Juliet Corson, cooking teacher and writer and founder of the New York Cooking School, was born this date in 1841. Amid the excess and middle-class striving of the Gilded Age, Corson saw the hardships of working families — perhaps because a bad family situation had forced her out on her own at the age of 18 — and she made it a personal crusade to teach working-class women to cook as a way of improving their lives. Well-off women paid her bills, but she used the proceeds to offer inexpensive and free classes to the wives and daughters of working men. Some of those classes focused on helping women find work as professional cooks to the wealthy, but Corson was equally committed to improving their home cooking.
In 1877, after four years of double-digit unemployment and a nationwide railroad strike violently suppressed by federal troops, Corson printed a pamphlet called “Fifteen Cent Dinners for Working-Men’s Families” and distributed fifty thousand copies at her own expense. The pamphlet offered simple, balanced meals to feed a family of six at a cost of three dollars a week (about $65 today). This was not exciting food; a typical day’s meals in Corson’s book included breakfast of broth and bread, a dinner of mutton and turnips, and a supper of macaroni and cheese, or perhaps lentils. Corson’s advice was unflinchingly, and sometimes unpleasantly, practical, as in these instructions on buying second-quality meats:
The second quality of beef has rather whitish fat, laid moderately thick upon the back, and about the kidneys; the flesh is close-grained, having but few streaks of fat running through it, and is of a pale red color, and covered with a rough, yellowish skin. Poor beef is dark red, gristly, and tough to the touch, with a scanty layer of soft, oily fat. Buy meat as cheap as you can, but be sure it is fresh; slow and long cooking will make tough meat tender, but tainted meat is only fit to throw away.
Not exciting, but it didn’t have to be dismal, either, if cooks knew what to do with cheap ingredients and put in just a bit of effort. “In Europe,” she said, “provinces would live upon what towns waste here.” Corson genuinely meant to help people whose only model for decent eating was the middle-class preference for choice cuts of meat three times a day, and pretending that they could afford steak wasn’t going to help them. But, as she explained in the preface,
The cheapest kinds of food are sometimes the most wholesome and strengthening; but in order to obtain all their best qualities we must know how to choose them for their freshness, goodness, and suitability to our needs. That done, we must see how to cook them, so as to make savory and nutritious meals instead of tasteless or sodden messes, the eating whereof sends the man to the liquor shop for consolation.
Just the obligatory bit of nineteenth-century moralizing, there; for the most part Corson avoided that high-handed tone. But if she didn’t rail against ignorance and sloth, she certainly believed that craft could go a long way towards alleviating want — fighting, as a journalist put it, “the disposition to avoid trouble, as if anything excellent could be arrived at without trouble.” She taught the students in her free classes real skills, and in her pamphlet she gave instructions for improving cooking by small and inexpensive efforts. “One reason why French cooking is so much nicer than any other is that it is seasoned with a great variety of herbs and spices,” she said; “these cost very little; if you would buy a few cents’ worth at a time you would soon have a good assortment.” Better still, she explained how to grow herbs in window boxes, and then how to preserve them for year-round use. Tarragon vinegar seems like a fancy thing now, and doubtless did then to the working class, but it’s trivial to make:
Get at Washington Market, at the herb stand, a bunch of tarragon; it will cost five cents in the summer, when it is green and strong, and not much more in the winter; put it in an earthen bowl, and pour on it one pint of scalding hot vinegar; cover it and let it stand until the next day; then strain it, and put it into a bottle which you must cork tight…. you can make a gallon from one bunch.
Corson also explained how to make “tinctures” of orange and lemon by steeping leftover peel in alcohol, and of vanilla by steeping broken beans. At the time, vanilla extract wasn’t widely available commercially; her “tincture” was a way of stretching an expensive ingredient to flavor a lot of desserts. (Vanilla extract can still be made at home cheaper and better than it can be gotten from a store.) These are the sorts of things that can seem, to someone who doesn’t cook, like a great deal of effort. But Corson wasn’t unrealistic about how much time working people had; her point was that good cooking doesn’t after all require a great deal of time or money, if you gain some basic skills, quit aping the extravagances of the rich, and put in just a bit of effort.
Not surprisingly, that message found mixed reactions. Corson had no trouble giving away copies of her pamphlet. “Kind friend Juliet,” wrote one working woman, “for the last six months I have not earned $1.50 a day. Times are very hard. There are plenty in our factory no better off than myself, with five to seven in a family. Please send us books.” But she also raised the ire of labor organizers who, according to Harper’s, “threatened and warned [her] to desist from either circulating it or speaking in public,” because they feared that if employers learned how little working men could live on, they would cut wages even further. Sadly, they were probably right.
Juliet Corson died in her fifties, almost alone and nearly broke after a long illness. I haven’t been able to find out what that illness was, but she was sick on and off for several years, which makes me wonder if it was tuberculosis — which she could well have contracted while working with the poor. But her tireless work also earned the devotion of those she helped. Near the end she was forced to appeal to her readers and former students for assistance, and their support helped her through her last days.
It would be easy to dismiss Corson’s meager impact, to resent her message or merely to make fun of her comments about meat. But I think her advice could do most of us some good, whatever our finances. So raise a glass to the memory of Miss Corson… but not bourbon, this once. Milk, I suppose?