books, health, history lesson, michael pollan, settlement cookbook

Nutrition, 1903 style (II)

Yesterday I posted some of my fan-girl thoughts on Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and presented a nutritional table from The “Settlement” Cook Book. Now I’d like to think about what this 1903 table has to do with our eating habits today.

The interesting thing about The “Settlement” Cook Book is that it’s just the beginning of nutritionism, Pollan’s term for focusing on the nutritional value of foods. It looks very similar to early nutritional science (developed by Justus von Liebig), which proposed that humans need only protein, fat, carbohydrates, and a few other minerals to thrive. Mrs. Kander has broken down these “macronutrients” into smaller categories, as well as identified the foods that will provide these essential nutrients.

In examining this table, you’ll notice a few other interesting aspects:

  • She’s not saying you should eat processed foods enhanced with these nutrients. There wasn’t enough prestige attached to nutritional science yet, so there weren’t very many processed foods on the market in 1903.
  • There are very few vegetables on this table. Peas, beans, potatoes…apparently leafy greens were considered nutritionally useless!
  • There’s a lot of attention paid to meat, fish, eggs, bones, milk, and cheese.

greens, you’re useless to me.

So how does this translate into the rest of the cookbook?

  • Much of the “Vegetables” chapter is taken up by potato recipes.
  • “Salads” often consist of lettuce with potatoes, meat, fish, nuts, or fruit.
  • The chapters break down thusly:
    • 4 chapters on meat, fish, or eggs
    • 2 chapters on vegetables and salad
    • 1 chapter on cereal
    • 3 chapters on bread and fried cakes
    • 9 chapters on desserts (!)
    • a few chapters on sandwiches, beverages, and canning.

What’s striking to me about Kander’s cookbook (and her informational tables) is that focus on nutritionism. By 1903, cooks were already thinking of food in terms of its nutritional value. This has to be connected to the number of recipes we see for animal products (full of protein) and starchy foods (like potatoes). And I guess it’s also connected to the lack of recipes for leafy greens, which don’t even make it onto the nutritional table in the first place.

It doesn’t seem to promote a very healthy diet by our modern standards, that’s for sure. On the contrary, the meals would look a lot like classic Midwestern food: meat and potatoes. My parents ate a lot of meat and potatoes growing up, as did a number of white, middle-class families in mid-20th century America. It makes me wonder if Kander’s cookbook (and others like it) encouraged this trend in the early 20th century.

However, I hesitate to draw further conclusions about 1903 Wisconsin based on Kander’s work. For one thing, it’s only one cookbook (hardly representative of a nationwide trend). For another, we know she created her cookbook to train immigrants in American cooking, so there are a number of biases and assumptions about immigrants worked into the recipes. Finally, the content of the cookbook may be dictated largely by the crops grown in Wisconsin at the time, as well as the ethnic makeup of the area.

But it’s a fascinating exercise in culinary history.

Of course, we haven’t even touched the 9 chapters on desserts. Just a guess, but those probably couldn’t be considered nutritional…

Works cited: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food.


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