Advice to Readers on Learning to Cook

For many years Isabella had an advice column in a popular Christian magazine. In the column she answered readers’ questions—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of topics.

In 1910 she received this letter from a young woman:

Can you tell some of us girls—who never had a chance to learn much about real, practical, beautiful housekeeping—some way of learning? Are there not schools in cities for this purpose? Or are there not books from which we can learn what we need to know?

We want to understand all kinds or planning and arranging and beautifying and economizing.

We want to be excellent cooks, and to learn much that people whose time is largely spent in school or shop know very little about.

Can you help us with this practical need of ours?”

Illustration of different desserts: A sundae in a tall glass, cupcakes, a merangue, and a cake.

Here is Isabella’s reply:

It shall be my delight to do so.

Let me first express what a pleasure it is to find that one who can write so charming a letter as accompanied these questions is able to turn her thoughts to this practical subject, and to feel the “need” of knowledge.

Also, I rejoice in the thought that a large number of the letters awaiting attention deal with the same subject. Our lovely, cultured girls, who have had “advantages,” are beginning to feel the importance of understanding the art of home-making.

Newspaper clipping:
HOUSEKEEPERS HAVE TROUBLES.
Have Miss Peet help you in them at cooking school.
The school opens next Monday.
Ask her any questions any time - Wants Fort Scott women to feel it is their school.
From The Fort Scott Daily Tribune, October 31, 1913

Schools? Certainly there are. Every city of rea­sonable size now sends out its circulars announcing a “cooking-school” in regular session through the school year, or in extra session during vacation, or for the winter months.

Photo of about a dozen young women gathered around a table where they are preparing peaches to make into peach rolls.
A cooking school at the Indiana State Fair, about 1917

Better than these opportunities, especially for school­girls and those employed in regular work of any kind during the winter, are the cooking-schools that have sprung up in connection with the larger summer “as­semblies.”

I am told that every well-established summer resort organized under the peculiar rules that belong to the word “assembly” now has its own fairly well-appointed cooking class or classes. I am, however, most familiar with the one at Chautauqua, N. Y., which is, of course, the mother of all the Chautauquas, and is and must always be the first in all ways.

Photo from the early 1900s of a large classroom full of cooking students and teachers. The students are wearing caps and full aprons. The teachers wear caps and are dressed in white. Some students are preparing vegetables, others are setting a table, while others are at different stages of the cooking process.
A cooking school at the Battle Creek, Michigan resort and sanitarium.

Mrs. Emma P. Ewing, who, as everyone knows, has no superior in her department, conducts regularly at Chau­tauqua, N. Y., during the eight weeks’ season, a thor­oughly equipped cooking-school, with its normal depart­ment, its “practice class,” its lecture course, and its final examination.

Black and white head-and-shoulders photograph of Emma P. Ewing. She is wearing spectacles. She is wearing a bodice with a high neck and sleeves that puff at the shoulder.
Emma P. Ewing, from Wikipedia.org

Nothing more fascinating than the way in which Mrs. Ewing manages the entire matter can well be imagined. It has been my pleasure to be often in her classroom, to admire the white table set out with all the belongings for the day, sometimes arranged for the pur­pose of making delicious soups and white sauces and delicate desserts, sometimes planned for the purpose of showing what a study in refinement and beauty and excellence a breakfast of lamb chop and creamed pota­toes and corn puffs may become.

Newspaper article:
FREE LESSON
Mrs. Emma P. Ewing, dean of Chautauqua cooking school, will give a free lesson on breadmaking in the Woman's club class room, 306 south High street, Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 o'clock. All interested in preparing wholesome bread will be welcome.
The Muncie Daily Times, October 5, 1896.

Every conceivable branch of the culinary art is taught here. Pies, pud­dings, cakes, sauces, gravies, roasts, fries, stews, each come in for a full share of careful consideration.

Illustration from about 1912. A woman is in her kitchen looking down on a turkey in a roasting pas she has just taken from the oven.

Let me confess just here that a very fascinating part of the daily class exercise is the careful “tasting” of whatever article of food has been prepared before our eyes. For this purpose scholars go to the class armed each with a silver spoon, or fork, as occasion may require, and a napkin.

Illustration of a young woman about 1918. She is holding a bowl on a saucer just below her nose as if she is enjoying the smell of the contents.

Delicious beyond description are the spoonfuls of broth or “white soup” or bouillon that one thus enjoys, to say nothing of the marvellous concoctions made with a spoonful or two of cream, a cup of fruit-juice, a dash of sugar, and a little gelatine; to say nothing, moreover, of the delicious creams and ices and “foams” and innumerable other forms to delight the palate.

Illustration of different desserts, including a cake, a plum pudding, a molded gelatine, a cake decorated with gelatine, and a mousse.

Not only can the making and cooking of all these dishes be thoroughly learned at this summer school, but there are classes formed for the special purpose of train­ing the pupils in the art of setting the table neatly and gracefully, of clearing away skillfully, of selecting dishes that harmonize with others, of explaining the difference between a refined abundance and a sinful waste.

Illustration of a dining room with a table for 12. The table is covered with a white tablecloth. Each place is set with plate, silverware, glasses and napkins. In the center are large bowls of fruits, a cruet, and a coffee service.
A proper Victorian-era table set for dinner.

There are bills of fare arranged for summer, for winter, for the trying springs and falls. There is careful attention paid to the novice who does not know whether to buy steak “by the yard” or piece, or whether to try to have strawberries and green peas in February, or to wait until they are less flavored with money.

Illustration of a woman reading a cookbook in her kitchen about 1920. On the table before her is a colander full of berries, a large empty bowl, a can of Crisco and a rolling pin.

In short, anything that one needs to learn about housekeeping, as connected with the kitchen and storeroom, may be acquired at this summer cooking-school. Moreover, the teacher is so gentle voiced and sympathetic, and so thoroughly ladylike, that it is simply a pleasure to watch her and listen to her. It would be difficult to imagine anyone farther removed from the “fussy” or the hurried and nervous stage of housekeeping than Mrs. Ewing.

Illustration from about 1918. A mother and daughter are in the kitchen standing side-by-side at the stove. The mother is reading from a cookbook while the daughter adds ingredients to a pot on the stove.

No matter how much it may sound like it, my dear girls, this is not an advertisement of the Chautauqua cooking-school. The truth is, that favored spot needs no advertising; its classes are always full, and application has to be made some time in advance. It is simply an honest effort to answer an honest and often repeated question about learning how.

Illustration of a woman from about 1910. She is in a kitchen, wearing an apron, stirring the contents of a large bowl. On the table before her are a variety of pans and cooking utensils.

Meantime, do you know, dear girls, what delightful institutions home cooking-clubs are? Why not organize one in your own circle?

Black and white photo of five ladies standing arm-in-arm in a row. Each is wearing an apron.
Members of a cooking club in their aprons.

Select one evening or afternoon a week out of your busy lives. Meet around at one another’s homes; find out the specialty of each mother or grandma or auntie; and petition for a lesson in her line—a “normal” lesson, where you can have the privilege of furnishing your own materials, and doing exactly what the teacher does, and carry home the result in triumph. Some of the most fascinating evenings I have ever known were spent in this way.

Newspaper article:
AFTERNOON TEA
The Muffin Cooking Club Entertains the Young Ladies' Cooking Club.
Yesterday afternoon the members of Muffin Cooking Club entertained the members of the Young Ladies' Cooking Club with an afternoon tea at the beautiful home of Miss Mayne Sprankle, South Liberty street. The spacious rooms of the house were beautifully decorated and presented a unique appearance, especially the dining room and table, over which flowers and candles were artistically arranged. Dainty refreshments were served and all were delightfully entertained.
From The Muncie Morning News, September 22, 1892.

Try it, and see how much, at the end of a year, you will have added to your stock of practical knowledge.

What do you think of Isabella’s advice?

Where and when did you learn to cook? Have you ever taken a cooking class or joined a cooking club?

You can read some of Emma P. Ewing’s cookbooks for free! Just click on any of the titles below to view them on Archive.org.

The Art of Cookery; a Manual for Homes and Schools

A Textbook of Cookery for Use in Schools

Cooking and Castle-building

Soup and Soup Making

Vegetables and Vegetable Cooking

2 thoughts on “Advice to Readers on Learning to Cook

  1. Oh, isn’t this delightful? I learned cookery as well as many home skills from my dear mother. But I also attended home economics class in junior high. There we learned how to cook, how to sew, how to determine the harmony of our silver, crystal, and porcelain patterns, how to balance a budget, and the importance of homemaking overall. I suspect little, if any, of that is taught today in modern curriculum, and more’s the pity!

    1. I had similar classes in junior high. In addition to everything you mentioned, I learned to keep a checking account and write a shopping list with each item priced out so I knew how much I’d spend before I got to the store—a lesson I still use today. —Jenny

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