Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book
By Catherine Beecher
A Cookbook Collector Review by Fred Glynn
Mystified as to why Miss Beecher had invited them to tea that afternoon in 1846—twenty years after their graduation from the Hartford Female Seminary—two dozen of her former students listened with interest and sympathy as she described how the year before, promising to write a new cookbook, she had taken an advance from Harper & Brothers to send her gravely ill younger sister Harriet to the Brattleboro Spa in Vermont and of how, now, with only the first of over twenty projected chapters written, the deadline was fast approaching—which, if not met, would result in a severe financial penalty.
There was a solution . . . if each of those present would write a chapter, with a sufficient number of receipts—recipes—for the projected book, the whole book could be completed in a week! Never doubting their wholehearted support, she had the titles for the chapters ready on little slips of paper in her hand--meat, fish, vegetables, soups, pies, bread, breakfast and tea cakes, cakes, preserves and jellies, pickles, food for the sick . . .
The completed assignments were quickly assembled into Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, which soon became one of the nineteenth century’s most successful cook-books. Far ahead of its time, it warned about the dangers of animal fats and excessive sugar. Today there is, perhaps, no more detailed picture of what Americans were eating a hundred and fifty years ago and how it was cooked. In helping organize the kitchen and its work properly, Miss Beecher intended to enable women to lead longer, happier lives.
There would have been no Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book if there had been no Hartford Female Seminary and as Miss Beecher’s students well knew, there would have been no Hartford Female Seminary if not for a tragic shipwreck twenty-four years earlier.
Around midnight April 22, 1822, the villagers of Kinsale, on Ireland’s southeastern coast, began gathering on the top of a cliff that stuck out into the Celtic Sea where, with light from the Old Head Lighthouse, they could see, every ten seconds, the recently sleek 500-ton packet ship, Albion, its main mast lost in a sudden, violent storm the day before and now, its hatches gone, taking on water—twenty-one days out of New York and a day and a half to Liverpool—drift helplessly towards the rocks a hundred and fifty feet below.
At 4 AM, just as dawn was beginning to break, they could see—but not hear—as Captain Williams gathered his crew and all but one of the passengers on deck to tell them that within a few minutes the ship would be no more—and led them in a final prayer.
The one passenger to remain below, Professor Alexander Metcalf Fisher, 28, head of the Mathematics Department at Yale, unconvinced of the value of prayer, attempted to repair the ship’s compass while watching the ship’s barometer for signs of the storm abating; the storm did not abate and at 4:05 AM, the Albion crashed against the rocks at the foot of the cliff and broke apart. Only eight of the twenty-five members of the crew and one of the twenty-nine passengers aboard survived; Professor Fisher was not among them.
When word of the disaster reached the United States around the fourth of June, Professor Fisher’s fiancée, Catharine Beecher, 22, went wild with grief, imploring God to reconsider. Slow to come to grips with the tragedy, she was not comforted when Fisher’s friends and colleagues lamented that, despite his many good deeds and virtuous life and the courage with which he had met his end, his soul would spend eternity in Hell for want of a public profession of faith.
Acquiring Fisher’s papers from a reluctant Yale, she discovered a short science-fiction novel he had written, A Journey to the Moon and Some Other Planets describing a visit to an advanced civilization on a small planet orbiting the star Aldebaran. Reading it, she realized that the slim hope her father had held out—that Fisher might have made a last-minute profession of faith before being drawn down into the sea—was unlikely.
Instead of marrying, Catharine chose a career in education, beginning with the education of Fisher’s brother, Willard. The following year, 1823, she took the $2,000 that Professor Fisher had bequeathed her and, together with her sister Mary, founded the Hartford Female Seminary, the first of a number of distinguished schools for young women with which Catharine was to be associated.
In 1871, beginning to feel the infirmities of age, she decided to cut back on her work and moved to Elmira, New York, to live with her brother, Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, in the parsonage, an apartment on the third floor of the Park Congregational Church.
Around midnight, Friday, May 10, 1878, Catharine Beecher had a stroke in her bedroom. She lay there, paralyzed, throughout Saturday. That night Aldebaran, the brightest star in the Hyades, could be seen through Catharine’s bedroom window, to the north-northwest, until it set around 9:30, in the same spot it had set fifty-six years before at Kinsale. Her brother listened, outside her door, to her labored breathing until, sometime on Sunday, Catharine, still wearing Professor Fisher’s ring, went to join him.
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The recipe below, for Tomato Catsup, appears on page 72 of Miss Beecher’s book and provides a delightful alternative to commercial ketchups. The earliest recipe for Tomato Catsup—according to food historian Karen Hess—appeared in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, published in Washington, D. C. in 1824. Mrs. Randolph’s recipe includes chopped onions, omits the wine, and is spiced differently from Miss Beecher’s.
Pour boiling water on the tomatoes, let them stand until you can rub off the skin,
Then cover them with salt, and let them stand twenty-four hours. Then strain them, and to two quarts put three ounces of cloves, two ounces of pepper, two nutmegs. Boil half an hour, then add a pint of wine.