Contributed by Joyce H. Munro, Morris Arboretum Archives Volunteer

I wonder if Nellie ever wore the white enamel brooch to church, the brooch Miss Morris bequeathed to her. The brooch shaped like a dogwood blossom or maybe a pansy with the diamond in the center. And did she ever take a vacation with the money Miss Morris left her, the $50-a-month annuity she received the rest of her life.

Did Nellie ever wear the under-linen and stockings, the previously worn but gently treated personal items that Miss Morris willed to her four household servants. Her chambermaid, her ladies maid, her waitress, and Nellie, her cook.

I wonder if Nellie ever made “Apples a la Zuave” for one of Miss Morris’s social luncheons. The recipe Miss Morris scrawled on a card, copied word for word from Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper in 1897. The hold-your-breath recipe that took way too much time and always threatened to collapse when taken from the oven. And why were there exactly twenty-four almonds in that apples-ooh-la-la. After all, they were finely chopped. Who’s to know if there were twenty-five or twenty-six? Well, Miss Morris would. And for that same reason, Nellie wouldn’t dare leave out the tablespoonful of black coffee.

Lydia Morris’s recipe for Apples a la Zuave


I’ll bet it was the meringue that really gave Nellie agita—that’s not something she whipped up every day. Why not a hearty bread and butter pudding instead? What Miss Morris really needed were a few more Irish dishes for her cookbook, not this fluff stuff that Jetta, the waitress, had to run up to the table before it plopped. Enough already with Miss Morris traipsing down to the kitchen, waving another highfalutin recipe in Nellie’s face. “Compote of Pineapple,” “Rice a la Imperatrice.”

But Miss Morris was a fan of Sarah Rorer, Principal of the Philadelphia Cooking School, whose lectures on all things cookery were reported almost verbatim in the Inquirer. Wonder what Nellie thought about Rorer’s recipe for “Roulettes of Beef with Italian Potato Balls.”

Compton Kitchen aka Botany Laboratory, circa 1933

Salt-of-the-earth Nellie Donahue—John and Johanna’s third child—born at Brookline, Massachusetts in 1871, when John was likely laboring in the granite quarry. Then brought to Whitemarsh Township at age three, when John took a job at the limestone quarry, unearthing faux-marble for tombstones and table tops. Around 1903, Nellie left her family home and moved in town to join three other servants to John T. Morris and his sister Lydia. Thus began the whirlwind life of a cook with two kitchens, the winter kitchen on Pine Street, the summer kitchen at Compton. Did Nellie know she’d be cooking for a pair of world travelers who would return from Norway, Egypt, China with fond memories of strange and curious foods. Turkish coffee, curried eggs, salted cod.

After Miss Morris died and UPenn botany students started using the kitchen at Compton to cook uneatable things, Nellie returned to family and lived with her brother John on Wissahickon Avenue, less than a mile from Compton. Thomas, her older brother, was just up the road, gardening for someone in Abington and her sister Mary was close by in Philly. I wonder if Nellie ever invited them all to dinner. And did she set her table with the gold-rimmed Haviland china Miss Morris gave her. And serve something modern, like “Oysters a la Bechamel.” Or did she serve a hearty mutton stew.

Miss Morris’s Haviland china