- Gathering around Hull-House Dining Tables
Hilda Satt Polacheck, who had immigrated to America in 1893, could hardly wait to return to her former Halsted Street neighborhood to attend the fortieth-anniversary festivities for Hull-House in 1929. What drew Polacheck and so many others back to the settlement, even if, as in her case, they no longer lived in Chicago? Certainly, the personal magnet was Jane Addams. As Polacheck reported in her memoir, I Came a Stranger,
Jane Addams moved among the great and the humble just as any mother would when her far-flung children returned to the old home for a reunion. She knew everybody's name. She asked after children of the former children who had come to Hull-House years ago as bewildered, uprooted little immigrants…. I felt that all the people who had come to that reunion were her family.1
For Polacheck, writing about this occasion years later, the anniversary dinner presented the central image affirming this feeling of domestic community: "I will never forget how [Addams] seated me at her table in the dining room. I know that many celebrities sat around that table that night, but I only remember Jane Addams at the head of the table, carving a roast, as if she were serving a family."2 Polacheck's recollections were unabashedly romanticized, but this [End Page 11] episode in her memoir positions shared foodways at the heart of the settlement's identity. Addams, too, returns often to food in her own memoir, Twenty Years at Hull-House, both as a symbol to represent the work of the settlement and as a literal intervention tool for solving problems such as hunger, nutrition, and labor in the lives of immigrant women, children, and families living nearby. Indeed, while still a student at Rockford College, years before cofounding Hull-House with Ellen Gates Starr, Addams was already using the "breadgivers" metaphor to envision women's positively gendered social leadership, including in a commencement address invoking that analogy to frame her entire talk.3 Starting with a portrait of her father as a miller, the memoir repeatedly references bread, bread making, and bread sharing.
Idealized memories like Polacheck's and Addams's own descriptions of Hull-House programs through "food giving" language certainly offer one appealing window into settlement aspirations, but they form only a part of the picture of actual foodways at Hull-House. Settlement archives record a host of daily food-centered and food-supported activities from cooking classes to club meeting refreshments. While Polacheck's memoir places Addams at the head of the table in her role as Hull-House leader, the archival materials such as scrapbook clippings, yearbook stories, bulletin accounts, and photographs show that settlement residents and immigrant neighbors, over time, increasingly shared authority over food instruction and food-supported programming. Neither of the women's memoirs focuses primarily on food, but when read in the context of the Hull-House archive, their food-centered scenes take on additional significance, pointing to a purposeful food culture at the settlement.
Numerous scholars have already cast Hull-House as a cultural contact zone where encounters across divisions of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and belief were strategically engineered as a part of the institutional mission and practice, seeking to balance impulses of assimilation with diversity. Though longstanding critiques of the settlement's social hierarchies continue to remind us that such Progressive Era endeavors were never fully egalitarian,4 recent work by public historians at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) and in more traditional scholarly print publications have sought to balance critique of the settlement's shortcomings with updated recognition of its most democratic impulses and its (proto)feminist tendencies.5 When we bring food studies scholarship into this scholarly conversation, we gain a useful lens for highlighting the complexities of social relations at the settlement, especially those between the privileged, college-educated, white women residents and their immigrant women counterparts from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Sharing food is especially interesting as a social ritual that often aspires to equality by bringing diverse individuals into a common bonding experience with room for...