Thursday, July 14, 2022

When Maria Parloa Visited Tilden Ladies’ Seminary

New Hampshire,

Tilden Ladies’ Seminary in West Lebanon, New Hampshire was a progressive institution established in 1855 when most female boarding schools focused on activities like needlework and music. Two pieces of ephemera from 1881 provide a rare glimpse of this school and a guest lecturer named Maria Parloa, one of the country’s first celebrity chefs. 

The horizontal silk menu below (shown in three sections) comes from the senior class dinner in January of 1881. The outing included a sleigh ride to the old Eagle Hotel in nearby Woodstock, Vermont where the event was held. The menu includes the names of the thirteen students who were then about 16 years old. Dining in the quasi-public space of a hotel was part of their education. 

Maria Parloa conducted cooking demonstrations at the school for ten days in May of that year. In addition to being a popular food lecturer, Parloa was the author of best-selling cookbooks and founded two cooking schools. By the 1880s, there was a craze for her cooking lessons in towns and cities across the country. This small card, which is a fragment of a bifold, reveals five of the ten menus she prepared at Tilden.  

Although there is no evidence to support her story, Maria Parloa claimed to have been born in Massachusetts and orphaned at a young age. More credibly, she noted in the preface of her first cookbook that she had “years of experience as a cook in private families and hotels.” Some researchers believe she was born in Ireland and hid her early life to avoid the widespread prejudice leveled against such immigrants in the culinary field. The nature of this discrimination is revealed in a book titled Three Visits to America published in 1884, in which an Englishwoman stated: “Many of my friends across the Atlantic frankly ‘own up’ to their country’s defects as far as culinary matters are concerned, and an effort is being made to establish cooking schools for ladies in the large cities. The American housewife is often at the mercy of some raw Irish servant, and if she has no practical knowledge, she cannot possibly cope with Bridget’s ignorance and wastefulness.” Ironically, the writer concluded by reporting “Miss Parloa’s classes in New York have been well attended, and she…asserts that ‘at no distant day Americans will surpass Europeans in the art of cookery…”’ 

Maria Parloa posed for few photographs, which was unusual for a famous person who attracted thousands to hear her speak at Madison Square Garden. The portrait shown above was taken in 1880. When she died in 1909, a nationally-syndicated journalist observed: “No American woman has ever done more for the uplift of the American home than Maria Parloa.”

1. Mooney-Getoff, Mary. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford University Press, 2013 pp. 434–435. 
2. Parloa, Maria. The Appledore Cook Book, 1872. 
3. Wild, Patrick Tierney. “The Mysterious Early Life of Maria Parloa,” 12 April 2021. Retrieved: 26 July 2021. 
4. Portland Daily Press: 4 March 1884. 
5. Shields, David S. The Culinarians: The Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining. University of Chicago Press, 2017. 
 6. Faithfull, Emily. Three Visits to America. New York: Fowler & Wells Co., 1884.


ephemeralist said...

She was referred to often, long after her death.

Anonymous said...

Interesting research and information, Henry. Thank you for sharing it! Mike Peich