“I have proved my strong mindedness by climbing into the trees.”
Lavinia Goodell, July 13, 1873
Because of global transportation, refrigeration, and food preservation methods, modern grocery shoppers have year round access to a virtually unlimited variety of food. Lacking those conveniences, the fare available to people in the nineteenth century was often quite limited. Lavinia Goodell’s extensive correspondence with family members frequently recounted what they were eating, particularly when they were able to enjoy seasonal delicacies such as fresh fruit. Cherries were apparently one of Lavinia’s favorites.
In a letter to her cousin written in the summer of 1873, Lavinia described taking precious time away from her legal studies to pick cherries at the Goodells’ home on South Academy Street in Janesville:
Since I wrote you I have resumed my study which has been interrupted only by seasons of cherry picking in the mornings when I have proved my strong mindedness by climbing into the trees. Also getting out onto the roof to reach some of the branches. Have got all but a few which are beyond my reach but are visible and look provokingly tempting from my bedroom window.
The image of a slender young woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a floor length dress and high top shoes, climbing trees or crawling out her bedroom window onto the roof in order to capture the ripe fruit is rather amusing.
Lavinia and her mother spoke of pickling and drying cherries. Grapes were another favorite fruit, and when they were in abundance the family canned them. It appears that peaches were often hard to come by. In the fall of 1867, Lavinia, who was living with her aunt Mira Wheeler in Brooklyn, reported to her mother, who was living in Connecticut, that she had some peaches. Her mother replied, “Oh how the very name of them did make our mouth water. We have not eaten one these three years.”
The Goodell family generally ate a modest diet based on the precepts of Sylvester Graham (although, contrary to Graham’s teachings, they did eat some meat.) When Lavinia began practicing law in the summer of 1874, she would sometimes walk home at lunch but other times would pack a lunch. Her diary entries indicate that one day she ate crackers, milk, and whortleberries. On another occasion she had just crackers and jelly. And on a snowy winter day she reported, “I lunched at office on boiled beef steak.”
The family seemed to have a sweet tooth, since they often mentioned baking cakes or pies. On more than one occasion Lavinia’s mother mentioned baking Washington pie:
We have what they call Washington pie, sometimes for tea or for dessert at dinner which I think is perfectly delicious. It is about what used to be called jack cake only lighter than a feather, with cornstarch, sugar and cream between. Beef and pork is our dinner most of the time. The female portion of the family choose something more delicate, bread and butter pudding or pie, which we always have.
During Lavinia’s time in Janesville in the 1870s, oyster suppers were very common. On multiple occasions Lavinia mentions the Congregational Church hosting oyster suppers as fundraisers, apparently over the objection of some congregants:
They are going to have an oyster supper and great doings generally in the church parlors next Friday evening. I am one of the committee to wait on tables. Our folks expect to go. We have also got to contribute biscuits, cake. Object, to raise money for church purposes. The Harts and a few others consider it wicked to have such “carryings on” in the meeting house, but the majority of the people, including the ministers, are going to it.
According to the Janesville Gazette, the event was attended by a large crowd and the supper “was of a satisfying sort.”
Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Sarah Thomas (July 13, 1873); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (January 23, 1872); Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (October 1867); Clarissa and Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (June 1867); Lavinia Goodell’s diary (July 6, 1874; November 16, 1874; March 7, 1874); https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-is-washington-pie; Janesville Gazette (January 27, 1872).
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