Rochester's farm-to-table roots
A look at George Eastman's 'urban farmer' lifestyle
We think of the farm-to-table movement as a modern trend—organic farming, locally sourced food, making the most of each season’s harvest. But did you know that one of Rochester’s leading industrialists had ten acres of flower gardens, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and berries? And that he raised cows and chickens on the land surrounding his residence within our city limits in the early 1900s? His name was George Eastman. Many never imagined that Eastman advocated and practiced artisanal farming to stock his kitchen and his table at 900 East Avenue, now the George Eastman Museum.
Eastman was born on a farm in Waterville, southeast of Utica, and his family earned a livelihood from fruit trees and rose bushes. His father relocated the family to Rochester only after the business school he founded, Eastman Commercial College, started becoming successful. (The college, which taught bookkeeping, accounting, and penmanship, later became the Rochester Business Institute, now Everest Institute.)
When George Eastman built his dream home on East Avenue, he was determined to bring some of the country life he loved with him. His “farmhouse” was a 35,000-square-foot colonial revival mansion with three floors and a full basement and attic. Eastman tore down an existing farmhouse on the property to build the mansion.
“George Eastman had a committed interest in having an urban farm. When he bought the property on East Avenue, the north end of his property was a turnkey farm that he converted into a farm more suitable to his needs,” says James Nevin, assistant gardener at the George Eastman Museum.
The gardens and grounds evolved into a working farm that required even more staff than Eastman’s residence. He sought recommendations from friends to staff both. In all, twenty-nine house and grounds staff plus summer laborers worked on the property. Staff included a dairy maid to milk the cows—Eastman named each of his cows—and a superintendent to keep the farm running smoothly.
Eastman’s farm supplied the kitchen with fresh milk, cheese, butter, and cream. Eggs were collected daily and berries preserved as jams and jellies. Grapes and strawberries were grown in the greenhouses along with orchids and mock oranges. Fruit trees were propagated in meadowland on the east vista to provide fresh apples and pears to the kitchen. Asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, Bermuda onions, and pole beans were just some of the vegetables that arrived from the garden to the table.
According to Nevin, hops were also grown on the property. Most farms during Eastman’s time grew hops in and around barn doors. And while Eastman’s grapes were utilized primarily for juice, he also had varieties suitable for viticulture. Wine grapes were never fermented on a large scale, though viticulture varieties can be found surrounding Eastman’s rock garden.
The household ordered seeds from local growers such as Crossman Brothers, Hiriam Sibley, and James Vick. Eastman selected Dutch bulbs for his gardens himself and purchased orchids abroad. He hung the orchids he cultivated in his greenhouses in palm trees in the atrium of the mansion and the living room.
Eastman relied upon his head housekeeper, Mrs. Cherbuillez, to oversee the staff of the household and the grounds. His cook, Eliza, combined fresh ingredients to prepare the meals Eastman ate routinely.
A winter breakfast consisted of half of the largest grapefruit to be found, followed by hot oatmeal with heavy, farm-fresh cream and coffee—usually several cups—served from a sterling silver coffee pot. Summer breakfast was three-minute eggs, bacon, a muffin or toast with farm-fresh butter, and several cups of coffee.
Lunch at home was a cup of soup, chicken, chops or steak, a vegetable from his garden, coffee and a tart apple. He preferred either Spitzenburg or McIntosh.
When he dined alone at home in the evening, he’d begin with a wedge salad with French dressing and a cup of soup followed by a thick, rare porterhouse steak with a slice of tomato or Bermuda onion. He enjoyed an appetizer of farm-fresh cheese and crackers before dinner.
Eastman was a gifted cook who experimented in the kitchen to perfect recipes. He cooked in a third-floor kitchen away from the main kitchen of the house (though most of his cooking was done while on hunting trips).
Some of Eastman’s prized recipes were acquired on the first African safari he took with Osa and Martin Johnson sometime between 1925 and 1927. A bread pudding recipe from his cook, Eliza, was another much-loved recipe.
According to Kathy Connor, curator of the George Eastman Legacy Collection, the George Eastman Museum recently acquired a small brown leather notebook, with “Camp Cuisine” embossed in gold on its cover, in which Eastman logged menus and recipes, many written in his own hand. Notations for chipped beef, dried beef, homemade bread, cheesecake, cornmeal mush, creamed codfish, cheese sauce, white sauce, fish chowder, onions au gratin, and scalloped onions appear as just some of the recipes on its pages.
Eastman planned daily meals while hunting and penned menus for each day of his outings. He’d bake biscuits, muffins, graham gems, cornbread, lemon tarts, and huckleberry pie over a campfire for his guests. After much experimentation, he invented a cake mix recipe he’d take on camping trips.
When baking at home, lemon meringue pie became Eastman’s signature dessert. The recipe evolved after experimenting with several variations. He was so proud of his lemon meringue pie that he waged a bet with Dr. Edwin S. Ingersoll to determine who could bake the best pie. While Eastman’s pie was in the oven, he received a visit from Nobel Prize–winning scientist Robert A. Millikan. Eastman had to excuse himself several times to see if his meringue was browning correctly. The interruptions proved worth it, though, and Eastman’s pie won the bet.
Setting the table when Eastman entertained guests at home meant linens, silver, china, selecting glassware from forty different types of glasses and, of course, fresh flowers, often from Eastman’s formal gardens. The staff was instructed to create arrangements entirely of one flower color. Individual place settings were meticulously laid out. For example, if asparagus was served, each guest would have his or her own asparagus tong.
Thomas Edison and the Johnsons, his safari companions, were frequent guests, but Eastman was also known to host neighbors, friends, and local business owners. The shopkeepers who sold him shirts and shoes were close friends. In 1905, he hosted a “stag dinner.” Men from the U. S. and all over Europe gathered at his home for an extravagant dinner that started with fresh fruit and imported and domestic cheeses followed by slices of beef tenderloin and turkey breast, white fish timbals, salmon mousse with crudités, assorted canapés, ham, asparagus and dijon in puff pastry, and crab-stuffed snow pea pods. Desserts were a selection of pastries, pumpkin tarts, and nesselrode pudding, a frozen Victorian iced pudding made from chestnuts, cherries, and boiled cream (the modern version is made with currants and raisins instead of cherries). Guests were treated to a punch favored by Eastman called kirschwasser—made with lemonade and cherry juice—and coffee. The museum recreated Eastman’s stag dinner menu in 1990 for the grand reopening of the mansion after a major restoration project was completed.
“While he lived in the mansion, Eastman used his home as a grand hotel when stars and other notables visited Rochester or performed at the Eastman Theatre,” notes Connor. “Mary Pickford, Prince William of Sweden, and many others enjoyed his hospitality. Though dining with Eastman centered around personal friends, he enjoyed the preparations involved in hosting guests and took great pains to ensure that all details of the menu and table were considered.”
A visionary and an inventor, George Eastman had a love of fresh food and farming that stayed with him throughout his life. He considered cooking and baking—using the freshest ingredients— essential to a fulfilling life.
Eastman’s biography reminds us that urban farming isn’t all that new. His curious mind and spirit found expression in the bounty of the land that surrounded him and what it produced—whether he was in the city or the country—more than a century before today’s farm-to-table trend.
Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.