University of Pittsburgh

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Abundant Life

A chef remembers Fallingwater and other beautiful things

Written by Ervin Dyer

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The sun would rise and so would the petite young cook. She’d slip on her crisp beige uniform, custom-made with pockets and buttons down the front. Then she’d tiptoe quietly from her quarters and walk down a short hill into the small, airy kitchen at Fallingwater.

A mythic home tucked in the emerald woods of Fayette County, Fallingwater was built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for department store mogul Edgar J. Kaufmann and his family. Famously, the house sits over a forest stream; a small waterfall babbles beneath the living room.

Elsie Henderson, the young chef, was the family’s last cook, serving primarily as the weekend baker beginning in 1947. She is the sole survivor among those who lived and worked at the home before it was entrusted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy by Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. in 1963.

Today, at almost 96, Henderson is taking classes at Pitt, studying French to better inform her mastery of cooking. With the help of author Suzanne Martinson, a retired food editor, Henderson also is telling some insightful tales in The Fallingwater Cookbook: Elsie Henderson’s Recipes & Memories (University of Pittsburgh Press). Martinson befriended Henderson more than a decade ago, and they grew close sharing meals like Henderson’s Cornish hens and corn sticks. Martinson said the book is the story of a woman, the Kaufmanns, and a beautiful house.

The Kaufmanns were a spirited family. They filled Fallingwater with art, books, and celebrities. Henderson recalls cooking for renowned guests like violinist Isaac Stern. Architect Wright, a friend of the Kaufmanns, flirted with her. She describes the day she began her job. When she arrived on a summer afternoon, the Kaufmanns were frolicking with friends in the falls. To her surprise, says Henderson, they were all nude. This incident and others give a glimpse, often with humor, into the interior life of Fallingwater, including the food enjoyed by those who lived and visited there.

Henderson was born on Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington in 1913 in a small home on a street that, she says, always seemed muddy. The youngest of 13 children, she left high school after the 11th grade to help support her family. She began working in the accounts department of Kaufmann’s Service Center but left to pursue her interest in cooking. With minimal culinary training but lots of her mom’s homespun know-how, she found a way to please the palates of the rich and famous.

During her long career, she has cooked soup for the father of Sen. John Heinz,  resurrected leftovers for the Kennedys, and prepared meals for the Mellons and Shrivers. But her longest and most memorable job was at Fallingwater. There, she danced with Kaufmann Sr., picked herbs from his wife’s garden, and was driven to the estate by a chauffeur who wore Brooks Brothers suits. Now, she’s giving everybody a taste of the magic that was Fallingwater.

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