Another first for Philadelphia

Growing up in Philadelphia with a high school history teacher as a father and observing the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, it was easy to get a little tired of “history.” It’s all around us. Which makes it all the more fun when someone comes across a new pocket of history that was waiting to be discovered.

Becky Libourel Diamond was leafing through a cooking magazine one day and saw a reference to a Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow – the proprietress of the nation’s first cooking school in Philadelphia in the first half of the nineteenth century. “I love cooking and I love history,” says Diamond. For the former journalist and library studies major it was a perfect fit.

Mrs. Goodfellow began her school on Dock Street in the bustling center of colonial Philadelphia. “Many people don’t realize that Philadelphia was the food capital of the United States,” Diamond explains. Vegetables, meats, fish, baked goods and all manner of food stuffs flowed into a twice weekly grand market in the city from area farms, as well as luxury and exotic items from the Caribbean and Europe. (Yes, the first farmers’ markets!) People came from all over the country to shop and stroll the markets.

Enter Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow, who established what can best be described as a combination cooking school and finishing school for ladies from prominent Philadelphia families. These women needed to know how to entertain, organize large events, hold tea parties and, especially, prepare exquisite pastries and desserts. Even though they might not do the cooking themselves, they needed to read the recipes for their mostly illiterate servants. Mrs. Goodfellow was ahead of her time in many ways. She was the first to write recipes with ingredients first and steps second, a model we still use today. Following the french method of mis en place (everything in its place), she taught her students how to prepare and execute fine dining.

Diamond, a Yardley resident, was thrilled at the resources available for research here in the Delaware Valley. She spent three years combing through archives at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Winterthur Museum, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Delaware, and even, to discover Mrs. Goodfellow’s family history.

Mrs. Goodfellow not only taught Philadelphia’s young women how to cook – lessons that were handed down and documented through the generations – but she also invented the lemon meringue pie, yet another “Philly first.”

Like today’s local movement, Mrs. Goodfellow insisted on only pure, wholesome ingredients. This attention to quality and freshness has come full circle today with the explosion of artisan cooking, farmer’s markets, and “buying local.”

Published by Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pa., the book is available from the publisher, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

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