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Of Cooking & Gender


Cooking demonstrationAfter reading The New York Magazine’s list of the Top 20 Chef Empires, and perusing a few culinary books I’d borrowed from the library, I was struck, dumbstruck actually, that all save one of those twenty names are those of men. Many would argue that the age of modern cookery was of the turn of the century. Not only were chefs lifting food to its highest degree, but more and more people were able to partake of the sumptuous, delicate tastes a cook could create due to the falling food prices and rising incomes, if not the lucrative opportunities skilled French cooks could find in the kitchens of America and Europe’s new and fabulously rich. Right around the Edwardian era we saw an explosion of foodie treats, and most notably, women were involved–the “Queen of Cooks,” Rosa Lewis; Fannie Farmer, who raised the Boston Cooking School to prominence; and Marthe Distel, who founded culinary magazine La Cuisinière Cordon Bleu and offered subscribers cooking classes with professional chefs, which in turn led to the formation of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Woman cookingYet these women have been consigned to the footnotes of history. Farmer’s Boston Cooking School cookbook does remain in print, but as I’ve quickly noticed, Victorian/Edwardian cookbooks written by women are shunted into the domestic sphere, while those authored by men become authoritative. This strange dichotomy of the kitchen is fascinating. Cooking, in its basic format, is seen largely as a feminine position, yet once a man steps into the kitchen it becomes one of power. The male chef is master, he is king of the domain–in etiquette manuals, one never reads of tyrannical female cooks who must be handled with kid gloves. The careers of Rosa Lewis and Auguste Escoffier run parallel, yet Lewis is mentioned frequently in tandem with sex (she was rumored to be the mistress of Edward VII, and her hotel was allegedly a place where English aristocrats met with their mistresses), and Escoffier is lauded as the creator of modern French cookery, despite the fact that the success of his career is also due to the opening of a famous hotel.

Cooks in the kitchenEven today, while watching Top Chef or Hell’s Kitchen, a female cook is rarely seen to raise her voice, shout and/or curse for her sous chefs and other underlings to get a move on. In vintage ads, a woman (frequently a mother) is posed in the kitchen with an apron, slaving lovingly over an apple pie or basting a turkey. For her, the kitchen is non-threatening; it is a place of peace and devotion; she is preparing a meal to nourish her family. The male in the kitchen is attired in chef’s clothing–tall white hat, white coat, dark pants. Frequently, his arms are crossed and he stares belligerently at the camera. Other times he is posed in the act of cutting, dicing, and mashing, and surrounded by a huge cavernous kitchen whose walls and ceilings are covered with big, heavy cast iron cookware.

Interestingly enough, when the White House hired a new cook in 1910, Miss Flora Hamilton was replacing a woman who left the employ of the Presidential mansion to marry. It seems the White House long employed female cooks to prepare and direct the luxurious suppers over which the President and the First Lady hosted (which also brings the issue of race into play, as most White House staffers were African-American, and the image of “Mammy” lovingly preparing food for her employers in the kitchen remained in popular food culture for almost a century after the Civil War). She, however, like all female chefs, is consigned to the footnotes of history, to be unearthed only on accidental diggings through archives.

Further Reading:
The World of Escoffier by Timothy Shaw
The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating by Sara Paston-Williams
The Duchess of Jermyn Street: The life and good times of Rosa Lewis of the Cavendish Hotel by Daphne Vivian Fielding
The Queen of Cooks – and Some Kings: The Story of Rosa Lewis by Mary Lawton
Coming Out of the Kitchen: Women Beyond the Home by Una A. Robertson
Women As Culinary Professionals

An Edwardian Breakfast


More than one’s residence, food and fashion greatly demarcates the wealth–or poverty–of the individual or family. During the Edwardian era, this was never more true, though, with the introduction of mass produced foods in America, those with less wealth could now afford to eat a bit more healthier.

Starting at the top, the upper classes or aristocrats of this time divided their meals in a bevy of sections, and breakfast was split into two as well: formal or informal.

The formal breakfast differed slightly from an early luncheon, except that the menu made up of was distinctly breakfast dishes: Toast, hot muffins, omelets and other preparations of eggs, delicate farinaceous foods, cafe au lait, etc. A formal breakfast was held at any time between 10 and 12:30. A fruit course opened the menu: melons cut in slices, pink, green and yellow; baskets of “alert apples” and “self-conscious” peaches, with “sleepy grapes” hanging heavily over the rim. and plates of pears. This was followed by either a mild hors d’oeuvre or a dish of mush and cream, and then the breakfast plates were laid.

The coffee urn was filled, and a hot breakfast was served: beefsteak or lamb/veal chops, with a salad of sliced tomatoes or lettuce, with hard-boiled eggs, or poached eggs on toast; or omelet with muffins, or “pop-overs” with butter. Fish, broiled or saute, could also be served, and sometimes deviled lobster if it was preferred. In England, steamed finnan haddie was the favorite breakfast fish, and egg dishes wee always welcomed, accompanied with mushrooms, small French peas or potatoes. For the next course, chicken, broiled or fried with rice. Dessert of frozen punch, pastry or jellies followed; and coffee, in breakfast cups, concluded the meal. Hot muffins and crisp biscuits were made available, as were waffles and syrup.

An informal breakfast was less elaborate. It began with fruit, and may be followed by ham or bacon and eggs with johnny-cake and potatoes, or a simple breakfast may be started with cereal, served with cream, and followed by broiled finnan haddie and baked potatoes. Eggs, quail or chops, and a crisp salad was another menu often adapted to the late informal breakfast. Desserts were simple, as sweets were seldom indulged in at breakfast (buns with marmalade or honey; frozen puddings). This was given at 10 or 11 am.

Further on down the scale, the upper-middle- and middle-classes ate with more discretion. According to Mrs C.S. Peel, for a family of six or more persons, an average of a pound per head a week allows luxurious living; 15s. per head for good living; 10s. for simple living; and 8s. 6d. per head for sufficient living. An advised breakfast would include porridge, haddock, bacon and fried potatoes, brown loaf, toast, and honey; an omelet, crumpets, sardines, toast and preserves; cold tongue, apples; kippers, tongue toast, hot rolls; buttered eggs, potted meat, scones.

Menus in The Queen Cook-Book included fruit, cracked wheat, cream and sugar, broiled chicken, hashed potatoes, rolls, coffee; steamed hominy, scrambled eggs, lamp chops; oat meal, boiled eggs, beef steak. And an American cookbook entitled Cooking for Two, listed such items as an orange cut in half, bacon, broiled potatoes, radishes, toasted Boston brown bread, Grape Nuts and Cream, scrambled eggs, fried potato cakes, cream toast, lamb’s liver, creamed potatoes, buttered toast, marmalade, and coffee.

The meager menus eaten by the lower- and working-classes were detailed in heart-rending, but cold, hard facts in the multitude of exposes of London’s East End and other neighborhoods of poverty in Britain and America that flooded the bookstalls following the succès de scandale of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. In it, he details the typical Street-Irish breakfast: a dish of potatoes, coffee and a slice of bread; herring, a cheap fish and potatoes; and two slices of bread-and-butter and a cup of tea for breakfast. Coffee stalls dotting the East End supplied a warm breakfast and “Rice-milk” girls, who tramped up and down the streets with urns of boiled rice, sold the white liquid with sugar, browned with allspice.

Tramps in London who lodged at the Casual Wards, told of their breakfast of one pint of gruel and 6 oz of bread, while English Poor Law policy stated that children were not to have tea or coffee, except for supper on Sunday, but milk and 2-3 oz of bread. Aged and infirm women and men however, got tea, coffee, or cocoa, with milk and sugar, accompanied by bread and butter or bread and cheese. A little more prosperous was the American working-class, who breakfasted on ham, sausage, biscuit, coffee, sugar, butter, syrup, and cheese.

Oddly enough, some of America’s enduring cereals were created in Sanatoriums. The first was Granula (named after granules), which was in 1863 by James Caleb Jackson, operator of the Jackson Sanatorium in Dansville, New York and a staunch vegetarian. However, the cereal never became popular; it was far too inconvenient, as the heavy bran nuggets needed soaking overnight before they were tender enough to eat. Fourteen years later, in Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, another cereal was invented. To alleviate the bowel problems of his patients, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg invented a biscuit of ground wheat, oat and cornmeal and named the product “Granula,” though he was forced to rename it “Granola” after a lawsuit. It was however, after he accidentally left a batch of boiled wheat soaking overnight and then rolling it out the next morning that Kellogg created wheat flakes. His brother Will Keith Kellogg, who later invented corn flakes from a similar method, bought out his brother’s share in their business, and went on to found the Kellogg Company in 1906. With his shrewd marketing and advertising, Kellogg’s sold their one millionth case after three years.

In 1893, C.W. Post was a patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. After leaving, he began his own sanitarium, the La Vita Inn, and there developed his own coffee substitute, Postum in 1895. Two years later, Post invented Grape-Nuts, whose original formula called for grape sugar, which is composed mostly of glucose unlike most other sugar sources and food sweeteners which are principally sucrose. This, combined with the “nutty” flavor of the cereal inspired its name. Post immediately launched a nation-wide advertising campaign and quickly became a leader in the cereal business, with Post Toasties, a corn flake cereal to rival Kellogg’s following soon after.

Around this time, Cream of Wheat and shredded wheat cereal were invented. The former, a farina-based porridge, was invented in 1893 by wheat millers in Grand Forks, North Dakota and made its debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, while the latter was created by Henry Perky that same year, who founded The Natural Food Company based at Niagara Falls, NY in 1901. It became the Shredded Wheat Company in 1904.

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The Care and Feeding of the First Family


housemaidAs “First Family,” the President, his wife and children, and any other dependents, had their needs and cares were catered to by a bevy of secretaries, secret service agents, and most important of all, domestic servants!

According to Helen Taft, “the management of the White House is a larger task than many women are ever called upon to perform.” During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the White House staff consisted of more than forty men and women, including the clerical force in the executive office, Mrs. Roosevelt’s social secretary and three maids, the steward, two butlers, the President’s family cook, the house cook and assistant, one pantry man, four cleaners, the gardener and his assistants, laundresses, firemen, watchmen, janitors, plumbers and electricians. All of these positions were paid for by the Government, with the exception of the family cook and the white maids–as most of the domestic staff (for most D.C. and Southern households) at this time were black. White House standbys included the Paymaster, the Doorkeepers, the Assistant Secretary, and the Telegrapher and “Chief Intelligence Officer.”

The most important position was the White House Steward. A virtual autocrat of the official table and cuisine at the President’s house, almost every question governing the State dinners was within their control. Receiving an annual salary of $1800, the steward supervised and accounted for every detail of the household; no piece of broken glass or china could be destroyed except upon the order of the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds. Even the First Lady had little say in the culinary department of household affairs–though Mrs Taft promptly hired a housekeeper in lieu of a steward from the beginning of her husband’s presidency most likely in response to this lack of control.

For protection, the First Family was guarded by the Secret Service, and in addition, the White House itself had its guards in the form of policemen from the regular Washington Police Force. The actual number of Secret Service guards in attendance upon the President was never made public, but it was certain that at all receptions, a number of such guards were on duty within the house, while several more were stationed outside. The President never stepped outside the White House, never traveled even the shortest distance, without being followed by one or more Secret Service officers.

During dinners and other receptions hosted by the President, secret service men and police officers dotted the White House. When entering the White House, every person was closely scrutinized, particularly since Congressmen were in the habit of giving cards of admission to anyone who asked for the favor. The most important rule was to keep one’s hands in plain sight. It was the most rigid rule of the White House, and if a person happened to rest a hand in their pocket, or under their coat-tails, a low whisper immediately told them to take it out. Also in attendance upon the President, at all receptions and on all State occasions, were military and naval aids. Their duties were purely social, yet prestigious.

Despite the tumult of incoming and outgoing Presidents of different political persuasions, the cogs that kept the White House running always ran smoothly. Many White House staffers ended up working in there for many, many years, and cherished their time spent in the President’s House.

For more information:
Workers in the White House