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Omnivorous: The Cookbook Queen

The story of a lost Chicago culinary empire and its guiding force, Ruth Berolzheimer



A few months ago, browsing a shelf of cookbooks at an antique store, I came across some early-40s booklets illustrated with the sort of unintentionally garish food photography that gives pre-U.S. of Arugula cookery a bad name. 250 Ways to Prepare Meat had me at hello, with recipes for reindeer pot roast, stewed squirrels, and roast opossum—but what really piqued my interest was that it was published by an outfit with a Loop address called the Culinary Arts Institute. Some cursory googling yielded numerous references to the Culinary Institute of America and less august cooking schools, but adding the editor's name—Ruth Berolzheimer—to the search turned up a number of out-of-print titles for resale and a comprehensive bibliography ( on the CAI, which was at one time the largest publisher of cookbooks in the country.

That's according to collector Frank Daniels, the author of the site and of the Collector's Guide to Cookbooks. He says the origins of the CAI, and its huge backlog of recipes, go all the way back to the 1860s, to a New York magazine called the Delineator, which initially was a marketing organ for Butterick sewing patterns but gradually began publishing recipes for homemakers and compiling them into cookbooks. In 1937 Leonard Davidow, a publisher in Reading, Pennsylvania, purchased the rights to the Delineator's cooking content.

Even before that Davidow's small backlist showed remarkable diversity in light of what is popularly considered to be the dark ages of American gastronomy. He followed 1934's Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook with The New England Cookbook, The Southern Cookbook, and even The Chinese Cookbook, by M. Sing Au. After he bought the Delineator recipes, he republished much of the material in a series of booklets with titles like Feeding the Pre-School Child and Bridge Luncheon Menus; Daniels says there were many that he's yet to come across.

In 1938 Davidow moved to Chicago, where he became president of a company called Consolidated Book Publishers, which continued to publish cookbooks under the CAI imprint, most notably The American Woman's Cookbook, which drew heavily on the Delineator material. Edited by Berolzheimer, the Institute's new director, it was published in 1939, one year before James Beard's first cookbook. Over 800 pages long and one of the first—if not the first—cookbooks to use four-color photography, by 1943 it had sold a million copies, and by the early 70s eight million, according to Daniels. Early chapters on technique, temperature, meal planning, and table setting give way to recipe categories as varied as toast (ten recipes), vegetarian (peanut and carrot loaf), food for invalids (flaxseed lemonade), and French (including, dubiously, gnocchi). There's chicken a la king, there's chop suey, there's sweetbread-and-oyster pie. There's also a glossary of foreign—mostly French—cooking terms and a chapter on cooking with wine that includes a chart grading various French wines.

Aside from Daniels's meticulous bibliography, there doesn't seem to be much information out there on the inner workings of the CAI—which had a test kitchen in various locations around Chicago over the years, including one at 153 N. Michigan. Nor is there much biographical information on Berolzheimer, who served as director for 11 years during which the company put out many of its best-known titles.

I tracked down Berolzheimer's nephew Karl, a retired attorney living in Evanston, to see what he knew about his aunt.

"She was a very determined, very smart, very independent person," he told me. Theresa Ruth Berolzheimer was born in 1886 in Missouri. After her family moved to Chicago Heights around the turn of the century she became active in the small Jewish community there, founding the town's first Hebrew school at the age of 17. She attended the University of Illinois in Champaign and in 1908 graduated with a degree in chemical engineering—only the second woman in the school's history to do so.

But after college Berolzheimer left the lab, embarking instead on a career in social work. She took a job as assistant director at Milwaukee's Abraham Lincoln House, a community center for Jewish immigrant women, whose founder Lizzie Black Kander wrote the classic Settlement Cookbook. Berolzheimer's resumé indicates she worked on the book's fifth edition.

Some time after that Berolzheimer relocated to New York, where she continued to pursue social work but also took on food-related editorial work, serving as managing editor of Good Eating Magazine, writing articles such as "But All I Want Is Good Milk" and "Meeting the Menace of Malnutrition."

The circumstances under which Berolzheimer returned to Chicago and signed on with Davidow aren't clear, but from 1938 to 1949 she served as director and editor, her name appearing on almost every publication it released—including The American Woman's Cookbook and its many subsequent printings and other major CAI titles like The Encyclopedic Cookbook and The Dairy Cookbook. (There were also wartime editions of The American Woman's Cookbook, which provided "victory substitutes and economical recipes.") Her resumé also lists more than two dozen smaller titles, from Body-Building Dishes for Children to 500 Sandwiches.

Karl, now 79, and his older brother Henry both worked for their aunt in the early 40s, packaging and shipping books to home economics departments. Henry says she made a deal with Davidow, forgoing royalties on mass-market book sales in exchange for the right to market her titles directly to educational institutions. Henry remembers visiting the test kitchen on Michigan, where his aunt employed a number of young women. But it doesn't seem that Berolzheimer did much kitchen work herself.

"I thought she was kind of a lousy cook, to tell the truth," says Henry, who sometimes had breakfast at his aunt's Hyde Park apartment. Her nephews believe their aunt's talents mostly lay in organization and publishing.

Henry and Karl also describe her as a bit of an "oddball," a tall, intimidating, "crusty," and "critical" woman who never married and who feuded with her mother and sister over money. Berolzheimer's last publication for the CAI was 1949's What Will We Eat Today? Pressure Cookery for Every Meal. After that she retired to southern California.

The CAI continued to publish up until the late 80s under different directors, even after Davidow sold the company and the test kitchen relocated to Melrose Park. The nephews didn't have much contact with Berolzheimer after she retired—she died in 1965—though each still has copies of some of her cookbooks. Karl received two from her as a wedding gift. Henry still likes to make a Mexican chicken stew from CAI's The United States Regional Cookbook.

Though all of the CAI titles are out of print, plenty of old copies can be found on Amazon, eBay, and in antique stores.v

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