Harriet Tilden (Brainard) Moody [pictured below at about age 20] was exceptional in many ways. She built a culinary reputation long before she opened Le Petit Gourmet in 1920 in Chicago’s Italian Court at 615 North Michigan Boulevard. She had been one of the city’s premier caterers since 1890 when she founded the Home Delicacies Association. Despite her status as a divorcée, she managed to stay afloat in Chicago society, catering teas for charitable affairs and remaining a member in good standing of elite clubs such as the Fortnightly, the Twentieth Century, and the Chicago College Club. Working with her friend Bertha (Mrs. Potter) Palmer, she was one of the “lady managers” of the Chicago World’s Fair.
When her father, a once-wealthy cattle shipper, died in 1886, the recently divorced Harriet was forced to put her Cornell degree to work to support herself and her mother. She took a job teaching high school English but found she needed more income. Although she had never cooked, she deployed her refined tastes to produce dainty salads and baked goods of the sort appreciated by women of the upper classes. She supplied delicate dishes to Marshall Field’s department store tea room, to dining cars in trains departing from Chicago, and to fashionable private clients. Rising at 4:00 a.m. she spent several hours before she left for the classroom each morning supervising the Home Delicacies crew which numbered about 50 by 1899.
She became so successful that she not only supported her mother’s household, but also bought a second house where she lived and ran the catering business on the top floor until transferring it to larger quarters. She also owned a Greenwich Village townhouse on Waverly Place and a summer place, the historic William Cullen Bryant homestead in Cummington MA.
Harriet married poet William Vaughn Moody in 1909 and after his death the following year began to befriend other poets, often putting them up at her places in Chicago, New York, and Cummington, sometimes for months-long stays. At Le Petit Gourmet in the 1920s she organized poetry nights at which Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others, read their work.
In 1911 Harriet established a branch of the Home Delicacies Association in London. Harry Gordon Selfridge, who as former manager of Marshall Field’s had jump-started her catering business in Chicago by ordering gingerbread and chicken salad from her, now asked for dishes for Selfridge’s, his department store which opened that year in London.
Seven years after establishing Le Petit Gourmet, Harriet and a woman partner opened another Chicago restaurant, Au Grand Gourmet, in a modern setting on the ground floor of a new building at 180 East Delaware. But her luck changed and in 1929 financial exigency required her to sell out. She attempted to recoup her losses a couple of years later with the publication of Mrs. William Vaughn Moody’s Cookbook.
Le Petit Gourmet, known simply as Le Petit, survived for decades under various owners, most notably Grace Pebbles, who also ran similar restaurants in Oak Park, Miami, Denver, and Hollywood. The Italian Court, constructed from 1919-1926 as a complex of shops and apartments for artists, was razed in 1968 to make way for an office building.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011