Michigan State University

Leslie, Eliza, 1787-1858

Eliza Leslie was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Lydia Baker and Robert Leslie, a watchmaker. She was the oldest of five children. At age five, Leslie and her family moved to England for six years, so her father could develop an export business in clocks and watches. A talented man, he was the chief influence on Leslie's early intellectual life, encouraging her precocious reading ability and teaching her to write and draw. Leslie loved to read, and advanced rapidly from children's stories (of which few existed at the time, she later recalled) into the realm of literature. She composed poetry at an early age, though by age fourteen became discouraged. Leslie writes, "I then for many years abandoned the dream of my childhood, the hope of one day seeing my name in print." When her father passed away in 1803, the family suffered financial hardship. They bore the burden cheerfully; she and her mother earned income by taking in boarders. Possibly to improve the cooking at the boarding house, Eliza attended the first American culinary school, Mrs. Goodfellow's cooking school in Philadelphia, in the early 1820's. Copying Goodfellow's recipes for friends led to the assembling of her first publication, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828), which was a success. Her publisher, Mr. Francis of Munroe & Francis, Boston, urged her to try her hand "at a work of imagination" and soon published her first series of juvenile stories, The Young Americans; or, Sketches of a Sea-Voyage (1829). Published anonymously, its success led Eliza to use her name ("Miss Leslie") on her next work, American Girl's Book (1831), and on all the juvenile stories, fiction, magazine articles, editorial work, etiquette guides and cookbooks to follow in the next twenty-five years.

Leslie is best known for having written the most popular cookbook in nineteenth century America, Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches (1837), which sold at least 150,000 copies. Her approach to cooking instruction, simple yet comprehensive, is inviting even to a modern reader. Leslie writes in the Preface, "The author has spared no pains in collecting and arranging, perhaps the greatest number of practical and original receipts that have ever appeared in a similar work; flattering herself that she has rendered them so explicit as to be easily understood, and followed, even by inexperienced cooks."

Leslie intended her book for all socioeconomic classes, rural and urban alike. "In the hope that her system of cookery may be consulted with equal advantage by families in town and in country, by those whose condition makes it expedient to practice economy, and by others whose circumstances authorize a liberal expenditure, the author sends it to take its chance among the multitude of similar publications . . ." She included a number of relatively lavish dishes, such as "Rich Brown Soup", which calls for six pounds of lean, boned beef and is "suited to dinner parties." Yet also included are the labor-intensive methods for making butter and several kinds of cheese.

A sequel followed: The Lady's Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families (1847). This marked a turn toward a more explicitly genteel audience. Leslie was inventing the middle-class audience as much as catering to it. Her intended readers, "[f]amilies who possess the means and the inclination to keep an excellent table, and to entertain their guests in a handsome and liberal manner . . ." would not be found squeezing the cheese curds through the cheesecloth, but selecting menus and caring for the many fine things in a middle class home. Half the book is dedicated to such care, ie., cleaning silver, laundering white satin ribbon, preserving white fur and oil-paintings, as well as tips for traveling by sea and writing a proper letter.

Eliza Leslie spent the latter part of her life as a Philadelphia celebrity. "She had the reputation of a brilliant woman with a sarcastic wit and heady opinions who frequently offended strangers but was warmly affectionate to relatives and friends and generous to the needy." In her last decade, Leslie reportedly suffered from being overweight, and could not walk easily. She died in 1858 in Gloucester, New Jersey.

Sources

  • Haven, Alice B. "Personal Reminiscences of Miss Eliza Leslie," Godey's Lady's Book 56 (1858), which includes a brief autobiographical sketch by Eliza Leslie dated August 1, 1851.

     

  • Leslie, Eliza. Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches. Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & Hart, 1840.

     

  • Leslie, Eliza. The Lady's Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families. Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & Hart, 1847, c1846.

     

  • Longone, Janice B. and Daniel T. American Cookbooks and Wine Books 1797-1950. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984.

     

  • Pfaelzer, Jean. American National Biography. Vol. 13. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Note: Between 1828 and 1857 Eliza Leslie published nine cookbooks. Many were reprinted in various combined and retitled forms. The following is a listing of the original works and original year of publication.
  • Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828)

     

  • Domestic French Cookery (1832)

     

  • Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches (1837)

     

  • The Indian Meal Book (1847)

     

  • The Lady's Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families (1847)

     

  • Miss Leslie's Lady's New Receipt-Book (1850)

     

  • More Receipts (1852)

     

  • Miss Leslie's New Receipts for Cooking . . . (1854)

     

  • Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book (1857)

Biography by Anne-Marie Rachman