Germantown event will focus on a time when Philly was America’s food capital

Becky Diamond, who maintains Philadelphia was America’s food capital of America long before New York City was on the culinary map, will discuss her book, “Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School,” at Germantown’s Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion on Saturday.

A Yardley resident and New Jersey native, Diamond will also share some Victorian-style delicacies at the 2 p.m. event.

Speaking with NewsWorks in advance of the event, the avid chef and author said the dream of writing a book fit perfectly with her degrees in journalism and library science.

After she saw an article that said America’s first cooking school opened in Philadelphia in the early 19th century, she pitched the idea to a local publisher. After three years of research and writing, “Mrs. Goodfellow” debuted last spring.

The food capital of America

As one of America’s first big cities with a major port, Philadelphia “had access to a lot of goods” and unparalleled farmlands.

“The land was so fertile in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area that we were able to grow a lot of things right here, and ship them off to other places to trade,” Diamond said. “The markets in Philadelphia were just amazing.”

She’ll describe when Market Street was built wide enough to accommodate a world of vendors, operating under a structure that let a diverse crowd of men and women shop rain or shine.

The region’s fresh meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and flowers met Pennsylvania Dutch stalls bursting with baked goods, jellies and preserves.

Mrs. Goodfellow’s claim to fame

Into that mix came Mrs. Goodfellow, a business-savvy Quaker and mother of two who was widowed three times before she hit her mid-forties.

When Mrs. Goodfellow’s last husband, a watch and clockmaker, died, she closed his shop and launched her own bakery. First, she worked on Dock Street. Then, with her adult son’s help, she moved to ritzy Washington Square.

“She was very similar to Betsy Ross, in that she had to support herself,” Diamond said.

In addition to selling baked goods, she began to offer cooking classes to the daughters of Philadelphia’s Quaker merchants, as well as the young women of the city’s boarding schools.

This 19th century entrepreneur could fricassee a chicken with the best of them, Diamond said, “but the pastries were really her specialty.”

On desserts

According to Diamond, pastries were integral to elegant dining back then. Hostesses would wait until the stroke of 11 p.m. or even midnigh to reveal the sweets with a grand flourish.

“The dessert table was the highlight of the whole thing,” she said. “That would make or break the social standing of some of these women. If you could put together a really elaborate dessert table, you could be talked about for weeks afterward.”

On Saturday, Diamond will share more about what it was like in Mrs. Goodfellow’s kitchen, and offer a few Goodfellow-era treats to share, including rosewater and nutmeg-flavored cookies called jumbles, which Diamond said are “America’s first cookies.”

Before the 19th century, cookies were rare; working with fiery brick ovens, cooks were much more likely to prepare cakes, she said. (When you can’t control or determine the exact temperature of your oven, something as small as a cookie is very difficult to bake.)

“She had to plan her day according to the fireplace oven,” Diamond said, admiring the scheduling necessary to bake bread, puddings and cookies on the same fire as it died down throughout the day.

Forward thinking

Mrs. Goodfellow was committed to more than fancy baking.

Her students learned what trendy 21st-century chefs are rediscovering: It’s all about the best local ingredients.

Mrs. Goodfellow taught her students that top-notch flour, spices, eggs and dairy made the finest food.

“Everyone knew that if you got something from Mrs. Goodfellow, it was the best of the best,” Diamond said, citing a Quaker penchant for quality, simplicity and cleanliness. “Even though it might be plain, it was the best of something.”

Tickets for the event, which will be held 2 p.m. Saturday at 200 W. Tulpehocken St., are $20 for Mansion members and $25 for others, refreshments included.

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