Catherine Beecher was the Martha Stewart of her day and, like Martha Stewart, lived in Connecticut (Hartford, not Westport). Harriet Beecher Stowe’s big sister and together they wrote The American Woman’s Home in 1869. It was probably the most important guidebook of domestic advice in the 19th century.
Catherine had taken over running her family’s household at 16 when her mother died. In addition to becoming a 19th century domestic diva, she was a pioneer in women’s education. She opened the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, one of the first major educational institutions for women in the United States. Later in life she established women’s colleges in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Catherine Beecher never married, though she was engaged to Yale University professor Alexander Fisher. He died at sea before the wedding.
She was a woman of strong but not inflexible opinions. She weighed her students’ food before they ate it and fed them the Graham diet, a health food craze of the 1820s. It involved Graham flour, high-fiber foods, no meat, spices or sweeteners.
Her students rebelled against the austere diet, but in a genteel way. Ten of them invited her to eat in a restaurant where she had an excellent meal. The food at the Hartford Female Seminary quickly improved.
In The American Woman’s Home she inveighs against plum pudding and mince pie: “Witness the national recipe for plum-pudding: which may be rendered: Take a pound of every indigestible substance you can think of, boil into a cannon-ball, and serve with flaming brandy. So of the Christmas mince-pie…” She was not a huge fan of cakes, dismissing confectionery as “pleasing and complicated compounds of sweets and spices, devised not for health and nourishment, and strongly suspected of interfering with both—mere tolerated gratifications of the palate, which we eat, not with the expectation of being benefited, but only with the hope of not being injured by them.”
But in a supplement to The American Woman's Home, as in her students’ diets, she relented. Here is Catherine Beecher’s recipe for Baked English Plum Pudding from Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book.
A quarter of a pound of suet, chopped first, and half a teaspoonful of salt
Half of a pound of bread crumbs
Half of a pound of stoned raisins, wet and dredged with flour
Three ounces of citron
Milk, and six eggs
Half of a pound of currants
Half of a pound of sugar.
Pour enough scalded milk onto the bread-crumbs to swell them; when cold, add the other ingredients. If it is too stiff, thin it with milk; if it is too thin, add more bread crumbs. Then add two grated nutmegs, a tablespoonful of mace and cinnamon, and half a gill of brandy. Bake two hours.
Catherine Beecher died of apoplexy in 1878.
This story about Catherine Beecher was updated in 2018.