1907. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee Archives)

But instead of wholly turning their backs on the newcomers, many Jewish community leaders funneled their disdain into philanthropic projects and social service agencies founded to lift up the so-called “needy classes.” Kander, who was born in Milwaukee to Bavarian and English-Jewish parents, became a dedicated reformer and something of a professional volunteer. “If there was a Jewish charity, Mrs. Kander was involved in it,” said Ellie Gettinger, Education Director at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, which houses an exhibit on The Settlement Cook Book in its permanent collection. “She was everywhere in the city.”

Kander’s most influential project was a set of cooking classes she developed for new immigrants held at a local settlement house. During the series, students learned how to prepare American staples like pot roast, potato salad, and vanilla ice cream. In addition to culinary instruction, the lessons covered basic nutrition and tips for running a clean and efficient household. “Kander and her contemporaries saw this second wave of Jewish immigrants as needing civilizing,” said Kennan Ferguson, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who researches the social politics of cookbooks. “She was working in the domestic realm but really instructing students about how to become better Americans.”

The gulf between reformers like Kander and their charges was wide, particularly when it came to Judaism. The Eastern European immigrants tended to be traditionally observant, and cooking classes held at the Settlement House were kept kosher to accommodate them. But the highly assimilated women teaching the courses, despite being Jewish themselves, needed some refreshers. In notes she wrote for volunteer instructors, Kander outlined the rules for “fleischig and milch-ding” cooking. Another page was dedicated to the “Easter Holidays,” which, when read closely, was clearly referring to Passover. “These German Jewish society ladies just had no idea,” Gettinger said.

The notion for a cookbook grew out of Kander’s desire to create a resource for students, with the side goal that it might raise funds for the Settlement House. According to Gettinger, “the all-male board didn’t recognize its value” and turned down her request for financial backing. So, Kander and a team of volunteers proceeded without them, securing a publisher and reaching out to local businesses for advertising revenue.

The book’s earliest editions contain a few recognizably Jewish dishes like matzo balls, potato pancakes, and schnecken (a German cousin of rugelach). But it was by no means a Jewish cookbook, as the inclusion of non-kosher delicacies from crawfish butter to lobster Newberg attests. After all, the immigrants attending cooking classes at the Settlement House already knew how to make challah and cholent. They were there to learn American recipes and, more important, American mores. In those kitchens, wrote Tillie Bootzin in a 1980 essay, “women would gather, to learn the language and to become Americans, so that they could keep up with their Yankee Doodle children.”

Lizzie Black Kander in an undated photograph. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee Archives)

Within a decade of its first publication, the cookbook had gained word-of-mouth notoriety in nearby cities (“Chicago was the gateway to its broader appeal,” Gettinger said) and generated enough money to purchase a site for a new Settlement House building. And over the decades, it raised funds for numerous educational projects across Milwaukee. “It became wildly successful across the Midwest and, later, in the United States in general,” said Ferguson. “There was something spectacular about it that transcended the original organizational intentions.”

As with any blockbuster, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what that “something spectacular” was, but Ferguson believes it tapped into a larger zeitgeist. “At the turn of the century, America had a higher percentage of immigrants than just about any other time,” he said. Although it was specifically compiled for Jewish immigrants, The Settlement Cook Book spoke to anyone who had recently arrived in America and felt a desire to belong. It captured their hopes and their striving, and served forth an enticingly American ethos with tidy, can-do flair.

Meanwhile, the book “changed forever the way multiple generations of Jewish immigrants cooked,” write Ellen Steinberg and Jack Prost in From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Jewish Foodways. As the generations passed, the selection of Jewish recipes in the cookbook expanded considerably to include dishes like brisket and carrot tsimmes, chremsel (matzo fritters), matzo spice sponge cake, and kishke. “My mother—the way that she makes matzo balls is in there,” commented cookbook author (and Tablet contributor) Joan Nathan in a story for NPR. “Everything she wants to do that’s Jewish is straight from The Settlement Cook Book.” My grandmother, too, turned to the book like a bible.

As the Jewish community grew and dispersed, the book also became a force of continuity. “If you’re a woman from Chicago and your daughter marries someone who moves to California, giving her The Settlement Cook Book was a way to keep the family connected,” Ferguson said. Kander dedicated her life to helping Americanize Jewish immigrants. But more than a century on, her greatest legacy is, ironically, a book that captures and celebrates the immigrant’s soul.

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