In Philadelphia during the first decades of the 19th century, a savvy widow known as Mrs. Goodfellow ran a popular bakery and sweet shop at 64 Dock St., not far from the banks of the Delaware River. Besides catering to Philadelphia's wealthy families - Stephen Girard commissioned her for a family wedding cake - Goodfellow ran a small cooking school, the first of its kind in America. Her pioneering efforts here are the subject of Yardley researcher and writer Becky Libourel Diamond's book Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School (Westholme Publishing, $26), coming out in May and available for preorder on Amazon.com.
Diamond came across an oblique reference to Goodfellow's school in a cooking magazine five years ago, and she was intrigued. "I had no idea that the first cooking school in America was right here," she said. "I just hadn't realized that Philadelphia was such a food city back then."
Despite Goodfellow's accomplishments - references to her fine cooking and baking are common in the writings of the day - very little is known about her. Since Goodfellow didn't keep a journal or publish any of her recipes, Diamond relied heavily on information from Goodfellow's students, most notably Eliza Leslie, a Philadelphia writer of children's books and domestic advice who recorded many of Goodfellow's creations and techniques in her own books.
Diamond spent the past few years assembling the many parts of the Goodfellow puzzle; her sources ranged from old recipe books and advertisements to diaries and genealogical records. The result is a carefully annotated tome that captures the sights and sounds of Colonial Philadelphia as a market city and foodie paradise.
Goodfellow was born in 1768, most likely in Maryland, as Elizabeth Baker, the daughter of William and Ann Baker. She was married and widowed three times - but it's a mystery how she spent her life before opening the shop and cooking school, including how and where she received her culinary training.
It's likely her shop was her first husband's;in the book Literary Landmarks of Philadelphia, she is described as "the widow of a pastry cook, and herself a pastry cook, succeeding her husband in a shop at 64 Dock Street." Her second husband was an Irish immigrant, her third a watch and clockmaker, William Goodfellow. She had a son and daughter by her first two marriages.
Described as a no-nonsense practical cook and teacher with a strong commitment to artisan baking and fresh, locally produced foods, Goodfellow was a pioneer on many fronts. She is credited with creating the first lemon meringue pie and popularizing the use of what was then called Indian (corn) meal.
"Elizabeth was a smart business woman," said Diamond, a South Jersey native with a degree in library science and a background in journalism. "She had her own business, teaching mostly upper-class young ladies the art of cookery so they could manage their own households and household staff and entertain on a high level."
In Goodfellow's day, most entertaining was done at home, with restaurants reserved for the privileged few. Diamond references the City Tavern as one hot spot in Philadelphia, a fine dining emporium where hearth cooking and cookery in general were at the highest level. City Tavern proprietor Walter Staib, whose PBS Colonial cooking series, "A Taste of History" was recently nominated for a James Beard award, has the ultimate respect for Goodfellow and other pioneering 18th- and 19th-century cooks. "Imagine baking all of these fine cakes and dishes in a hearth, and trying to regulate temperatures over a fire and coals," he said.
One of the reasons her school was such a success was that Philadelphia was a vital port city with access to varied and exotic ingredients. "Philadelphia, more than any other place, had the money, the imports, the best of the best," said Staib. "It makes perfect sense that the first cooking school was here."
The sheer variety of ingredients available spoke directly to consumer demand, driven to a large degree by Philadelphia's upper-crust Quaker residents, who had money and enjoyed the finer things in life. "Our market was known not just for its quality but for its purity, cleanliness and order," Diamond said.
While she'd likely be mystified by today's feeding frenzy of celebrity chefs and reality cooking shows, Goodfellow could hold her own at Philadelphia's modern table, bringing her proven farm to table sensibility to bear from an era when there was no other option. "We've come full circle," said Diamond. " 'Fresh, local and organic' was all they had when Mrs. Goodfellow was around."