Sometimes the biggest social changes can be measured in the smallest, least expected ways which have nothing to do with surveys, academic studies, or market research.
Who would guess, for instance, that a collection of well-used old cookbooks, retrieved from the dark corners of an attic in Wisconsin, could serve as a sociological treasure? They trace not only the revolution in cooking and eating habits that has taken place in recent decades, but also reveal changes in housekeeping, family size, and women's use of names.
The most fascinating is a 600-page volume called "The Way to a Man's Heart." Subtitled "The Settlement Cook Book," it was first published in Milwaukee exactly 100 years ago. Com-
piled by Mrs. Simon Kander - in the manner of her day, she uses her husband's name, not her own - the book went through 40 printings. It reportedly holds the record as the most profitable American fundraising cookbook.
No one talks much anymore about food as the way to a man's heart. Yet Mrs. Kander's title speaks volumes about the gender roles and expectations of earlier generations, when men were providers and women were homemakers, conscientiously presiding over an endless array of domestic duties.
Mrs. Kander - would she want to be called Ms. Kander today? - begins by listing solemn household rules. Under the heading "Proper dress for the kitchen," she writes primly, "Jewelry should not be worn in the kitchen. Wear a cotton wash dress or a cover-all apron with a pocket for a handkerchief. Wear washable cap that covers the hair."
Her recipes are designed to serve an average family of five. Today the average would probably be four, if that. The recipes also offer a window into a changing culinary world. Few cookbooks today would be likely to include Marshmallow Pudding, Cabbage Strudel, or a Sardine Cocktail.
A diagram of a table setting for an informal meal includes seven pieces of flatware at each place, along with enough dishes for a Thanksgiving feast. The way to a man's heart, indeed. And in a nod to good housekeeping, Mrs. Kander advises readers to "Use the carpet sweeper after every meal" and "Always wipe shelves [of the ice box] off every morning."
Tell that to a working woman today as she hurries out the door in the morning and returns to the kitchen at 5 p.m., with nary an apron, handkerchief, or washable cap in sight.
In another old cookbook, this one a 1939 volume called "'Adventures in Good Cooking," Duncan Hines makes a bold statement: "The modern home kitchen is no longer the exclusive domain of the gentler sex, for it is common knowledge that many a male is also adept with skillet and pan."
Mr. Hines may have been ahead of his time in making that pronouncement. But today, in a growing number of families, men's culinary role goes beyond stereotypes of barbecuing on the grill and carving the holiday turkey. It would also warm Duncan Hines's heart to see the impressive number of men in supermarkets after work and on weekends.
Another vintage cookbook, this one from a "ladies' guild" at a Michigan church in 1900, makes perhaps the quaintest comment of all. It states, "The art of cooking, like the art of dining, is exempt from the caprices of fashion. The principles of both these are eternal and immutable."
For 21st-century American women with multiple roles, there is nothing immutable about cooking. They need quick meals. No wonder nearly half of evening meals are put together in half an hour or less. If something has been lost in the process, other freedoms have been won as the constricting rules of Mrs. Kander's day have faded.
So far no one has written a cookbook titled "The Way to a Woman's Heart." If someone does, it could be short. Instead of recipes, its author might offer thoroughly modern advice: To win her affection, simply make dinner reservations at her favorite restaurant. For tonight, the kitchen is closed.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor