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date: 22 October 2020

Rorer, Sarah Tysonfree

(18 October 1849–27 December 1937)
  • Emma S. Weigley

Rorer, Sarah Tyson (18 October 1849–27 December 1937), cooking teacher and diet reformer, was born Sarah Tyson Heston in Richboro, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Charles Tyson Heston, a pharmacist, and Elizabeth Sagers. The family resided in Buffalo, New York, but Elizabeth Heston returned to her mother’s home for the delivery of her firstborn. “Sallie,” as she was called, grew up in the Buffalo area and attended East Aurora Academy, a female seminary. She later attributed the beginnings of her interest in cooking reform to her father’s poor health and delicate digestion resulting from service in the Civil War. Around 1869 the family returned to eastern Pennsylvania, and in 1871 Sallie Heston married William Albert Rorer, a clerk/bookkeeper, in Philadelphia’s Second Reformed Church. The couple had three children, one of whom died in early childhood.

To relieve household tedium, Sallie Rorer attended some lectures at the Woman’s Medical College and in 1879 enrolled in a cooking course at Philadelphia’s New Century Club. She proved such an apt pupil that when the instructor left, Sallie was asked to teach the cooking classes. Mrs. Rorer, as she was thereafter called, taught there for several years and then set out on her own, founding the Philadelphia Cooking School in 1882. Here people from all strata of society studied improved diet and cooking methods. Later a normal course to train teachers was added, and some of the first dietitians and home economists in the country received their education. At the urging of several well-known local doctors, Rorer added a “diet kitchen” in which special menu items were prepared for patients who came to Philadelphia for treatment but who stayed at local hotels where special foods were unavailable. She also carried her message of improved diet in outreach programs to institutions as diverse as finishing schools and refuges for “fallen women.” Classes about diet therapy were also provided for doctors and nurses.

Rorer expanded her teachings into all the communications media of her time. Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book appeared in 1886. She wrote at least fifty-four cookbooks or booklets. Among her other major publications were Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book (1902) and Mrs. Rorer’s Diet for the Sick (1914). A perennial favorite that went through at least twenty printings was How to Cook Vegetables (1891), distributed as a premium by the W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company.

In 1886 Rorer began writing “Housekeeper’s Inquiries” for Table Talk, a Philadelphia-based monthly. This feature attracted a large following, and the size of and subscriptions to the magazine increased rapidly. During her eight-year affiliation with the periodical she wrote more than 240 articles and answered more than 2,000 inquiries. After editing the magazine Household News from 1893 to 1896, she was asked by Edward Bok to write for the Ladies’ Home Journal, in which she was introduced in 1897 as the “Most Famous Cook in America.” By the time she left in 1911, the magazine was said to be read by 13 million women.

Beginning in 1889 Rorer’s cooking demonstrations became a fixture at food expositions held annually in Philadelphia. With a carefully cultivated stage presence, she proved to be a consummate showwoman. To illustrate how neat and clean cooking could be, she always appeared in a silk gown. (Some commentators did point out that much of the “dirty work” was done by her assistant, who wore calico.) Reports tell of seats filled by two o’clock even though her lecture began at four, repeats of sessions by popular demand, and other evidence of her public success. Enthusiastic press coverage of these performances revealed Rorer’s epigrammatic wit and superb audience rapport.

Rorer was an advocate of light, healthful cookery and of reducing kitchen drudgery. She gave advice and made pronouncements on a variety of topics: “Preserves are things people put up in the summer to make them sick in the winter.” “If you can digest those things [fried potato cakes], you deserve to have a monument erected to your digestion at your death.” “Fish is not brain food, because no fishermen of my acquaintance are overly brilliant.” “Banish the frying pan and there will not be much sickness either in city or country.” “Bad cooking is largely responsible for the crowded conditions of our insane asylums, almshouses, prisons and hospitals.” “It is the hankering of the ill-fed stomach that induces men to drink.” “It is deadly to follow a hearty meal with mental or physical exercise; many a man has died making his after-dinner speech.” “There is nothing in a cake to give you brain and muscle unless you get the latter from beating the cake.” “I would feel my life work finished if I could emancipate women from coal cookery.” “Exercise is wholesome, but a promenade in the open air is more beneficial than running all over the kitchen until you drop from exhaustion.” “If your kitchen is the size of a barn, divide it into four imaginary rooms … use one for the kitchen.”

Rorer was soon called on to take her cooking show to cities across the country, where she was equally well received. At the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, she presided over a “corn kitchen” that was visited by a quarter of a million people who watched her prepare dishes, all of which featured a form of corn as an ingredient. In 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis she drew large audiences to her model kitchen. She spent many summers at the Pennsylvania Chautauqua at Mount Gretna where a large building, Rorer Hall, was constructed for her demonstrations.

Rorer closed her cooking school in 1903; her last cookbook was published in 1917. Over the years her marriage had deteriorated, and she and her husband separated around 1896. She later moved to Colebrook near the Pennsylvania Chautauqua grounds. In retirement she became interested in politics and served several terms as president of the Lebanon County League of Democratic Women. At age seventy-nine she toured Pennsylvania making speeches supporting Al Smith. During the depression her investments failed, her book royalties dwindled, and she was left destitute. Former students organized a pension fund to assist her. Some professional organizations, realizing her importance as a pioneer cooking teacher and reformer, also contributed to the fund. She died in her Colebrook home.

Sarah Tyson Rorer has been widely acclaimed as an important figure in the home economics movement that culminated in the founding of the American Home Economics Association in 1908 (although she was not directly involved with the organization). She spread the word about improved cooking and diet to an audience that ranged from slum residents to society figures and worked passionately to reduce kitchen drudgery both for women who did their own cooking and for hired help. Many early home economists and dietitians were educated in her Philadelphia Cooking School. Because of the school and the diet kitchen attached to it, Rorer is widely acknowledged as the first American dietitian.

Bibliography

A small collection of Roreriana is housed in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Five letters by former students with recollections about Rorer are in the files of the American Dietetic Association in Chicago. During Rorer’s active career several biographical sketches were published, including Mrs. Talcott Williams, “The Most Famous Cook in America,” Ladies’ Home Journal, Feb. 1897, p. 7, and Elise Biesel, “The First Cook in the Land,” Good Housekeeping, Mar. 1914, pp. 420–22. A song, “Mr. and Mrs. Rorer,” with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse and music by Jerome Kern was featured in the 1924 Broadway musical Sitting Pretty. For discussion of Rorer’s role as the first American dietitian, see Mary Pascoe Huddleson, “A New Profession Is Born,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 23 (1947): 573–78, and Huddleson, “Sarah Tyson Rorer—Pioneer in Applied Nutrition,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 26 (1950): 321–24. Rorer herself reminisced in “Early Dietetics,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 10 (1934): 289–95. The most complete assessment is Emma Seifrit Weigley, Sarah Tyson Rorer: The Nation’s Instructress in Dietetics and Cookery (1977). See also Weigley’s “The Philadelphia Chef: Mastering the Art of Philadelphia Cookery,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 96 (1972): 229–40. Obituaries are in the Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News, 29 and 31 Dec. 1937.