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Back on the Road…Show!

Celebrity chefs on the rise

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Pierre Blot’s idea of taking culinary lectures and demonstrations on the road was a hit, and Juliet Corson picked up where Blot left off. Often referred to as Blot’s successor, Corson may have trained with the culinary master, as evidenced by an article in The Churchman, which called her “a pupil of Blot.” Although she began her career as a librarian and writer, Corson segued into cooking instruction in 1873 through her involvement with The Free Training School sponsored by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Society of New York, created to assist women forced to seek employment following the financial panic of 1873. Corson taught the program’s cooking class while a chef (who was probably Pierre Blot, according to America’s Collectible Cookbooks by Mary Anna DuSablon) did the actual preparations. Then in 1876, Corson founded the New York Cooking School on West 10th Street.

But Corson’s plan was a little different than Blot’s. Instead of targeting wealthy women, many of her lectures were aimed toward those who “must think twice before spending a nickel.” Well aware that the economic downturn had caused Americans to fall on hard times, Corson opened her school to rich and poor, charging tuition on a sliding scale so no one would be turned away. These core concepts of compassion, inclusiveness, nutrition, and economy would continue throughout her life’s work.

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After teaching for about a year, Corson began to publish cookbooks highlighting her philosophy of thrift: “A good cook never wastes.” One of these was a 40-page pamphlet called Fifteen-Cent Dinners, which emphasized how a family of six could create nutritious and economical meals for just 15 cents. On the title page she declared her mission: “This little book may not be a welcome guest in the home of the man who fares abundantly every day; it is not written for him; but to the working man, who wants to make the best of his wages, I pray it may bring help and comfort.” She had hoped to find a sponsor for this project so that she could distribute it to the families of working people free of charge, but when the economy took another hit after the railroad strike of 1877, she ended up printing 50,000 copies at her own expense. Not long after, she established classes in cookery throughout Massachusetts and other Eastern states.

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Illustration of Reading Railroad Massacre. Image courtesy of Internet Archive via Wikimedia Commons.

Corson was committed to raising the level of attention and respect paid to cooking instruction. In 1878, she solicited assistance from U.S. Commissioner of Education John Eaton regarding teaching these principles in the southern and western regions of the U.S. She was specifically interested in determining the local foods, prices, and favorite recipes of these regions. Through Eaton’s resources at the Bureau of Education, she was able to access thousands of recipes and food tips from around the country. This enabled her to publish a handbook of American regional specialties entitled, Miss Corson’s Practical American Cookery and Household Management (1885), often considered her masterpiece. Through her connection with Eaton she also wrote the influential Bureau of Education publication, Training Schools of Cookery (1879).

Eaton was so impressed with her ability and insight that he sponsored numerous lectures she gave around the country. In 1879 she went on a lengthy tour which included teaching children at a Christian Home Mission in Peoria, IL; training and giving guidance to teachers in Pennsylvania and Raleigh, NC; teaching a course of lessons to the Domestic Department of the Indiana Social Science Association to help develop permanent training for servants; and giving a series of lectures to a men and women at the Spencerian Business College in Washington, D.C. In 1883 she travelled to California spoke to a group of women interested in establishing a cookery school in Oakland, and taught a cooking class at the home of Mrs. Hugh Glenn for 200 people. The following year she gave a course of five lectures in Cleveland at the Cleveland Educational Bureau to over fifteen thousand women. Juliet Corson’s cooking road show was one of meaning and purpose.

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A high school cooking class in Washington D.C. circa 1899. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Her reach was varied and well received; enabling her to convince educators and administrators that cookery was not simply domestic work, but knowledge that was useful for all students. In her lectures to adults she would demonstrate cookery methods while talking, but when she gave lessons to children, she would serve as a guide, allowing them hands-on experience. Her demeanor was kind and approachable; she looked classic and scholarly, her face accented by wire-rimmed glasses and with clothing that was tasteful, not showy.

While she may not have been as animated as Blot, she was just as passionate in her cooking principles and took her values of economy and nutrition on the road. Through her travelling lectures she was able to awaken the public’s interest in cooking, leading to the establishment of cooking schools, and importantly, the addition of domestic science to public school curriculums throughout the U.S. Although her health was failing by the late 1880s, she remained active as, continuing to lecture and write books and articles (even when confined to her bed). She managed to lead the Cooking School and Department of Cookery at the New York Exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, giving free demonstrations on healthful and economical cooking. Grocers and food manufacturers were eager to provide her with the supplies she needed in return for the privilege of being associated with her name.

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Image from Chicago World’s Fair. Image courtesy of New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Toward the end of her life she was nearly penniless, having given away so much of her earnings to help others learn how to prepare wholesome, economical foods. But her supporters rallied in her favor, collecting contributions to help fund her medical care. She was only 56 when she died on June 18, 1897. Accounts differ regarding the cause of her death – Notable American Women lists the source as uremia (a complication of chronic kidney disease). An obituary that ran in several papers including, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Princeton Union, stated she died “from the effects of an operation for the removal of a tumor,” so perhaps her illness was a type of cancer. The obituary also called her “the `mother of cookery’ whose work on culinary art made her name a household word over the country.”

While Corson was busy lecturing around the country, another woman was also gaining notoriety for her culinary expertise — Philadelphia Cooking School instructor Sarah Tyson Rorer. Mrs. Rorer, as she was known, captured the public’s attention at the 1893 World’s Fair, where she gave daily lectures on the art of cooking and headed a “model corn kitchen,” preparing dishes featuring corn as an ingredient — Southern corn pudding, corn fritters, corn salad and corn omelets. The kitchen contained a gas stove, range, refrigerator, a prep table with special compartments for utensils, and a large panel on the wall displaying the different corn varieties. Rorer quickly became a household name, touring the country to lecture about cooking techniques to one packed auditorium after another. Her subjects were wide ranging. In New York in 1894, she spoke on the chafing dish cookery to a large group of men and women at the Food and Home Exhibition in, demonstrating Lobster a la Bordelaise — a rich dish with a sauce of browned butter, garlic, onion, beef stock and bouquet garni. In July of that year she gave an illustrative lecture on “Diet for the Sick” to a large group of Chautauquans (a popular adult education movement at the time) in Mt. Gretna, PA

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Rorer endorsed ingredients, including Mcllhenny’s Tabasco sauce, featured in this advertisement. If readers purchased the product, the company promised to send them recipes Rorer made using the sauce. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Many of these events were touted as “pure food fairs” by major food manufacturers as a way of advertising their products and indoctrinating American housewives to newfangled ingredients meant to make baking and cooking easier; baking powder, Quaker Oats, Cottolene vegetable shortening (a precursor to Crisco) and a variety of prepared foods in cans. By promoting and demonstrating their goods, some companies also hoped to alleviate concerns about food adulteration scandals that were common at the time, such as cream of tartar cut with rice flour and pickles and peas colored bright green with copper salts.

The public flocked to these pure food fairs, excited to visit the attractively decorated booths from which some food manufacturers handed out free samples, while others charged just pennies for a taste. Rorer traveled with these various trade shows to cities such as San Francisco, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York City, and Charlotte, setting herself up with her own kitchen stall in each venue and giving practical lectures on economical, wholesome cooking. In 1895, she gave demonstrations at Madison Square Garden in New York City, a gorgeous renaissance revival building with a minaret-like tower soaring 32 stories over Madison Square Park. The Garden’s main hall was then the largest in the world, measuring 200 by 350 feet with permanent seating for 8,000 people and floor space for thousands more. Each of her lectures there featured a different theme. One day she would demonstrate how to make old-fashioned desserts, with a menu of luscious Sally Lunn cake, chewy jumbles, and juicy apple slump; another day she would discuss cheese cookery, making a fluffy cheese soufflé, crispy cheese croquettes, and creamy spaghetti in cheese shell; the next was chicken cookery, including instruction on the butchering process and then recipes for plump fillets of chicken and deviled chicken legs, complete with a rather exotic stuffing of bread crumbs, pine nuts, and Spanish onion juice.

At the 1896 St. Louis Exposition she entertained enthusiastic audiences with demonstrations of nutritious recipes such as whole-wheat muffins, corn bread, and stewed cucumbers on toast. When one woman from the audience questioned the idea of stewed cucumbers, Rorer retorted, “The greatest mistake that could be made is to eat cucumbers raw or in the shape of pickles … they are ruinous to the stomach,” reported the St. Louis Dispatch. Just as with Pierre Blot, Rorer’s audiences were very attentive, often writing down her culinary words of wisdom in little notebooks they brought along with them or were distributed at the speaking venues.

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Image of the ferris wheel at St. Louis’s 1905 Exposition. Image courtesy of The Library Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of these lectures were vehicles to subtly market cooking appliances, products, and utensils. This stemmed from the relationships Rorer had forged with food manufacturers and processors early in her career, through her association with the home economics movement and its support of food technology and science. She and other cooking experts of the day (such as Marion Harland and Mary Lincoln) embraced new scientific food techniques and readily endorsed and promoted these products in exchange for having their name associated with them as an authoritative source.

In 1899, for the Thomas, Roberts and Stevenson Company, Rorer gave a series of free lectures at the Mercantile Library Hall in Philadelphia on “perfect baking and the economical use of gas fuel on an up-to-date Philadelphia-made gas range.” And in 1916 she lectured on “domestic science” at the Smith-Wadsworth Hardware store in Charlotte, NC as a representative of the Pyrex glass dish company, demonstrating recipes using the company’s glass baking dishes. However, as an article in The Charlotte News article stated, “she never mentions this ware in the course of her lectures, it being enough for the manufacturers that it is merely known she represents them.”

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Book plate for Mercantile Library. Just one of the sites Sarah Rorer spoke at during her tours. Image courtesy of Provenance Online Project via Flickr Commons.

The focus of her lectures included suggestions for the best way to utilize food waste and craft interesting dishes from leftovers, chafing dish demos, nutrition and salads, carving, entrees, light soups, and bread making. Although Rorer also published books, articles, and testimonials to complement her lecture circuit, these personal appearances and cooking demonstrations ultimately became her bread and butter. An energetic and gifted speaker, she was very much at home on the stage, and as she claimed, she “never wanted for an audience.”

Rorer’s combination of practical advice and over-the-top showiness enraptured her audiences, which included people from all classes of society. Although her assertive, opinionated manner could have been interpreted as bossy, her “fans” found it authoritative and even amusing. “Mrs. Rorer does not hesitate to criticize the methods and ways of housewives in general, but the criticism is made in such a droll and humorous manner that that it provokes a laugh instead of resentment,” said the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She was so popular that attendees would show up hours ahead of the lecture start time, patiently waiting for her to emerge and begin bustling about the model kitchen set up on the stage. At some crowded venues, women were forced to stand if they wanted to catch a glimpse of her; such as a talk on “breads and bread making” she delivered, in 1900, to an audience of over five hundred women in the grocery annex of Batterman’s, popular department store in Brooklyn.

Rorer’s engaging and dynamic methods were similar to the charming banter Julia Child provided on her public television programs decades later. Her humorous delivery made cooking fun. She wanted women to know they didn’t have to see cooking tasks as difficult, demonstrating the proper technique to knead bread (standing erect and working the dough with a double motion), and showing the right and wrong way to beat batter simplified the process. Like Child, Rorer was rather physically imposing — a full-figured, middle aged-woman, above average height with wavy golden blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and creamy skin. She always dressed for the occasion in a silk dress, with protective sleevelets, a sheer white lace-edged apron, and a tiny lace cap. She claimed that appearing in this type of finery helped prove to her audiences the ease and simplicity of cooking.

The cooking school closed in 1903, but Rorer continued to lecture and write about foods and cooking until about 1917, when her last book was published. She spent the last two decades of her life in Colebrook, PA, where she became involved in politics, serving as president of the Lebanon County League of Democratic Women. She died in 1937.

Just a few decades later, the advent of electronic media would transform these cooking “road shows.” First radio, then TV, and ultimately digital communications would provide culinary educators with greater, easier to access audiences. Cooking experts no longer had to tour the country to dispense their advice to the masses – their audiences could now experience their animated instruction from the comfort of their own homes. The Washburn-Crosby Company (makers of Gold Medal flour) was the first to develop this concept, via “Betty Crocker,” the fictional character created by the company in 1921 to serve as a baking product spokeswoman. Betty was a huge hit with consumers, leading the company (which later merged with General Mills) to launch America’s first radio cooking show, The Betty Crocker School of the Air, three years later, in 1924. The show first aired on local Minneapolis radio station WCCO and was so well received that NBC picked it up and aired the program nationwide. As Juliet Corson did some decades earlier, the program focused on giving homemakers tasty, economical meals on a shoestring budget, very helpful during the Great Depression. Voiced by home economist Marjorie Child Husted, head of the company’s home service department, it was broadcast on the radio until 1953. Betty Crocker then made the transition into television, portrayed by actress Adelaide Hawley from 1951-1964.

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A student in a 1983 cuts a cake at Betty Crocker’s Kitchen in 1983. Image courtesy of General Mills via Flickr Commons.

But it was James Beard who pioneered the concept of face-to-face television encounters with enthusiastic chefs, through his program I Love to Eat in 1946, America’s first TV cooking show. Then in 1952 he began making guest appearances on morning shows in cities throughout the U.S., including Los Angeles, Detroit, and Boston, through a traveling program called Cooking With Flair. These appearances were highly successful, soon making Beard a full-fledged television personality. According to Evan Jones’s book, Epicurean Delight: Life and Times of James Beard, “Beard made no pretense of being an original in taking a cooking show on the road; he knew about a Paris-trained chef named Pierre Blot who had organized a `tour of lectures’ through the Eastern states in the 1860s.” Jones’s book states that Beard also admired Blot’s successor Juliet Corson, Sarah Rorer of Philadelphia and Boston’s Fannie Farmer, keeping many of their books in his personal library.

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Left: Julia Child and chickens. Right: James Beard and James Beard (portrait). Images courtesy of Glen Dettwiler and the James Beard Foundation via Flickr Commons.

For several decades, public television cooking shows ruled the airwaves, with iconic chefs such as Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Diana Kennedy, Martin Yan, Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, and Jeff Wilson. But the launch of the Food Network in 1993 changed the cooking show landscape. With 24 hour a day programming, energetic “celebrity” chefs, and a large variety of cooking show formats, the channel solidified the entertainment value of cooking and firmly embedded food into American pop culture.

One of these groundbreaking programs was Emeril Live!, launched in 1997. Hosted by Emeril Lagasse, the fast-paced show was taped in front of a live audience and often featured Creole-themed dishes, live music, special guests and Emeril’s signature “Bam!” and “Kick it up a Notch!” exclamations. Similar “live audience” cooking shows soon followed suit, including the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay and The Kitchen and ABC-TV’s The Chew. Increasingly, culinary celebrities are now “taking their shows on the road,” performing live versions of their programs to packed theaters, including, America’s Test Kitchen Live and Giada De Laurentiis’s recent Happy Cooking Tour.

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Emeril Lagasse films a scene in Florida. Image courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater via Flickr Commons.

The educational cooking excursions started by Pierre Blot, Juliet Corson, and Sarah Tyson Rorer have come full circle. While the philosophies and methods of today’s chefs may not be quite the same as their 19th century predecessors, the success of these modern cooking shows makes it clear people love seeing their favorite chefs “live” and “in person”. Sometimes audience members even get a chance to come up on stage, as participation is often a key component. It’s fun, informative, and entertaining. Pierre Blot, Juliet Corson, and Sarah. Rorer would surely smile if they could see the magical trail of live culinary entertainment they helped blaze.•

Cover image courtesy of New York Public Library via Flickr.

Becky Libourel Diamond is a food writer and research historian. Her second book, Thousand Dollar Dinner: America's First Cookery Challenge, tells the unique story of a nineteenth century culinary challenge between Philadelphia restaurateur James Parkinson and the Delmonico family of New York. She is also the author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School

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