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A cookbook is more than
just a cookbook    
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[NOV. 13, 2004]  URBANA -- "Many women confess to me sheepishly that they read cookbooks as if they were guilty pleasures," said Barbara Haber, author of "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals" and the speaker at The Pampered Chef Family Resiliency lecture at the University of Illinois Tuesday night.

"For these women, a good cookbook is as likely to be found on their bedside tables as in their kitchens," Haber said. Why? Because food has great meaning for us -- above and beyond simple nutrition. "After Ella Fitzgerald became diabetic, she would page through cookbooks, lingering over recipes of the foods she could no longer eat," Haber said.

Old family recipes, family traditions surrounding cooking, and the foods we eat for comfort or prepare for special occasions affirm our identity and reinforce the connections that promote family resiliency, said Haber.

The sight or smell of a certain dish, whether it's green bean casserole or a four-alarm chili prepared during football season, has the power to take us back in time, she added, bringing back memories of the person who prepared it, the dish it was served in and the way the family was then.

When a woman's sphere was restricted to the home, women poured much of their creativity and artistry into their cooking, Haber said. Women became known for their angel food cakes or their Christmas-tree-shaped cinnamon rolls during the holidays, and these recipes became precious family keepsakes.

Haber talked about ethnic cookbooks, the recent spate of 10-minute-meal cookbooks, diet cookbooks, and church and community cookbooks.

"The meals-in-minutes cookbooks are not new," Haber said. "Decades ago, we had a little volume called 'The Can-Opener Cookbook.'"

She finds diet cookbooks compelling for the personal narratives they contain. A favorite is Elizabeth Taylor's "Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, and Self-Esteem." Haber calls these books wonderful barometers of popular culture, citing recent examples that urge us to "diet for Jesus" or tell us "not to feed our inner child junk food."

And compilations of recipes from church or community members paint rich pictures of life in the communities they represent. Haber suspects the chance to contribute a recipe to one of these collections may be one of the few chances these women have to present themselves in a public manner, so the recipes they select take on special meaning.

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Finally, Haber told the stories of three American women for whom cooking was both a livelihood and a passion. Their cookbooks and life stories demonstrated their resilience in the face of challenges, she said, as they turned their culinary talents into businesses at a time when women had few other opportunities.

In the early 1900s, Alice Foote Macdougall turned the tragedy of her husband's early death into a personal triumph when necessity compelled her to open a coffee shop in Grand Central Station. She later opened grand restaurants with Mediterranean décor, was profiled in the New Yorker and was the model for a heroine in a Fannie Hurst novel.

Cleora Butler grew up in a poor black family in Oklahoma. Unlike Macdougall, Butler always expected she'd have to earn her own living. When Cleora's mother discovered the girl burying her failed recipes in a backyard "dough patch," she took the fledgling cook under her wing. In eight decades of cooking for others, Cleora Butler was known as one of the best cooks in Oklahoma, and her cookbook, "Cleora's Kitchen," is a classic.

Maria Grammatico, sent to live in a Sicilian orphanage when her father died, learned to make the almond pastries for which the nuns were famous. Although her childhood was filled with sorrow, she left the orphanage at 22 with the recipes in her head that would make her a successful businesswoman. Her cookbook, "Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood," is much more than just a collection of recipes.

The discerning cookbook reader can always learn more than how to make a chocolate soufflé, Haber said. "Cookbooks are just as important as diaries and other historical documents in documenting women's history. They tell important stories about women's role in the family during certain eras and as preservers of ethnic cultures and family values."

The Pampered Chef Family Resiliency Program at the University of Illinois supports research, education and public outreach that strengthens families' ability to be resilient in the face of life stressors and to successfully navigate the competing demands of work and family. The program was established through a gift from Doris Kelley Christopher, founder of The Pampered Chef and a University of Illinois alumna. Laurie Kramer directs the program.

[University of Illinois news release]

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