Art and Science
Versus Drudgery and Luck
September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
It is not my purpose in this paper on cookery to give you any new recipes, or to discuss methods of making the latest variety of cake, or the most fanciful combination for dessert. Indeed, when I think of the vast amount of information which is now offered on this subject, from the household column of the local papers to the scores of household magazines, from the dainty collections of recipes compiled by our church fair committees; on through the legions of cook books of all sizes, shapes and styles, some of them devoted to one branch of the culinary art, and others encyclopedias of it, it would appear that nothing more could be said or written. But, on the other hand, when I remember the self-styled “competent cooks,” who spend their time alternately ruling in our kitchens or lounging in the intelligence offices, warily waiting for new victims to their skill; when I recall the multitude of housekeepers who prepare the daily meals after a stereotyped or hap-hazard plan, with no knowledge of the principles of culinary science, and whose ambition as cooks is satisfied so long as the food they provide can be eaten by hard-working husband and ravenous children; when I hear school-girls fret and resent any suggestion from mother that a portion of their holiday time be spent in helping in the kitchen; when I see young ladies willing to assume the highest office of womanhood, and yet boasting of their ignorance of household duties, caring more to learn the latest and craziest design of decoration, or how to fashion dainty raiment, than for any true knowledge as to how to perfect their own physical condition and keep the health of those entrusted to their care on the highest plane of development, when I think that such ignorance and indifference can exist, notwithstanding all that has been taught, is it not enough to make one long for the wisdom of a Solomon, and for strength to enable her to use every opportunity to convince women of the importance of a better knowledge of cookery; an occupation which is not to be regarded as ignoble labor or drudgery, but as one of the highest and most essential arts? It is encouraging to note the interest in this subject of cookery, which seems to be widespread and constantly on the increase. Magazines devoted to the household, and especially to culinary art, are springing up all over the land. Nearly every paper has its column of “household hints.” “Cooking Clubs” are formed among experienced housekeepers as well as among those just assuming domestic responsibility, and even among the little children.
Many ladies who have been unusually successful in some special culinary work pose before the public as teachers of cookery, or offer their work for sale. Private cooking schools and training schools for teachers are heard of in nearly every large city. Now, what does all this interest in cookery mean? Does it mean that we are tired of the good old ways of our mothers and grandmothers? That we are disgusted with the miserable compounds offered us by inefficient cooks who demand the wages of skilled workers? Is it simply a desire for new combinations of food that shall tickle our palates? For surely we have not many new food materials. Are we actuated mainly by a desire to emulate those who have become experts in the art? Or are we merely seeking our own interests and thinking of the work only as a means of getting a living? We think that it means that many of our people have awakened to the fact that eating is something more than animal indulgence, and that cooking has a nobler purpose than the gratification of appetite and the sense of taste. Cooking has been defined as “the art of preparing food for the nourishment of the human body.”
There is no such thing as “luck” or “guesswork” in good cookery, and though good results will sometimes follow hap-hazard work, a person cooking successfully in this way really has learned certain facts, and follows, though unconsciously, certain laws. In a general way we all know that we need food to keep us alive; but how many of us understand the threefold purpose of food, which is, to generate heat, to give us strength, and to furnish material for growth and repair of bodily tissues? To render this threefold service, our food should consist of such materials as will give out heat, and are similar to or capable of being changed into substances which can be built into the various tissues of the body. Hence, a knowledge of the composition of the body and of food substances is indispensable. Without it we cannot properly select our food. Our choice of food may be partly determined by instinct or appetite, and possibly might be wholly so were it not that by the law of inheritance, or our own indiscretion, the vigor and promptitude of operation of this natural guide have been greatly impaired. We must, therefore, summon reason and intelligence to our aid in selecting proper food. A knowledge of the needs of the body, and of the elements of our common food substances, will help us greatly in combining our food so that our daily diet shall supply the daily need; for a substance which fulfills only one of the purposes required in our food will not support life. A man cannot live on water or salt, yet he would soon die without them. If our clothing be torn, we do not repair it with sand. So, if the muscles are worn out by hard work, we cannot replace them by eating sugar or fat. If more fat be taken than the oxygen will burn, or than is needed for storage, we may suffer in many ways. Many articles of food do not contain all the necessary elements, and few foods contain them in the right proportion. It is necessary, therefore, to have different kinds of food, and to prepare them rightly, so that one kind will supply what another kind lacks. We need not so much a great variety of foods at each meal, but a variation in our daily bills of fare, and just here is where many of our American housekeepers err. Our choice of food must also be adapted to the state of one’s health, and to the various circumstances of age, occupation, climate and means. It is also well for every woman to know why we need to prepare or cook our food. First, it is to save time and energy.
Some one has said: “Man is the only animate object that has both to seek and prepare his food.” Plants have their food prepared for them, and, provided they are surrounded by it, they take it in continually and make it into food for the animal. Animals wander about and seek their food, but take it very much as they find it; and some of them have nothing else to do but to eat and build up this plant food into their own flesh, ready for man. Savages take all their food with little or no preparation, and go for long periods without any while hunting, then gorge themselves to the utmost limit and sleep until digestion is complete. But civilized man has to seek his food and carefully select and prepare it. The higher he is in civilization, the more time and thought must be given to its preparation, that he may have some of the large amount of energy that would be spent in making this food into a part of himself to use for some other purpose. Many food substances can be eaten in their natural state, but the greater part of them require to be changed or especially prepared before they can be eaten, and all foods require to be in a state of solution before they can be made into our bodies.
This change in food is made first by cooking, or the combined action of heat, water, air and other agencies; and, second, by digestion, or the muscular motion of the walls of the alimentary canal, combined with the solvent action of several digestive fluids. Cooking develops and improves the flavor, changes the texture, odor, and taste, and by tempting the appetite, increases our enjoyment of food, and thus aids the second change or process of digestion. The end and aim of all this changing of food is solubility, for only in a state of solution can food penetrate through the walls of the digestive canal, and become a part of the body. By this it need not be inferred that we must take all our food in a state of solution, but we should understand the process of digestion and how to make food digestible, or soluble. If we study digestion we find that the process varies with the different kinds of food, the albuminous foods being digested in the stomach by an acid fluid, and the starches in the intestines by an alkaline fluid. The fats are only separated from the others in the stomach, but in the intestines they are converted into an emulsion. Both of these processes of the changing of food are really one process, and may be regarded as a kind of cooking, for cooking means “changing by the application of heat.” In all the processes, heat is the permanent factor, and food is cooked, or prepared for us, first, by the heat of the sun, then by our application of artificial heat, and lastly by internal, animal heat. Water is equally necessary in these changes, and it is therefore highly important to understand the effects of water and heat on the different food substances, and how best to use them.
When we know what substances we need to use as food, and the proportion of each, and how to prepare them, great care should be taken that each shall be the best of its kind, not necessarily the highest priced, but that from which we can get the most nourishment and which has the fewest objectionable qualities. We may not be able to detect all the tricks of adulteration, but we can easily learn how to select good flour, sweet butter, sound fruit and vegetables, and the name, location and food value of the different cuts of meat.
Another point which should receive especial attention is the preservation of food. Science has taught us much on this subject. Care must be taken not to expose food to the action of bacteria, unpleasant odors, or contact with unclean substances. Scrupulous neatness in personal habits of those who prepare food, and cleanliness of all utensils used, and of storage places, are no minor matters.
All labor in the preparation of food, which does not tend to make the food more digestible, or is done solely to give variety, or to cater to an unnatural appetite, is unprofitable. Except in cases of illness or convalescence, if a person has a fickle appetite, and he cannot enjoy a meal of good, wholesome food, simply and carefully prepared, you may be sure that the trouble is somewhere else, and tempting the appetite is not the true remedy.
Women would lessen the labor of cooking greatly if they would cease making mixtures of food materials which require much time and labor in their preparation, and also the expenditure of great digestive energy. Why should we take anything so simple and delicious as a properly roasted or boiled chicken, and expend time and labor in chopping it, mixing it with so many other things that we cannot detect its original flavor, then shaping, egging and crumbing it, and making it more indigestible by browning it in scorching fat? Butter and cream are the most wholesome forms of fat, and fat is necessary to a perfect diet, and is digestible if not too closely enveloped in starch, or if not subjected to so great degree of heat as to change it into acid and acrid substances. Pure sugar, taken in suitable quantities, is easily digested, and enters quickly into the circulation, giving us its carbon for warmth. Eggs eaten raw, or properly prepared, that is, cooked at only a moderate degree of heat, are palatable and easily digested; but when hardened by intense heat they become difficult of digestion. Knowing this, why should we overtax our muscular strength by beating butter, sugar and eggs together, mixing them with milk and flour and baking them as cakes, or rolling and frying them as doughnuts, when these same perfect food substances might be as palatable if prepared with far less labor? Why should we subject food materials to the intense heat necessary to cook them when prepared in these compounds, when less heat would suffice, if they were more simply prepared? Or why make them indigestible by uniting so closely substances which must be digested separately; or by over-heating the albumen and scorching the sweet globules of fat, or entangling them in starch and albumen?
Why will women be so foolish? I cannot say, unless it be that we are still slaves to the ways of our mothers and grandmothers, or to the latest freak of fashion, and think we cannot keep house without our patchwork quilts and an unlimited supply of cakes, gingersnaps, cookies, wafers, tarts, doughnuts and pies, or dare not invite a friend to luncheon without serving croquettes, patties and some novel ice or cream.
I hope I shall see the time when this subject of food in all its various phases, from the chemistry of its formation to the physiological changes in its effects, shall be a science by itself, and taught in all our schools made a leading feature of the curriculum.
A beginning has been made in this direction by the teaching of cooking in our public schools. For seven years classes have been successfully conducted in Boston in school kitchens especially fitted for the purpose. New Haven, Providence, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, New York, Milwaukee and other cities have followed in the good work. Recently some of our Massachusetts legislators are considering the question of introducing cooking into the high schools of every city of twenty thousand inhabitants. Many objections have been urged against the teaching of cookery in the public schools–want of time that should be devoted to other studies, home the best place for such instruction, etc. But in many homes no such instruction can be given, for there is no knowledge of anything but the mechanical part, and often not the best of that; and where it can be given there certainly is no study that could be more effectively carried on by the combined and happy working together of the school and the home.
Girls should be taught the magnitude of this responsibility, and while they are still girls, for no one can tell how early in life it may be thrust upon them. The comfort, purity and influence of the future homes of this country are in the hands of our school-girls. It is for them to determine, that out of the love-lit center husband and children shall go, not with the lagging step and downward look of disappointment, doubt and ill-regulated passions, but full of the sweet courage and hopes that spring from the noblest human aspirations.
It has been urged that cooking-schools only increase the work of the already over-worked housekeeper; that many new and costly utensils are required, and that the new dishes are too expensive, too elaborate, etc., etc. I admit that these objections might well be raised if the teacher’s only aim has been to show you how to make novelties and unwholesome combinations, or to outshine your friends in your entertainments. But no teacher who is in earnest in prompting this reform would make these objects paramount. I have for a long time felt, instead of teaching my pupils how to prepare elegant dinners of many courses, and to compete with chefs and caterers, I should spend more time in teaching them to prepare the essential dishes perfectly, and until they can do that to give no time to elaborate menus.
Cooking is only one of the duties of the housekeeper, but it is the most important one; for the body plays so important a part in this world that its preservation in comeliness and health is one of our first duties. But alas! How many of us allow its outward adornment to be the chief aim in life. The preservation of the body, the temple and instrument of the soul, can be secured only by observing the laws of hygiene in all our habits, especially in the choice, preparation and eating of our food. I do not advocate devoting all our time and thought to this subject of cooking. We should avoid the two extremes: on the one hand that of indifference, which follows a mistaken interpretation of the Biblical injunction, “Take no thought what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink;” and on the other hand, the untiring vigilance which examines every particle of food, weighs to the fraction of an ounce each portion, and analyzes every sensation after eating. Between these two there is a happy middle ground, where all may safely roam.
I think that all will agree with me that if we would have our food serve its highest purpose it should be prepared by those who can combine culinary taste, mechanical skill, imitation, invention and general intelligence with scientific principles. But if these words of mine fail to impress you with the importance of a correct understanding of the preparation of food, allow me to remind you of the mythological, Biblical and practical requirements which Mr. Ruskin considers necessary in a good cook.
He says: “Cookery means the knowledge of Circe and Medea, and of Calypso and Helen, and of Rebekah and of all the queens of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all fruits and balms and spices, and of all that is healing and sweet in fields and groves and savory in meats. It means carefulness, inventiveness, watchfulness, willingness and readiness of appliance. It means the economy of your great-grandmothers and the science of modern chemistry. It means much tasting and no wasting. It means English thoroughness and French art and Arabian hospitality. It means, in fine, that you are to be always and perfectly defined ‘ladies,’ which in its true significance means ‘loaf-givers;’ and as you are to see imperatively that everybody has something pretty to put on, so you are to see still more imperatively that everybody has something good to eat.”
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. 138-142.