Michigan State University

Rorer, S. T, 1849-1937

Sarah Tyson Rorer, a pioneer of dietetics and the most famous cooking teacher of her time, was born Sarah Tyson Heston in Richboro, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Sagers and Charles Tyson Heston, a pharmacist. After a year, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, where her father's career prospered; Sarah became familiar with her father's laboratory, gaining a working knowledge of chemistry, and the methodology of laboratory work. She attended a girls' academy and studied English, science and the classics. In 1871, a year after her family moved to Philadelphia, Sarah was married to William Albert Rorer. The couple had three children: two boys and a girl who died before age two.

When the boys were very young, and Rorer suffered from being housebound, she attended a lecture at the Woman's Medical College that stressed the importance of fresh air. At a time when homes were poorly ventilated, stuffy, and commonly filled with heavy dust-collecting drapes and carpets, she began taking her children outside, and sleeping with windows open. Fresh air would become the cornerstone of her philosophy of health. In 1879, she enrolled in a cooking course at Philadelphia's New Century Club, and later recalled: "Before I had taken the second lesson I saw the great possibilities of right living and a well-organized school of domestic science. In fact, I saw, a hundred years ahead, the influence that this knowledge would have over the health and homes of the people." As Catharine Beecher (1800 - 1878) did before her, Rorer advocated the study of domestic science in order to elevate the role of the housewife, and to make cooking a respected profession for women.

In 1882, two years after successfully teaching classes at the New Century Club, Rorer founded the Philadelphia Cooking School. Here she offered cooking classes, a chemistry class, and classes on preparing proper meals for both the sick and healthy. The school reached all strata of society, sponsoring outreach classes in slums and finishing schools, and assigning student-cooking teachers to charity mission kitchens. In her curriculum, as well as in her public appearances and many publications, Mrs. Rorer combined modern chemical knowledge of the composition and action of food with current philosophies and trends. Her dedication to the teaching of dietetics (the use of diet to maintain health and treat disease) and the success of her school's "diet kitchen," where special meals for invalids were tested and prepared at the request of physicians, earned her the title of America's first dietitian.

Though Rorer's fame as America's cook was based on her successful school, it spread rapidly due to her popular magazine columns in Table Talk, a Philadelphia-based monthly, and Ladies Home Journal, which had a circulation of 13 million by the time she left in 1911. In her 1905 article, "How I Cured My Own Ill-Health" she set down her basic rules for eating and living: Cut out pork, fried foods, sweets, sours (pickled foods), and cod-liver oil; eat no breakfast, because the stomach "is not ready for food." (In the morning she drank a cup of hot water.) Do not eat unless you are hungry. Masticate food thoroughly before swallowing. Eat more raw foods than cooked, but not uncooked starch. Eat raw green vegetables because they "act like a broom to the system, keeping it clean and clear." She recommended the heaviest meal at noon, and a light night meal. In an article a month earlier, she denounced pies and cakes as "indigestible" and did not eat them; she recommended cake substitutes, made without butter.

In 1886, the same year Rorer began her Table Talk column, she published Mrs. Rorer's Philadelphia Cook Book -- her first of over fifty cookbooks and booklets. One such "booklet" was "How to Cook Vegetables" issued in 1891 by Burpee Seed Company. It begins with an admonition about the tell-tale preparation of vegetables: "Few things show the difference between comfortable and slovenly housekeeping more quickly than the dressing of vegetables." It goes on to explain, in careful detail, which vegetables cook better in hard water and which in soft, and gives instructions on how to eat an ear of corn. Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book. A Manual of Housekeeping (1902) is her most comprehensive domestic book, and contains many examples of her dietetic approach: its vegetable section runs 160 pages, slightly longer than the sections on fish, meat, poultry, and sauces combined. Chemical compositions of foods are given at the beginning of each chapter. A sign of the times, one chapter is devoted to "serving dinner without a maid" - a remarkable step-by-step account that modern readers will find amusing and all too familiar.

Rorer's fame had much to do with the firm way she dispensed her culinary and dietetic advice and she always strove to be quotable. At staged cooking demonstrations, in the classroom, and in her writing, she was known for her wit and audience rapport, and for lines like, "It is deadly to follow a hearty meal with mental or physical exercise; many a man has died making his after-dinner speech." "Banish the frying pan and there will not be much sickness either in city or country." "Preserves are things people put up in the summer to make them sick in the winter." "Fish is not brain food, because no fishermen of my acquaintance are overly brilliant."

Sarah Rorer closed her cooking school in 1903, and published her last cookbook in 1917. Her marriage had deteriorated and ended in separation around 1896, and she lived with her son for the latter part of her life. She became interested in politics, serving as president of the Lebanon County League of Democratic Women, and touring Pennsylvania at age 79 in support of Presidential candidate Al Smith. During the Great Depression of the 1930's, she lost her investments and her book royalties, and was destitute. She had to rely on the good will and generosity of former students and professional groups, who organized a pension fund for her. She died in her home in Colebrook, Pennsylvania.

The following is a list of Sarah Rorer's major contributions to cookbook history, and the date of first publication:

  • Mrs. Rorer's Philadelphia Cook Book. Philadelphia: Arnold and Co., 1886.
  • How to Cook Vegetables. Philadelphia: W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 1891.
  • Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book, Philadelphia: Arnold and Co., 1902.
  • Mrs. Rorer's Vegetable Cookery and Meat Substitutes, Philadelphia: Arnold and Co., 1909.
  • Mrs. Rorer's Diet for the Sick, Philadelphia: Arnold and Co., 1914.

Sources

  • Huddleson, Mary Pascoe, "A New Profession Is Born," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, (23) July 1947, p. 573.

     

  • ----"Sarah Tyson Rorer-Pioneer in Applied Nutrition," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, (26) May 1950, p. 321.

     

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

     

  • Rorer, Sarah Tyson, "Early Dietetics," Journal of the American Dietetic Association, (10) November 1934, p. 289.

     

  • ----"How I Cured My Own Ill-Health," The Ladies' Home Journal, (22) June 1905, p.38.

     

  • ----"Why I Have No Cakes or Pies on My Table," The Ladies' Home Journal, (22) May 1905, p. 37.

     

  • Weigley, Emma Seifrit, American National Biography. Vol.20. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999.

     

  • ----Sarah Tyson Rorer: The Nation's Instructress in Dietetics and Cookery. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1977.

     

  • Williams, Mrs. Talcott, "The Most Famous Cook in America," The Ladies' Home Journal, (14) February 1897, p. 7.