Fond of Louisville: Jennie Carter Benedict
A quick Google search doesn’t often lead to the discovery of a role model, yet last month, three words lured me into an obsessive hunt for information about one of the most celebrated Louisville residents who ever lived but is nearly unknown today.
Close to 100 years after her passing, I found Jennie Carter Benedict’s photo while looking for something interesting about Benedictine to add into a script I was writing for my cooking show. Forgetting why I had begun to search, I stayed up all night, hungry to learn all that I could about her. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read the words she so eloquently wrote about being an entrepreneur in the introduction for the second edition of her most successful cookbook. With every newspaper clipping buried in time, I learned more about her inspirational life and recognized each of the hard-working women I know and love. A day later, electrified, I placed the finishing touches on an entirely new script featuring “Miss Jennie” and licked the bowl after preparing the fruit cake recipe she credits as the foundation for her astounding career. Now, without further ado, allow me to tell you why Jennie Carter Benedict should be a household name.
On March 25th, 1860, Jennie was born in Harrods Creek, KY. As a child, she discovered a love for catering parties, but she did not know that she had a knack for cooking until she reached adulthood and hoped to discover a talent that would allow her to forge her own path in life. Wishing to prove what a woman is capable of in business, particularly one without funding behind her, Jennie opted in 1893 to have a kitchen constructed in the backyard of her parents’ home on Third Street. Promising to compensate the builder when she could, Jennie focused on joyfully baking fruit cakes. They were so delicious that she received more orders than she could handle and was able to pay for her kitchen in full within 6 months! At the suggestion of a friend, she then sent out circulars to 500 acquaintances requesting orders for anything and everything edible. This resulted in a myriad of jobs, including a 4 year position selling chicken salad sandwiches to school children as the novel idea of a daily lunch for students.
In the years that followed, Jennie worked so hard that she was able to fund significant improvements to her production kitchen, including walls, running water, and a gas stove that was custom made for her professional needs. As her business thrived, she began to teach cooking lessons, wrote a cookbook called One Hundred Tested Receipts, and became the editor for the Household department of the Courier Journal. When the principal of the Boston Cooking School came to town for the Pure Food Exhibition, she became too ill to give demonstrations. Jennie stepped up to take her place and the school rewarded this kindness by inviting her to take a special course. She returned home intensely inspired.
While running the lunch program for the Business Woman’s Club, Jennie bought out an established local catering company on Fourth Street with Miss S. E. Kerr in April of 1900. That May, Jennie’s first store opened at 412 South Fourth Street with the help of investors. Two years later, she published the first edition of The Blue Ribbon Cookbook. The second edition was printed in 1904. In 1911, Benedict’s Restaurant opened at 554 South Fourth Street with 65 employees to operate both the restaurant and catering service, as well as to prepare a dazzling collection of sweets. It was here that Jennie invented Benedictine as a sandwich spread for tea service. The restaurant was so popular that it was written into a novel called The Little Colonel: Maid of Honor (1906).
Through all this work, Jennie never lost her kindness or her lifelong focus on philanthropy - she served as the 3rd Vice President of the Social Agencies Federation and the President of the King’s Daughters while leading projects such as securing jail matrons to protect female inmates and raising funds to open an infirmary. Her efforts focused heavily on improving the quality of life for all Louisvillians.
Over the course of the next 14 years, Jennie created a culinary empire that spanned several states and influenced the palates of Louisville citizens so greatly that many of the flavors and dishes we enjoy today can be directly traced back to her. The food she served represented the emerging middle class, a group interested in cuisine that used distinctly American ingredients and approachable techniques. Her work was especially popular in St. Louis, from where she was said to have received an offer of a million dollars to relocate her business. She considered accepting, which prompted an unprecedented letter from the retail business association begging her to stay here on behalf of the entire city. Flattered by the realization that she was adored and valued in Louisville, Jennie decided to remain.
In 1925, she sold her business for $50,000, which would be valued somewhere between $750,000 and $1.5 million today. Once retired, she moved to a home she called “Dream Acre” on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River near Mellwood Avenue. She spent the next three years focusing on philanthropic work and wrote an autobiography entitled The Road to Dream Acre. It is out of circulation, but can be read at the Main Library.
Locally famous and loved, Jennie Carter Benedict died of pneumonia at the age of 68 on July 24th, 1928. She is buried in Cave Hill Cemetary in Section G, Lot 52.
Jennie quoted this passage from the Boston Cooking School Magazine* in the 2nd edition of The Blue Ribbon Cookbook: “On the contrary, nothing good can come out of dissatisfaction and discontent. We do best that which we are fond of doing, and a work well done always brings to the doer its own rich reward of pleasure and satisfaction.”
As you celebrate Derby and Mother’s Day, I hope you will remember this remarkable lady, share her story, and be inspired by her life, which was filled with joy, commitment, and compassion. I wish you satisfying work, genuine love, lots of fun, and a tea party with Benedictine finger sandwiches!
To watch the May episode of my cooking show, Easy Elegance, visit www.TheSeasonedCynic.com or subscribe to The Seasoned Cynic on YouTube or Vimeo.
Photos from the Filson Historical Society
* The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics: Volume 9
Madeleine’s Benedictine recipe: https://theseasonedcynic.com/home/benedictine