Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What do peanut butter cookies have to do with the story of Jewish immigration in America?

They're tied to an early 20th century cookbook called The Settlement Cookbook.

"When Mrs. Simon Kantor and Mrs. Henry Schoenfeld originally compiled an array of German Jewish recipes, they intended to create a textbook for use at the Milwaukee Settlement house, which provided cooking classes to newly arrived Jewish immigrants." (1)

This book, published in 1901, includes traditional German and Jewish recipes, like instructions for pickled herring and Passover cookery. But the cookbook also includes American classics such as pumpkin pie, recipes for cooking pork and bacon, and even Chicken Chow Mein, a faddish dish invented around the turn of the century in America’s Chinatowns.

This cookbook had its roots in Americanization and assimilation but also became a compendium of American food and a symbol for the incredible diversity of America’s dinner tables. The book had a staying power beyond the education of new Jewish immigrants. It went through over forty printings and remains the best selling charity cookbook to date.

I own the 27th edition, published 1946, which was a present to my Catholic Grandmother on her wedding day. It is inscribed to her: "With all my love and best wishes in your new cooking ventures."

My mother remembers making peanut butter cookies from this book every Christmas. Baking them for the first time in my own kitchen, I felt a sudden connection to my mother, and I could imagine her as a child working beside my grandmother. Through this act of recreation via baking, I suddenly felt more connected to my family’s history and gained a better understanding of my past.

Try these cookies in your own kitchen; they’re small and crispy and have become a favorite of mine and of my fellow educators at the Tenement Museum.


(1) Schenone, Laura. 1,000 Years Over a Hot Stove. W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.

- Posted by Sarah Lohman

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