Cooking Schools and Cooking *in* Schools
Posted by JJ Jacobson on September 1, 2011
The Cooking School movement started in England in the last third of the 19th century. It was of a piece with other reforms intended to better the lives of the urban poor. Workers in rapidly -industrializing England suffered considerable dislocation as they moved to cities, where the available housing had different, and often much sketchier, cooking apparatus than the dwellings of rural laborers. The foodstuffs available in cities were also far different from those in rural settings, so cooking and eating habits invariably shifted. The movement’s original focus was to teach the urban laboring poor to eat well within their means.
A national training school opened in 1873, continuing the work by training cooking teachers. Buckmaster’s cookery : being an abridgment of some of the lectures delivered in the cookery school at the International Exhibition for 1873 and 1874 : together with a collection of approved recipes and menus is an artifact of this phase of the movement. The lectures address topics that were to be reiterated at length in other Cooking School publications: soup as a healthy, economical, and underappreciated aliment; how to manage leftovers; food as fuel for the human machine, and the need for girls to be educated in kitchen and household arts.
In America, reformers and cookbook writers soon took up the cause, but as the movement took hold in America, the focus began to shift. American reformers were much concerned with the issue of unemployment, and began to hold classes designed to teach unemployed women the skills that would allow them to find work as household servants. Such classes did not, it turned out, pay the rent, and it wasn’t long before the schools began to feature classes aimed at a middle class audience, which thereafter existed side by side with classes for women already employed as domestics.
Late 19th century cookbooks and domestic manuals are full of talk about the problems with the American diet: American cooking was denigrated as indigestible, unhealthy, and wasteful. The word “dyspepsia” was on everyone’s lips. Experts of all kinds put forward schemes for the reform of the national diet; the reformers of the Cooking School movement touted a more scientific approach in the practice of cooking to address this national ill. In this we see the promotion of the professionalization and rationalization of cooking, as of many elements of American life in the last third of the 19th century. There was also a push for cooking to be taught in public schools, and the Domestic Science movement (later the Home Economics movement) had similar aims for housekeeping and the management of the home.
Cooking schools began publishing cookbooks within a few years of their formation, and this new kind of cookbook was an established phenomenon by the mid-1880s. We have excellent examples of this genre of culinary publishing, and the related one of textbooks for cooking classes in the public schools, which became popular a little later.
The earliest of this wave of American cooking schools was Juliet Corson’s New York Cooking School, launched in 1876. (There had been earlier American cooking schools and classes, but that’s a topic for another post.) We have Corson’s 1879 Cooking school text book and housekeepers’ guide to cookery and kitchen management: an explanation of the principles of domestic economy taught in the New York Cooking School . It gives lessons for the “artisan course”, the “plain cooks course”, and the “ladies’ course in middle class and artistic cookery” giving us a window into the social stratification of food and cooking in Gilded Age America. The preface also sounds what will become a familiar note for cooking schools:
“In presenting this text-book to the public, we desire to call attention to the necessity for accompanying technical instruction with some explanation of the principles of cookery as applicable to the preservation of the general health. A book of mere receipts would fail to accomplish the purpose we have in view, i.e., some intelligent comprehension on the part of the cook of the chemistry of food and the physiology of nutrition.”
The Boston Cooking-School, started in 1879, was perhaps the most influential of the American cooking schools. It was the first to be incorporated (in 1883) and it spawned the very popular Boston Cooking-School Magazine, published until 1914. It also gave rise to one of the most popular cookbooks ever published in the US: Fannie Merit Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School cook book , which we hold in the 1896 first edition. While not a textbook per se (no lesson plans, no advice to the teacher) the book is very much the product of the Cooking School movement. It begins with this
“With the progress of knowledge the needs of the human body have not been forgotten. During-the last decade much time has been given by scientists to the study of foods and their dietetic value, and it is a subject which rightfully should demand much consideration from all. I certainly feel that the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one’s education. Then mankind will eat to live, will be able to do better mental and physical work, and disease will be less frequent.”
The project of rationalizing cooking, and making it into a scientific area of study is everywhere evident in the book; there is an exhaustive attempt to be exact about procedures, and the first chapter, on food, takes up the fuel-for-the-human-machine theme. This gives the whole a somewhat pedantic tone. Cooking, we are shown, is a serious business. On the upside, Farmer’s attention to technique makes it an easier book to cook from, today, than many of its contemporaries, 19th century cookbooks being often somewhat vague about what the reader is supposed to do with the ingredients named, perhaps because the assumption was that anyone picking up a cookbook was already versed in cooking. No such assumption is made here, and in the recipes it’s possible to trace the precise, step-by-step, directions given to students at the school. The words of advice on measuring succinctly encapsulate the movement’s take on the relationship between the new and old approaches to cooking:
“Correct measurements are absolutely necessary to insure the best results. Good judgment, with experience, has taught some to measure by sight; but the majority need definite guides.”
A crossover genre may be seen in The easiest way in housekeeping and cooking: adapted to domestic use or study in classes by Helen Campbell which we have in the 1881 and 1893 editions. The metaphor of the body as a mechanism to be fueled by proper food flourishes in this book. At the end of the chapter on “the Body and its Composition” we find the following:
“With this basis, to give us some understanding of the complicated and delicate machinery with which we must work, the question arises, what food contains all these constituents, and what its amount and character must be. The answer to this question will help us to form an intelligent plan for providing a family with the right nutrition.”
And in the same section we find a table of “Analogies of the steam-engine and the living body”
The first cooking classes in public schools began in Boston in the mid-1880s.They began with experiments by proponents of “manual training,” (the need for which was a hotly debated contemporary educational theory) created to establish the utility and popularity of such classes. (An early 20th century history of the movement in Boston can be found in the “Home Economics in the Public Schools” chapter of The Home Economics Movement by Isabel Bevier and Susannah Usher, to be found at the internet Archive, here)
Mrs. D.A. Lincoln (Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln) was the principal of the Boston Cooking School from 1879 to 1885, and was active as a teacher and an author thereafter. We have her 1887 Boston school kitchen text-book : lessons in cooking for the use of classes in public and industrial schools . It, too, takes up the theme of a scientific understanding of food, cooking, and nutrition. Lessons include rudimentary physics in explanations of the cooking processes, something approaching chemistry in the composition of foodstuffs, and detailed commentary on nutrition and digestion. The volume gives us a valuable window into the pedagogical process, as practiced in the classes: each lesson has its set of recipes to be cooked, and is proceeded by suggestions to the teacher, allowing us to see the details of the process of teaching. Lessons are also followed by sets of questions, making explicit what the students were intended to take away from them.
An altogether more curious volume is the 1890 Cookery in the public schools by Sallie Joy White, (Brief biography here) which gives us a window into the movement as it got underway. It’s pitched to girls who were potential students of cooking classes, and the author adopts a chatty, anecdotal style, addressing the readers at one point as “…my dear little amateur cooks who read this.” Besides providing a first-hand look at how adults addressed children at the end of the 19th century, and what topics and strategies one author thought fitting to engage children’s interest, it also gives us a window into the rhetoric used to support the establishment of cooking classes in public schools, the perceived need for manual training and cooking instruction, and the contemporary perceptions and preoccupations that made them seem desirable.
We also hold a dozen more works on cooking in the public schools from the early 20th century. Through our works on cooking schools and cooking in schools, the researcher can explore a fascinating chapter in the history of cooking as a daily necessity, an element of home life, a public good, a debated educational priority, and a site of the performance of class and gender in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.