Select Page

Cooking as an Art

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


Since the days when it was first discovered that heat could be applied to, and improve the material Nature so bountifully provides for the use of man, much has been written on the subject of cooking. Some of the brightest men and women of all countries and generations have devoted their time and powers to this theme; yet today it must be confessed that to a large majority it seems commonplace. The old poets knew of its prolificness in sentiment, and inspired, no doubt, by some delicious concoction, Homer and Horace sang of its virtues and its pleasures. Even the Father of History, Herodotus, deemed the easy grace and lively vigor of his style none too good for such a subject, and he gave us many interesting historical facts concerning it. It was after the Asiatic conquest that luxury in eating crept into Rome. Lucullus first introduced habits of epicureanism after his return from Asia, and the gourmand Apicius, carved for himself a deathless name. Athenæus preserved for us in his writings the name of perhaps the first author of a book on the subject of cooking, that of Archestratus, who was called the guide of epicures. During and before the time of Julius Cæsar, cooking was actually regarded as one of the greatest of arts; birthdays, funerals and victories being celebrated by great banquets, at which the chief cook, or “chief,” was often crowned, was always an honored guest, and no limit was placed on the fortune he could command. The most famous cooks were those of Sicily, and they were generally men of noble birth. But in the conquests of England, in the forming of a to-be mighty race, arts were pushed to the background. The science of war and a defensive existence were the kindergarten, the school and the college. In the days of Shakespeare cooking appeared only as a means to a desirable end — that of satisfying hunger. And in the simple living of our Puritan forefathers luxurious cooking had neither time nor place for its being. From the throes of gnawing hunger and of bitter pain, from the heart-aches, homesick longings, fears by night and stern labors by day were born those traits of American character which made Chicago possible, and crowned Columbus’ discovery with its triumph of today.

When Kate Douglas Wiggin was just beginning the study of childhood, she was asked to give what she considered the qualifications of an ideal kindergartener, her answer was as follows: The music of St. Cecilia, the art of Raphael, the dramatic genius of Rachel, the administrative ability of Cromwell, the wisdom of Solomon, the meekness of Moses and the patience of Job. And in her recent book on “Children’s Rights.” she appends the following: “Twelve years’ experience with children has not lowered my ideals one whit, nor led me to deem superfluous any of these qualifications; in fact, I should make the list a little longer were I to write it now, and should add, perhaps, the prudence of Franklin, the inventive power of Edison and the talent for improvisation of the early Troubadours.”

If these are the qualifications necessary for the woman who is to have the training of your child certain hours only during the day, what are those necessary for the mother, out of whose life and love and daily example must grow that child of larger growth, the man or woman? In no place in life is so needed the wisdom of all the ancients as in that high calling — the home-keeper. Breadth of view, many interests, any amount of true education will but serve to raise the standard of ideal womanhood, and make of the hearth-stone, not a public campus, but a stepping-stone to heaven. The true girl, and especially the American one, if she speaks ten languages, and thinks in four dead ones, if she paints like a Turner or sings like a nightingale, will, when love comes, forget to be artist in remembering how to be woman.

At the present time the subject of cooking is demanding more attention than it has ever before in the history of America. Hunger demands the daily use of the knife and fork; custom and fashion decree certain kinds of living, and science enables us more and more to perfect our modes of life. But until the generality of people will consent to study the subject of cookery with unprejudiced minds, it must remain a necessary evil to a few, a means to a happy end by many. Mrs. Henderson has most truly written that the reason why cooking in America is as a rule so inferior is not because American women are less able and apt than the women of France, but merely because American women seem possessed with the idea that it is not the fashion to know how to cook; that as an accomplishment the art of cooking is not as ornamental as that of needlework or piano-playing. When cooking is recognized in its proper place as a science as truly as chemistry, of which it has so much in itself, as an art more far-reaching than many others in its results, and as delightful and becoming as being able to decorate the family sideboard with hand-painted china, then American women will not alone equal their French sisters, but should, by reason of their superior advantages in education, surpass them in this as in other things. French women know how to dress because they make a study of it. They are world renowned cooks because they make a study of that also. “It takes more brains to prepare a good dinner than it does to learn French and German or to write a good essay.”

The domestic problem is as much the question of the day to the women of this country as the labor question is to the man, and assuredly of as much moment. In the Congress of Household Economics, held only a week ago in the Art Institute, the much-disputed question of domestic service was viewed in all its phases. And the answer to the problem, given in so many forms, could always be translated a higher, a better education — the education of our girls — not alone the few who are finished in fashionable boarding-schools, nor alone the many who crowd the colleges, although this step must to a certain extent begin right there. But the hundreds of “home” girls should be taught as well that cooking is an accomplishment every girl should pride herself upon possessing. When the generality of women who have homes to keep understand the art of cooking so that they are not dependent upon chef, caterer or cook for daily bread; when Dame Fashion has decided that cooking is as indispensable a part of the curriculum of study in all schools as arithmetic or literature; when girls of all kinds and conditions of life realize that cooking is not lowering to one’s dignity, then, and not till then, will the Sphinx have to bestir herself to propound another riddle to womankind. When our girls as well as our boys are taught that any honest labor raises, not lowers, their dignity and standing; when they realize, as only good sense or higher education can teach them, that people make their work honored or degraded by their manner of performing it, not their occupation renders them so, then girls, instead of rushing into mills and factories, will, having studied the art of cooking, prefer the more quiet, dignified and elevating occupation of cooking. But it must first be placed in its rightful position, and this reform be from the outside, in; from the top, down. It must be made the fashion. “Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurred to another man, it is the key to that era. Every reform was once a private opinion, and when it shall be a private opinion again it will solve the problem of the age.” If this reform be needed, it must come. If a remedy for a crying evil be found in a private opinion, let it be known. Let it become the fashion.

When you consider the wonderful mechanism of the human body, its manifold requirements, and how wonderfully Nature has ordained our being, we can well be aghast at the accepted ignorance of the art of cooking as an art, and the accepted ignorance of our cooks. What man would permit the walls of his house to be laid by a tinsmith? What man would trust his life in a boat steered by a man who had been but a fireman in the hold? Yet how many of our so-called cooks have any real knowledge of the subject? how many, not alone of the cooks, but of the housekeepers, know why we eat butter with bread, rice and potatoes with meat? Or why Nature gives us fruit and green vegetables in the warm season, and not in the cold? Yet it is this very knowledge that makes of cooking an art. Why should we not demand of the person who has so much that concerns our well-being in her hands, that she have a training for it as well as the man who holds our horses, or the woman who makes our clothes? Most assuredly we would not employ a physician who had only read Steele’s physiology and experimented on his own family. And it is safe to say that if we had better educated cooks, we could not support well so many doctors. But we can not demand, any more than teach, that we do not understand ourselves. “Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” Cooking is an ordinary, everyday occupation, but when rightly done is not only easily performed, but becomes a delightful labor. Raise it to its true dignity. Give it its rightful place among the arts. Women have been fighting many battles for higher education in the last few years, and they have nearly gained the day. But when their victorious banner be unfurled, let not one star be missing from its field of glory — this star of household labor, which must include the training from childhood to motherhood, from the mother to the child. “It is better to be ready, even if one is not called for, than to be called for and found wanting.”



Source: The Congress of Women, Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 810-812.