Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How to Make Dinner for 15 Cents

Lady Liberty pleads “Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor,” and many immigrants came here because they were starving. Laura Schenone writes in her book A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, “ the desire and expectation to eat abundantly came to express the very essence of America.”

In the 1870s and 1880s, the world was rapidly industrializing. In rural areas, food was self-produced: poor families relied on vegetable gardens as a staple source of sustenance, and most had some livestock or the ability to hunt and fish. When they immigrated to America, and especially to New York City, they found themselves in fourth floor walk-ups, where water comes from a communal pump and there is no garbage pickup. The kitchen was also a bedroom, laundry room, bathroom and work room. Vegetables had to be bought, not grown, and selecting the best produce from a market was a new skill to learn. An 1877 Scribner’s Monthly described the Lower East Side’s Catherine Market as a “little heap of fish scales… butcher’s offal, and rotting vegetables.”

How do you cook a meal for your family in these conditions? It seems like it would be easy to drown in a world of low quality food, demanding physical labor, and sheer exhaustion. Women had to adapt and learn new ways to feed their families, and they had to completely relearn how to cook.

Enter Juliet Corson, a woman determined to re-teach working class immigrants how to feed their families. Corson was a modest woman who moved to New York with her family at six years old. A sickly child, she spent much of her youth in the house, reading. At 16, she was forced out by an evil stepmother, which left her in a sudden, desperate need for work.

Corson found a job in a library and lived there as well, which helped to stretch her meager wages. This brush with poverty left her determined to help the working class eek out the best existence possible. And she believed that was possible through an overhaul of the dinner table.

“In 1876 she founded the New York Cooking School (at 8 St. Marks place btw 2nd and third), open to rich and poor, charging tuition on a sliding scale so that no one would be turned away.” (Feeding America)

A year later she self-published a pamphlet entitled “Fifteen Cent Dinners for Workingman’s Families.” It laid out a weekly plan totaling $2.63 for a family of six, about $52 in today’s money. Her pamphlet was distributed for free and reprinted in newspaper all across the eastern seaboard. It offered smart, practical advice that also reflected the dinner-table values of a meat-and-potato culture. She emphasized the ability of the working class to afford meat if economy was employed. Offal was encouraged and broth used to cook mutton for an evening meal was to be saved and drunk for breakfast the next morning. The menu is nearly devoid of fresh fruit and vegetables, but she encouraged her readers to spend extra money on bread and milk.

I became very familiar with Miss Corson’s recipes when I tried to live on her economic plan. For one week, I ate every meal on Corson’s menu, which included everything from macaroni and cheese to stewed tripe. If you’d like to read more about my experience eating like a tenement family, swing by my blog Four Pounds Flour.

Stay tuned tomorrow for more on food and immigrants.

- Posted by Sarah Lohman

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