Seattle Art Museum's current exhibit—Elles: Women Artists From the Centre Pompidou—is a boisterous celebration of female painters, photographers, sculptors, and installation artists. But downstairs at TASTE, the museum's restaurant, a woman representing a folksier strain of female creativity is getting disappointingly short shrift.
In conjunction with the show, executive chef Craig Hetherington has created a menu based on Lizzie Black Kander's 1903 The Way to a Man's Heart, a cookbook first issued for immigrant clients of the Milwaukee Settlement House (SAM press materials identify the author only by her byline of Mrs. Simon Kander). "I knew using some of these 'man-serving' recipes would be a cool contrast to the strong women artists featured in the show," Hetherington is quoted as saying in a release, which claims his versions of braised short ribs and grilled lamb "subvert the cookbook's subservient ethos from a more repressed time."
The Way to a Man's Heart, renamed The Settlement Cook Book in later printings, wasn't a radical feminist document. An early edition included ads for corsets and high-heeled shoes, neither of which were likely compatible with the fire-building, dusting, and dishwashing outlined in the book's first chapter. But to offer Kander as the antithesis of "strong women" is unfair. In 1878, 42 years before women won the right to vote, Kander's valedictory address at Milwaukee's East Side High School graduation was entitled "When I Become President."
The daughter of a dry-goods shopkeeper and a talented home cook, Kander joined an immigrant-aid society soon after graduation. Her position took her into the city's meanest slums, where she urged newly arrived Russian Jews to "Americanize" and keep their small homes clean. Her commitment to cleanliness—a preoccupation of the Progressive movement, forged alongside a growing acceptance of germ theory—led her to establish a bathhouse attached to the Schlitz Brewery, with water piped in from the bottle-sanitizing room.
In 1900, Kander helped establish the Settlement House, where she taught cooking classes. The cookbook was conceived as a way to underwrite the House's operation costs—and sales kept it afloat for nine years.
"Although considered one of the most successful fundraising cookbooks in American history, The Settlement Cook Book emanated from Kander's efforts to Americanize Russian immigrant women through cooking classes," Angela Fritz wrote in a 2004 article for Wisconsin Magazine of History. To Kander, Americanization meant eating more red meat than fish, using brand-name processed foods, giving up Jewish dietary laws, garnishing plates with lettuce leaves and carved tomatoes, measuring ingredients in a scientific manner, and keeping an orderly kitchen. It also called for cocktails and truffles.
"The Settlement Cook Book tried to bring elegance and decorum to the Jewish home through haute cuisine," Fritz writes. "[It] served as a manual for the dramatization of middle-class values at the Jewish table with the inclusion of cocktails such as Manhattans, Mint Juleps, and Champagne Punch. Kander had been greatly influenced by French cuisine, including recipes for Delmonico Salad Dressing with chopped truffles, Water Lily Salad, and pate de foie gras."
Although many of the dishes Kander promoted may have seemed frivolous in a tenement context, she firmly believed the kitchen was the entryway to successful society. And her recipes were good: "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," James Beard told The New Yorker when asked to name his favorite cookbook (which later became the first inductee into the Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame). Despite The Settlement Cook Book's original title, pleasing men was never chief among Kander's aims: The word "husband" doesn't appear once in her text.
Kander's full-throated defense of assimilation seems less heroic today, when diversity and individualism are conventionally prized. Her transformation of her pupils' beloved gefilte fish into an elegant "herring salad" would likely strike many contemporary cooks as disrespectful and misguided. But a philosophical shift doesn't retroactively weaken Kander's leadership or culinary sense. Like many of the women showcased in SAM's galleries, she was subservient only to her values and vision.