Hearth to Hearth: Childrens Cookbooks

Hearth to Hearth: Childrens Cookbooks – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2001

The world of the kitchen was surely one that included children from the earliest times, as mothers initiated their daughters into the culinary arts and instructed them on the commonplace, intricate or subtle skills of a competent cook. But for millennia, the very idea of cookbooks for children was totally inappropriate, as most people who cooked learned their relatively simple processes by watching, were illiterate, or were unable to afford the high cost of recorded recipes. And the recorded recipes, when they did exist, were intended for professional cooks who served the aristocracy with an elaborate and expensive cuisine. And so it is no surprise that cookbooks for children are relatively new on the face of the earth, only somewhat more than 100 years old. In America they appear to have dated from the period of affluence in the late 1800s, as they served a growing middle class, literacy, and a new attitude toward child rearing that saw the youngster as a person to be carefully motivated and molded.

Among the earliest cookbooks for children was The Cooking Club of Tu-Whit Hollow (author unknown, 1885), which was largely a story about a group of young friends in a small town. The story and its attendant moralizing, so typical of the period, may thus have been the most significant part of this book, while the recipes and cooking hints imbedded in narrative form add secondary practical lessons. The children and their doings are presented in a lighthearted and entertaining way. Lolly’s mother proposes the formation of a cooking club, a regular gathering of girls at each other’s homes almost as a series of afternoon parties, during which the hostess’s mother teaches the group her best recipes.

During the course of several chapters, the girls interact in a variety of social situations and are guided to the correct behavior, learn a few recipes and their related culinary lore, and ultimately put their new knowledge to good use. They raise money with their cookery skills to befriend a needy woman in town — they have learned the lessons and grown into responsible citizens, adopting a style of philanthropy very much like that of their mothers.

From the viewpoint of modern cookbooks, the culinary instruction is too minimal to qualify The Cooking Club as a cookbook. But the recipes are well thought out and carefully discussed, and actually reflect the kind of recipe transmission commonly in use before the application of science to the kitchen. Highly anecdotal and embedded in the small world of the social community, the recipes tell us that food was not an abstraction or an isolated construct, but very much integrated into the daily fabric of life. If nothing else, they describe girls’ preparation for the ideal role of middle-class women at the time-domestic first and foremost, using their special “gifts” cooperatively, selflessly, and generously to serve family and community. Although juvenile cookbooks of this type were new and innovative as a literary form, their messages were anything but revolutionary. They offered a way of supporting the status quo of both women’s roles and fashionable cuisine — the new jelly custard pies, frosted cakes and dainty sandwiches along side the more traditional home-baked yeast breads.

In 1912 the same kind of children’s cookbook was still in vogue. Jane Eayre Fryer’s Mary Frances’ First Cook Book: Adventures Among the Kitchen People (1912) is perhaps the best -known of the type. Significantly, it was dedicated by the author to “a little girl whose great ambition was to help her mother.” Also in narrative anecdotal form, the book is comprised of twenty-six chapters, each of them recounting a dramatic incident in which young Mary Frances learns a lesson. Woven into the stories are some forty recipes, now written in modern scientific notation, along with appropriate comments on the styles and manners of the dining room. Again, the backbone of the book is its moral and social guidance, and its function is that of a training manual for a girl’s adult role.

Mary Frances (usually cheerful, endearing, well-meaning, eager to learn and to please) is scolded when her father learns that she, while at home alone, had invited a hungry “tramp” into the kitchen and cooked a small meal for him. She learns that even such a generous and compassionate child as she is should have obeyed her father and never opened the door to a stranger. In addition, the disreputably dressed and down-and-out Irish tramp (who for many of that period represented unwelcome immigrants) might still have been a worthy person despite his obvious difficulties. Such a point of view was not always held by the native-born; and so the book’s charitable tone, similar to that of so many period church missionary groups, reinforces the moral ideal of women’s “innate religiosity.” The cooking lesson in this chapter also instructs the reader on making tea and omelet, and serving them with homemade bread and butter. This relatively simple cooking suits Mary’s young age, but becomes a bit more advanced as the book progresses.

In what may have been a combination of fairy tale traditions with an early stab at cartoonings, the basic kitchen utensils (the “kitchen folks”) are given personae, names and voices — Aunty Rolling Pin (who makes biscuits for a doll’s tea party), Tea Pot, Tea Kettle, Coffee Pot, Sauce Pan, Toaster Man, and so on. Their instructive conversation, helpful hints, pleasantries, and general fun-making were doubtless entertaining for young cooks with short attention spans. And so it is Aunty Rolling Pin who directs Mary Frances’ first attempts at making biscuits, in this case miniature ones for her doll’s tea party.

The genre continued for a while after World War I. Clara Ingram Judson’s Cooking Without Mother’s Help (1920) is another transition between a basic storybook with secondary cooking and the more formally organized and presented scientifically written recipes. Here ten-year old Alice is involved in conversations with her mother, who manages to offer thorough-going directions and commentary on new nutrition wisdom of the day, measurements, and procedures before leaving Alice to work on her own. Young Alice is entrusted with not only the recipe but also lighting the gas stove and cleaning up with your younger sister (which may seem amazingly precarious in our non-cooking world today). The eternal cheerfulness of mother and daughters and the cooperativeness of the small sisters is the model intended to inspire a young reader. This volume is one in a series called What I Can Do With My Hands, and appears to have been influenced by the growing home economics movement.

Home Economics, or Domestic Science as it was then called, was taught at this time in the public schools from the early grades on, as structured classes in cooking for boys and girls together. Elementary schools had special kitchens, and of course they needed cookbooks. Judson, who wrote a series of books for children on various domestic skills, also wrote a more formal textbook kind of cookbook, perhaps for this purpose. No longer chatty, her Child Life Cook Book (1926) stressed careful measurements and directions in standard form, along with general information about the value, selection, and use of different kinds of foodstuffs.

Very much in the same vein was Constance Johnson’s When Mother Lets Us Cook; A Book Of Simple Receipts For Little Folk With Important Cooking Rules In Rhyme… (1919), again a single-minded collection of organized recipes. The title would suggest that it was intended for home use, but it may have been used as a text (no morality in sight). Here, too, an attempt is made to amuse the young reader by clever little jingles: “When you bake a small thin, have the oven hot, But for baking big things cool it off a lot.”

Was there some sense that authors believed that the work was not intrinsically fascinating or fun and that young children needed to be enticed into learning?

In 1932, Louise Price Bell published a small cookbook entitled Kitchen Fun: Teaches Children To Cook Successfully. Approp-riate recipes and simple instructions illustrated with clear line drawings seemed to offer an early format that a child could use alone. Significantly, it was offered again in 1946, this time in a large format soft cover edition as one in a series of story books for “the nursery.”

And by the 1940s there was no shortage of school texts for home economics classes. An interesting series, Continued Study Units, Home Economics, included a cookbook entitled Foods of our Forefathers in The Middle Colonies 1614-1776 (1941), tying cookery to the social studies curriculum. With chapters devoted to the recipes of English New England, Swedish Delaware, German Pennsylvania, etc. One sees growing respect for historical ethnicity taking form, as the “melting pot” theory shaped our vision of American cuisine.

The period after World War II, home centered and reaching for normalcy, saw the appearance of a number of inexpensive popular works for young cooks. Betty Crocker, noted for a good basic adult work, also produced Betty Crocker’s Cook Book For Boys and Girls (1957). Part product promotion and part good cookbook, it turned out to be a classic with many reprintings. Notably it combined basic dishes and entertaining foods like “S’mores” or initialed pancakes, as well as the new idea that home cookery was not entirely the province of girls. Illustrated by informative drawings, it prompted youngsters to cook on their own, and sometimes simplified the recipes by recommending Betty Crocker mixes.

This bit of self-promotion was not new — a number of food companies produced recipe pamphlets touting their products, and some of them drew on children’s themes — among them Brer Rabbit Molasses and Royal Baking Powder. Standard recipe form was continued in force.

In the ‘70s, a new direction in simplified directions helped even very young cooks and lower-level readers to understand a recipe. Em Riggs and Barbara Darpinian’s I Am A Cook Book relied more on diagrams and drawings than printed words. Using the style of a comic strip cartoon, it allowed 5-year-olds to visualize a recipe without reading. The pragmatic gist of their work was to cut through the printed matter and get to the heart of the action.

In the same period, a spate of imaginative young children’s picture books included recipes. Most appealing is Tomie dePaola’s Pancakes For Breakfast (1975), in which the story is told entirely in beguiling pictures and the only printed words are the recipe. Two decades later Raold Dahl wrote Revolting Recipes (1994), a series of simple recipes for young cooks which apparently interpreted the foods he had invented in his many children’s books. Cooking was now associated with artistry.

During this century, children’s cookbooks, like all material culture, have adapted to changing popular culture. We have seen them drop the morality and congeniality of the 1880s home, move into scientific notation and professional feel of the early part of the following century, and more recently as associated itself with art and creativity. It’s just another case of changing American culture reflected in the kitchen. The question of children’s cookbooks in the future is most uncertain, as we have given up much of home cooking in favor of convenience foods and take-out. Perhaps their future lies with the phenomenon of treasuring something traditional only after it is endangered. In the meanwhile, many of these early cookbooks are still viable. Tea parties for dolls, after all, are never out of style.

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