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  • Martha Stewart, Feminism and Purim

    Posted on March 2nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Lina Morgenstern

    Is writing a cookbook a feminist act?

    As women’s history month begins there is much to debate. I for one would struggle to make the argument that Martha Stewart is a feminist, though in 2004 Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. magazine at the time of Stewart’s sentencing for insider trading, suggested that there are some reasons to think otherwise.

    And yet, when I read Lina Morgenstern’s Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gefunde und Kranke, The Illustrated Universal Cookbook, I read it as a feminist tome. Containing thousands of recipes, Morgenstern’s opus was literally a work of art. Under her tutelage, even simple dishes, such as mayonnaise, are plated on platters and adorned with edible carvings that would make Martha green with envy. Pages upon pages of exquisite drawings portray not only the dishes but the variety of food stuff and kitchen tools. Morgenstern spares us no detail, there is a drawing of a pea splitting knife and a recipe for reindeer meat – though not native to Germany she did not want anyone to be unprepared. Like Stewart does today, Morgenstern presented an impossible vision of womanhood and set unattainable standards.

    Morgenstern wrote her cookbook in1886. She wrote it as part of a broader vision and mission of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles. Born in 1830, she was one of five daughters born to wealthy Jewishly observant family that stressed g’millut hassadim, good works. Her first public act, at age 18, was to establish a charity that would provide school supplies for children in need.

    Much like those who argued for women’s suffrage, she parlayed the limits placed on women –their caretaking capacity, their compassion –into reasons to enter new areas of activity and create new and varied instructions. Women were responsible for child care, so she opened the first Kindergartens in Berlin. Women were responsible for food preparation, so she open a cooking school to ensure true mastery. Women were responsible for the ill and poor, so she opened a soup kitchen. Women were meant to be patriotic but not fight in wars, so she cared for wounded soldiers. Women were expected to be proper managers of middle and upper class households, so she established Housewives associations at a time when the idea of women gathering in public was pushing the boundaries. Women were peaceful by nature so she became political activist.

    Morgenstern's Cookbook, cover, cover page, and example of illustrations

    Her cookbook was over the top. The very act of creating a larger than life book, which in hindsight I cannot help read with a touch of irony, highlighted the weightiness of the work women did in the home, the attention to detail and thought they put into something that might seem as simple as a meal. Additionally, at time when all the other cookbooks written by German Jewish women were committed to upholding kashrut, Morgenstern, who came from a traditionally family, broke with the rabbis and set forth a broader vision. She was willing to break traditional expectations.

    In many ways, Morgenstern’s life connects closely to that of ancient heroine of the Purim story. Esther used her very traditional role as a beauty queen & wife to change the course of history and so did Lina. So in my not so humble and outspoken opinion, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts is not feminist, but Lina Morgenstern’s The Illustrated Universal Cookbook certainly is!

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder


    One response to “Martha Stewart, Feminism and Purim”

    1. I found a copy of Morgensterns “Illustriertes Kochbuch” in Berlin last summer and am working through it, considering parhaps a partial translation. A couple of comments: Although Lina Morgenstern was Jewish, the book is not at all, nor was apparently her following or was her charitable work – a testament to the social balance, at least in Berlin, prior to the turn of the century. (My copy was published about 1920, at which time she was apparently considered the ultimate authority on domestic food preparation.
      The second is that the scripted German “s” is very similar to the f. The name of the book is “Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gesunde und Kranke” (for the healthy and the ill).
      Finally, it is very interesting that this book was obviously aimed at the woman of the house rather than at the servants or the house managers – the Fanny Farmer and Joy of Cooking of its day. Fascinating.

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