A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances

by Laura Schenone

Published by W.W. Norton

416 pages, 2003


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Woman's Work is Never Done

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan

 

"A man may work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done."

This old adage serves as the basis for Laura Schenone's marvelous account of the role of women as providers of nourishment in A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove. She manages to squeeze a millennium's-worth of history, social commentary, anecdotes and recipes into one literary stewpot.

Beginning with the Native Americans, she relates the importance of women in tribal life, gatherers to their distaff hunters (although in some cases they served in that capacity as well), using their resourcefulness to make sure nothing went to waste.

Scrutinizing the many hardships through the centuries as it does, Hot Stove is certainly not always upbeat. Each generation had to deal with a new set of problems. For example, the Pilgrims' lack of planning, coupled with their debilitating voyage, put them ashore in the fall, too late to plant any crops. Only the intervention of the Indians saved them from total destruction.

She also tells of the extra burdens of African-American women in times of slavery, working for their masters and still expected to provide comfort for their own families. Nevertheless, their influence on the dining habits of generations to come was undeniable. Schenone observes that aside from preparing dishes from their native lands and learning "American" cooking, "[S]lave woman brought many other food-related skills with them to the Americas. For one thing, [they] excelled as entrepreneurs of food, a role that harkened back to their work as hawkers and truckers in the markets of West Africa." Such acumen allowed some lucky ones to eventually buy their freedom.

(Even the act of cooking posed dangers, as Schenone notes: "On a purely practical level, the colonial woman needed to know what she was doing so she wouldn't burn down the house. Hearth cooking is not to be confused with grilling hamburgers over a campfire.")

As the population expanded westward, new difficulties necessitated further adjustments in dealing with food procurement, preparation, hygiene, etc. Mexican and Indian cultures were incorporated out of necessity, although the concept of "Manifest Destiny," which, simplistically put, held that "white Americans knew best," made this is a slow process.

With the onset of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, one would expect a reduction of burdens. Ironically, that was often not the case. "For middle-class women, industrialism brought a different set of new conditions -- most notably the innovations of commercial foods, kitchen tools, and appliances -- and with these new aspirations." But did these newfangled ways really help, or simply bind women to the kitchen even more? Certainly the influx of immigrants strengthened the notion that "a woman's place was in the kitchen," often denying their daughters' access to a meaningful education.

During the Civil War and World Wars I and II, women had to contend with shortages in foods and other materials, as well as the necessity of working outside the home, in professions typically attributed to men ("Rosie the Riveter" immediately comes to mind). Some wished to remain in these roles, enjoying the concomitant independence, but the return of men from war meant the return of women to domestic life. Similarly, times of economic hardship forced many to find ways of stretching a food budget by any means possible. As the author puts it, "When the bank account is low and there is a wonderful pot of soup made if bones, vegetable scraps, and herbs, how do we measure this value? When the boredoms and sorrows of being human weigh us down to despair, how do we measure the value of food, in its comfort and simple physical pleasure? During the Great Depression, women used cooking to create economic value. They also made daily life better, more gracious and humane."

Aside from technological improvements in all aspects of kitchen life, Schenone discusses other social ramifications. How is the family dynamic disrupted by each new "generation" of culinary development? A hundred years ago, many women were churning butter by hand, an arduous and time-consuming process. What part did the advent of mechanization have on the way wives and mothers were perceived? Did the conveniences of gelatin molds and new storage containers, ushered in by the age of plastics, detract from their status as caregivers?

Writing on a personal level, Schenone notes her reliance on one-step dinners, either on the stove or popped into the microwave. "Frozen lasagne [sic] gives a woman some options, and that is what my generation is all about." Family dinners have become a "catch-as-catch-can" proposition, with everyone fending for themselves according to need and convenience. The family sit-down meals outside of holiday gatherings are becoming more and more rare. If Hot Stove was a work of fiction, one could almost sense a diabolical plot to destroy the family unit by making it easy for everyone to be totally self-sufficient. With ready or easy to prepare foods, cell phones, personal music players and the Internet, who needs to actually be with other people?

The author scatters examples of recipes of the various eras, in their vernacular, with commentary and, in some cases, translation, throughout Hot Stove. This is obviously not a cookbook, per se, which could prove a source of some confusion to the browser who does in fact choose a book by its cover.

Hot Stove is extremely well researched and presented, and, despite a sometimes-dour nature borne of the realities of the passing eras, is an entertaining and informative look at one role of women that is too often taken for granted. | January 2004

 

Ron Kaplan, a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey most recently reviewed Leonard Koppett's The Rise and Fall of the Pressbox for January.