The Matzo Ball Matriarch of American Jewish Food The Settlement Cook Book is largely forgotten today. But in its time, Lizzie Black Kander's book exposed Jewish homemakers transplanted from Eastern Europe to the American way of cooking — and living.

The Matzo Ball Matriarch of American Jewish Food

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now, to modern ears, this title sounds awfully old fashioned: "The Settlement Cook Book: The Way to a Man's Heart." Not only that, the author was listed on the cover as Mrs. Simon Kander. The original is hard to find now. But beginning in 1901, when it was first issued in Milwaukee, and for some 50 years and two million copies after that, it was influential as a guidebook to the American way of cooking and living. The intended audience was the Jewish homemaker recently arrived from Eastern Europe. Fred Wasser has more.

FRED WASSER: It was 1901, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Lizzie Black Kander was teaching cooking classes to immigrant women at The Settlement, a social service agency for the urban poor. The Settlement needed money. She hit upon the idea of compiling a book made up of her recipes and household tips, as a way of raising funds. These are rules for waiting on the table, read here by Lucy Rosenberg(ph), a longtime fan of "The Settlement Cook Book."

Ms. LUCY ROSENBERG: Always heat the dishes in which warm food is served. Never fill the glasses of cups more than three-quarters full. When passing a plate, hold it so that the thumb will not rest on the upper surface.

WASSER: For recent Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe, "The Settlement Cook Book" was an instruction manual to the American kitchen and an introduction to American life. These immigrants looked, dressed, worshipped and even ate differently than the established and often prosperous German-American Jews of Milwaukee. The German-American Jews were afraid that the new immigrants would pull them down, even inspire a new wave of anti-Semitism. Nora Rubel teaches the history of religion at the University of Rochester in New York.

Professor NORA RUBEL (History of Religion, University of Rochester): Certainly there was true philanthropic goodness. But I think there was also an underlying concern that if they didn't Americanize, they would reflect badly on the Jews that were already there, partially because they were so visible.

WASSER: In 1901, the first edition of "The Settlement Cook Book," 1,000 copies, quickly sold out. Then a remarkable thing happened: during the next several decades, the book went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. It inspires great devotion.

Joan Nathan is a contributor to and the author of "Jewish Cooking in America." She owns 18 different editions of "The Settlement Cook Book." Her 95-year-old mother was given a copy in 1937 as a wedding gift, and the book remains in her kitchen today.

Ms. JOAN NATHAN (Author, "Jewish Cooking in America"): She always looked at it and always looks at it for recipes, even though I have written nine cookbooks. So she considers it her bible.

WASSER: Kander's book was the first German-American cookbook. The early editions actually contained few Jewish recipes. The immigrants already knew how to make gefilte fish. But over the next 40 years, Kander revised the book to include foods from many nationalities and recipes for the Jewish holidays. A Nathan family favorite is kremslach.

Ms. NATHAN: It's like a fritter with matzo that's been soaked in water and then dried, and matzo meal, and nuts and raisins. And you fry it. And then you serve it either with a wine sauce or you serve it with prunes. And that's definitely in there. My mother, the way that she makes matzo balls is in there. And everything that she wants to do as Jewish is straight from "The Settlement Cook Book."

Prof. RUBEL: Jews see it as a Jewish cookbook.

WASSER: Again, historian Nora Rubel.

Prof. RUBEL: It's the first cookbook to see Jews as part of the fabric of America.

WASSER: For any modern reader, Lizzie Kander's book is a window into another era. She spoke about her book in a 1933 interview with WHAS Radio, Louisville. This is a reading from the transcript.

Ms. ROSENBERG: I surely like the man of the house to be interested in cooking, but only to give a helping hand in case of necessity. I really don't think it is a man's business to putter around the kitchen. I want him to be surprised and pleased when he gets to the table. That is where he should forget all his worldly cares.

WASSER: There are other ways that the book is dated. It's not about local food or slow food, the recipes are certainly not heart healthy. Although it's still published today in facsimile editions, for the most part, it's older people who know about this classic cookbook.

WASSER: Lizzie Kander personally revised 23 editions during the second half of her life. Again, food writer, Joan Nathan.

Ms. NATHAN: I thought about it, but this woman was totally devoted to this cookbook. Totally. And it became fun for her. It was a driving force. You know, she traveled the country. She constantly had new ideas. And she did something wonderful for the Settlement House in Milwaukee.

WASSER: Kander died in 1940 at the age 82. Decades after the initial publication of "The Settlement Cook Book," the father of modern American cooking, James Beard, was asked for the name of his favorite cookbook. His answer, if I consult a cookbook at all, it is likely to be by one of these sensible flat-heeled authors like the famous Mrs. Kander.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Wasser.

WERTHEIMER: Check out recipes for Boston brown bread and gingerbread from "The Settlement Cook Book" at

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.