Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Casserole of History and Mystery

The American Woman's COOK BOOK
Edited by Ruth Berolzheimer
Published for Culinary Arts Institute
Consolidated Book Publishers Inc.
Chicago 1942 (1) 

It started with a close friend and a three hour mini-road trip that took the two of us from where we lived in Illinois, just outside Chicago, to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

My friend and I share lives lived between countries and cultures, a hobbit-like appreciation for eating multiple meals, and a nearly dysfunctional love of books.

So of course on this mini-road trip, we stuffed in as many explorations of bookstores and libraries as we could.  

Just before we left Kalamazoo to rejoin the monotony of the highway back to Illinois, we went to one last book store.
My idea of a morning well-spent.
Bicentennial Bookshop
Kalamazoo, MI
My friend poked her head into the doorway that was rendered less like a door and more like a cave entrance from the mountainous piles of books on either side as well as from shelves above.

From behind a tall counter, nearly hidden from view entirely by more tottering piles of books, was the owner, who beckoned us into his shop.

What we at first meant to be a quick look turned into a nearly two-hour, gape-mouthed wander through a treasure-trove of books that easily spanned 200 years and almost every genre possible.

It was dusty and moldy and we had to slither past piles of not-yet-shelved books, shift around half-filled cardboard boxes and hop over small chairs and ladders. 

As we got ready to pay for our armloads of purchases, we walked down one more aisle and perused a floor-to-ceiling shelf of cookbooks.  I set aside my small pile of selected books and ran a finger along the spines of old cookbooks, randomly selecting a thick,  dark green  book entitled "The American Woman's COOK BOOK".   It felt good in my hand, it's spine and cover were only slightly chafed away by time and whoever had previously owned it.  The copyright date was 1942, and, as I flipped randomly through it, I noted, with some surprise,  a selection of color photos of prepared foods. 

I rested the book on my left hand then, and let it fall open randomly, just to see what would be revealed. 

The book dropped open to the exact center to reveal a small stack of what looked like old photographs, clearly not part of the cookbook itself.  I nudged my friend to take a look and together we sifted through the discovered photos, our eyebrows sliding up to our hairlines as we turned over each photo to reveal the name "Adolf Hitler".  There were 8 of them in all, printed on slick, shiny paper.  Some were black and white photos of people and events, others were photo duplications of paintings and drawings.  All were the same size, about 5x7 inches, and all had the similar descriptions on the back, in German. 

I closed the book, feeling the familiar stirrings of a nagging, troubled curiosity.  

And  of course I bought it for $8. 

On our drive back to Illinois my friend and I talked for many miles about the mysterious cookbook with the troubling pictures hidden away inside.    As usual, our discussion created more questions than answers, and I was determined to try to bring together the pieces of this random little mystery.

The next morning I opened my computer and typed in the name of the editor:  Ruth Berolzheimer.  Multiple photos of the same cookbook popped up on my computer screen, as well as the covers of old cooking magazines and other culinary works edited by Ruth.  But there was essentially nothing about Ruth herself.  

I began typing in variations on her name, on the name of the cookbook--anything I could think of to try to tease out some information about a woman who was quickly becoming a bit of an obsession with me.  

Finally, I stumbled across a 2008 article from The Chicago Reader entitled "Omnivorous: The Cookbook Queen"written by Mike Sula. (2) 

According to the article (for which Mr. Sula had tracked down Berolzheimer's nephew who, weirdly enough, at the time of the article still lived in the Chicago area, not too far from where I now live), Ruth was a fiercely independent woman, very active in her local Jewish community, the founder of a Hebrew school and a dedicated social worker.  She was the second woman ever to graduate from the University of Illinois in Champaign with a degree in Chemical Engineering.   Her path from Chemical Engineering to Social work to cook book editing was unclear, especially since, in the article, her nephew divulged that she wasn't a terribly good cook--at least in his opinion.  

I sat back and pondered the cookbook, edited  by such a talented and clearly complex woman who happened to be  Jewish, and the strange German pictures that had been hidden inside it for who knows how long.

I turned then to the pictures themselves.  After similar sleuthing I discovered that they were German cigarette cards. (4)   These collectible "cards" were collectible photos sold with products--usually cigarettes-- in the 1920's to 1930's.  Collectors would build albums of these collected cards that spanned not only German history, but also geography and various other events.   Cigarette cards (called "Tobacco cards" in the U.S.) not only spurred sales of cigarettes and other items, but also were a way for people to explore and imagine places and persons they otherwise would never have the money, opportunity or education to encounter. (5)

Cigarette card of a painting by Adolf Hitler entitled The Courtyard of
 the Old Residency in Munich

Piecing together what I could, I guessed that the particular set of cigarette cards stashed inside the cookbook were from a collection printed probably in the mid 1930's from the set entitled "Adolf Hitler", distributed at that time  to coincide with his rise to power.  

And so here I am.  On one hand what is shaping up to be the story of  a Jewish Renaissance woman, a talented cookbook editor who couldn't really cook, but who could do a LOT of other things very, very well......and a set of Nazi Germany cigarette cards found hidden inside one of her cookbooks.  

This is where my trail runs out and my questions rise.  Who owned this cookbook before me?  Who put the cigarette cards inside it and why?  Was it coincidence that the editor was Jewish and the cards were from Nazi Germany?   

For now the cookbook--and the hidden cigarette cards--sit on my shelf, my questions as unanswerable and immobile as the last little mystery hidden inside this cookbook--one tiny, trapped spider who was just not quite quick enough. 

*All photos property of Christina Moorehead

(1) The American Woman's Cookbook Edited by Ruth Berolzheimer. 1942
Consolidated Book Publishers, Inc. Chicago. 

Sneezing with Joy

Hello there.

I love books.
I love new books.
I love library books.

But what really fascinates me are old books.  

I'm the kind of person who cannot CANNOT walk by a used bookstore and not go in.

And I know it's just the right kind of used book store if I can actually see dust motes in the air.  If I can smell that gentle, aged, slightly moldy smell of long-waiting books.  Of course, the more challenging it is for me to walk down a used book store aisle, the happier I am.    

I'm drawn towards used books that seem to have a story.  Something in the title, or in the way the cover feels.  Something in the illustrations, or perhaps it is simply a book into which a long-ago person has tucked a dried flower or a note, and BOOM, my curiosity is sparked and I buy it.

Each old book has a story and  a history, either intentional or unintentional, if we only look deeply enough. 

So now and then, when an old, forgotten book has caught my imagination, I will be sharing the story of that book with whoever stumbles across this blog. 

And who knows?  Perhaps it will be enough for you to peek into your favorite used book shop, to uncover and spark your own curiosity.

Happy digging!