CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?” Subtitled American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century is yet another treat published by the University of Massachusetts Press. (I am very partial to books published by various university presses. They are responsible for many of the best books being published in recent decades about food.

This is not a cookbook. It is a book that takes you, the reader, on a long and winding road showing the evolution of women and our kitchens. From Fannie Farmer to Julie Child, new challenges arose to replace the old.

The title itself is taken from an old song – remember “Billy Boy”? Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, can she bake a cherry pie, charming Billy?” – noting a time when much of how a woman was rated had to do with her skill in the kitchen. “Beauty, charm and intelligence in a wife were very fine,” notes the author Mary Drake McFeely, “But a good cook was a treasure…”

I am pea-green with envy with the author’s acknowledgement that two fellowships provided her with the “time, resources, and stimulating colleagues” while she was working on this book. A fellowship at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College allowed McFeely a year of immersion in their cookbook collection. Next to cooking, writing about food, and collecting cookbooks, I can’t think of anything more fascinating and rewarding than research.

“CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?” traces the evolution of women in the kitchen, nothing “In the nineteenth century well-off Americans were quite content to have servants do the actual work of marketing and cooking. Finding and training a good cook was a subject of much anxious discussion but the woman of the house was more likely to supervise than to work in the kitchen.

In the twentieth century, technology began to alleviate the hard physical labor in the kitchen and even showed potential for eliminating the need to cook for an individual household at all. But if economic forces (in the shape of opportunities to work in factories, offices and stores) drew domestic servants away from middle-class familiar, a moral imperative seemed to surround the obligation of the woman of the house to prepare dinner and breakfast—and sometimes lunch—herself. New, less arduous but still time-consuming tasks accompanied the new labor-saving appliances and new reasons were found for keeping women in the kitchen…”

Cookbooks, explains McFeely, “have acted as agents of society, delivering expectations of women that may conflict with or support women’s own goals. We still think of domestic cooking as gendered, as female, even while more and more men step up to the stove. That choice, in fact, might be seen by women as a clue to an often unrecognized value of a feminine art. Despite the men’s awakening, however, middle class women remain the primary audience for cookbooks and the book necessarily focuses on this large group. Most cookbooks project mainstream expectations and assume a middle-class lifestyle but they are not labeled ‘for the middle class only…’

“Reading between the lines of the recipes and surrounding texts of cookbooks”, says McFeely “reveals much about societal expectations and how they change.”

One particular cookbook which figures prominently in “CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?” is a club-and-church cookbook published in 1928, called “THE NAPTON MEMORIAL CHURCH COOK BOOK”. A friend loaned McFeely his treasured copy of THE NAPTON MEMORIAL CHURCH COOK BOOK which is from a small community in Missouri.

I am not altogether certain, as a reader and a cookbook collector, whether the intent of the author was to carefully and completely dissect a regional cookbook to show us just what life was like, in the 1920s, or whether it received a great deal of attention because it happened to be an old cookbook that the author had at her disposal Certainly, I think, those of us who have been collecting cookbooks for many years and have a wide collection of books for various decades, appreciate the in-depth look that McFeely takes with THE NAPTON MEMORIAL CHURCH COOK BOOK.” I would have thought dozens of similar cookbooks would be available at the Schlesinger library.

“CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE” is easy to read, and well-written. As noted by Anne Bower, the editor of RECIPES FOR READING: COMMUNITY COOKBOOKS, STORIES, HISTORIES”, “This book is an enjoyable excursion, bringing together history, cookery, narrative, women’s studies and biography/autobiography in ways that will help readers make new connections and will give them new interests and insights…”

And, as an added bonus, those of us who love bibliographies, will be delighted with the one found at the back of CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? – like Internet links, it leads us on ever divergent paths to finding out all there is to know about food, cooking and cookbooks.

“CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE?” by Mary Drake McFeely, was published in 2001 by the University of Massachusetts and originally sold for $24.95. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find a listing on this book on Amazon.com but I DID find copies available and listed on Alibris.com, starting at $1.49.

Review by sandyscookbookchatter





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