Food & Drink

Mrs. Goodfellows? Cooking School

By Margaret Guthrie |

Editor’s Note: Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, spoke at the Library Company of Philadelphia in September. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and was accompanied by a display of documents from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collection, including several historic cookbooks.

We all know about the Culinary Institute of America and its many manifestations in other locations across the country. Most of us at least have read of the cooking schools that run 10-day day sojourns in the south of France or Tuscany or Barcelona for food-obsessed folk. Many of us have taken cooking classes locally; some of us have even taught them. But where did the idea of a cooking school originate?  Who came up with the idea of teaching others to cook in a kitchen/classroom setting?

Becky Diamond

Time was the city of Philadelphia, besides being the second largest English-speaking city in the world (London was No. 1), was also noted as a superb source of excellent food. High Street had a covered market that extended from the docks for a mile, much of it covered and gas-lit with a reputation as the best and cleanest market on the eastern seaboard. This is how High Street officially became Market Street in 1850.

Listed in the census of 1804 as a pastry cook, Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow opened a pastry and confectionery shop on Dock Street, close enough to take full advantage of the goods coming in from local farms as well as more exotic foodstuffs like oranges from Portugal and pineapples from the Caribbean. Born Elizabeth Baker somewhere in Maryland in 1768, she moved to Philadelphia and began her career as a pastry cook and caterer. There are receipts (recipes to us) on file at the Historical Society that show her supplying a cake for the wedding of Stephen Girard’s niece, which indicates that she was both well-connected and busy. Her first students came from the wealthy merchant families here in Philadelphia.

Too busy, in fact, to write anything down. We owe to one of her students, Eliza Leslie, what we know about the cooking school and Mrs. Goodfellow’s creativity and forward thinking about food. Eliza took copious notes while a student and upon graduation produced a series of cookbooks based on the receipts she learned to cook while at the school.

At the time Mrs. Goodfellow set up her school, every hostess prided herself on the ‘sweetmeats? offered at the end of the meal. Sweetmeats were divided into wet and dry and included jellies, puddings, pastries, candies, and small cakes. Leslie’s first cookbook was comprised of 75 receipts (recipes) for sweetmeats. Much thought and planning went into the creation of these end-of-the meal presentations and Mrs. Goodfellow was a local expert.

Through her school she became much more than that, as young women from all up and down the eastern seaboard were sent to her to learn the finer points of entertaining and household management, to ?finish? them as suitable wives. Her pupils came from as far away as Boston, Charleston, S. C., and Michigan. Her curriculum extended to setting the proper table and suitable dinner table conversation. All of this is more remarkable when you consider that Elizabeth Goodfellow also had to master the transfer from open hearth cooking to the first cast iron stoves which were introduced about 1820.

She was a consummate organizer to judge by her running a school with eight to 10 pupils while also running a retail pastry and confectionary shop and a catering business as well as her own household.

In addition to being well-organized, she promoted the idea of using the freshest, local ingredients and to incorporating local products into established recipes. She adapted a recipe for pound cake to incorporate ?Indian meal? or corn meal, for instance. Even more importantly, she came up with lemon meringue pie. Using lemon curd, a traditional English recipe, she came up with idea of putting it in a pie crust and using all the leftover egg whites to create a meringue topping. So we have cause to be grateful to Mrs. Goodfellow while at the same time realizing that the call for using the freshest local ingredients is not new. If you would like the complete story of Elizabeth Goodfellow and her school, you can read Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School by Becky Diamond, now available in bookstores and online. Readers on amazon.com gave it four stars.