Nitsch, Helen (Alice) Matthews
NITSCH, Helen (Alice) Matthews
Born circa 1850s; died 28 October 1889, Plainfield, New Jersey
Wrote under: Catherine Owen
Helen Matthews Nitsch was a late-19th-century authority on homemaking. From internal evidence in Nitsch's works, we can deduce that she was a well-educated woman of the upper-middle class, who had probably attended one of the popular cooking schools of the time. Nitsch published articles in Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines and wrote specialized cookbooks, but she was best known for her general cookbook Culture and Cooking; or, Art in the Kitchen (1881), which was reissued in 1885 in an expanded version as Catherine Owen's New Cook Book. Nitsch makes the point that cooking is an art, and as such is not to be despised by refined women. These books make interesting reading, providing as much entertainment as sociological enlightenment.
We can get an interesting glimpse of the eating habits of the genteel American family from Nitsch's fiction; whether or not it is her subject, food and cooking always take first place in Nitsch's books. Ten Dollars Enough: Keeping House Well on Ten Dollars a Week; How It Has Been Done; How It May Be Done Again (1887) was serialized in Good Housekeeping and went through many editions. Its name alludes to another American bestseller of the period, the fictional account of a successful back-to-the-land experience by Edmund Morris, Ten Acres Enough (1863). Nitsch's purpose is to show that a sensible woman can manage a home of her own on a moderate income. Newlyweds Harry and Molly Bishop live in a boardinghouse, the common refuge of many American young couples who were not well-to-do. Molly convinces her husband to rent a small house for the winter and, putting to good use what she has learned in cooking school, proves she can keep house on ten dollars a week. At the end of the story, Molly is pregnant and gets her own home. Harry, a spoiled son of snobbish parents who disdain Molly because of her plebeian origins, hardly appears in the story except to represent the man who must not be disturbed by housekeeping problems.
The financial independence of women is the subject of the sequel, Molly Bishop's Family (1888). The family business fails, Harry dies, and Molly must become the sole support of her three children. Molly shows herself to be a clever businesswoman, able to provide well for her family.
The same theme—financial independence for women—is found in Gentle Breadwinners (1888). Dorothy and May Fortesque are left penniless on the death of their father, after having been brought up to a life of useless accomplishment. "Oh, what a humiliation it is to think…that we two girls, brought up with all the advantages, are not fit to earn a dollar! Oh, if I ever have daughters they shall learn to do one thing well," exclaims Dorothy, the older and more sensible sister. After an unprofitable dressmaking venture, Dorothy builds a successful business baking cakes and sending them to the women's exchange in New York. (In all her books, Nitsch emphasizes the importance of cooking and plays down sewing, the normal mainstay of many "distressed gentlewomen.") In the course of the story, we meet a brilliant, needy widow who fails where Dorothy succeeds because she is not careful. The difference between them is put this way: "Dorothy thought women's work should be just as much a matter of business as a man's, and look for no more favor." Finally, the heroine is rewarded by marriage to an artist.
Nitsch's cookbooks are probably of interest only to historians of the domestic arts, but her three novels, intended to help young women in their everyday lives, as homemakers or wage earners, are interesting social statements. It is hard today to identify with a society in which a woman can bake a fancy cake, crate it, put it on the train, see it safely delivered the same day to the market, and make a profit on the business, but the basic impulse behind Nitsch's work is timeless: Women are only well provided for if they can provide for themselves.
A Key to Cooking (1886). Perfect Bread (1886). Six Cups of Coffee (1886). Lessons in Candy Making (1887). Choice Cookery (1889). Progressive Housekeeping (1889).
Plainfield Constitution (7 Nov. 1889).