In March, 1808, readers of The Richmond Virginia Gazette would have read the following advertisement in the pages of that newspaper: “Mrs. RANDOLPH Has established a Boarding House in Cary Street [Richmond], for the accommodation of Ladies and Gentlemen. She has comfortable chambers, and a stable well supplied for a few Horses.”
Author of The Virginia House-Wife and affectionately named “Queen Molly” by her friends,* Mary Randolph opened her doors to paying customers when her Federalist husband, David Meade Randolph, ended up on the other side of the political divide against his cousin, Thomas Jefferson. Mrs. Randolph’s cooking won the admiration of many, including the rebellious slave, Gabriel (commonly — and incorrectly — called Gabriel Prosser because of Thomas Prosser the white man who “owned” him). Gabriel led a slave rebellion in 1800, intending to kill as many whites as possible — except for Mary Randolph. According to a possibly apocryphal story, Gabriel wanted her as his cook.
Mary’s boarding house seemed to raise a few eyebrows and elicited concern from some of her relatives. In a letter to her father [Thomas Jefferson], Martha Jefferson Randolph expressed concern about her sister-in-law Mary:
Sister Randolph [whose house servants [slaves] had been saved, at least temporarily, through a prior mortgage] opened a boarding house in Richmond, but… has not a single boarder yet.
But all that changed rapidly.
The friend [E. W. Rootes] who had named Moldavia [the Randolphs’ former residence], now conferred on her the title of Queen, and aided in enlisting subjects for her new realm. This was on Cary street (a name which she gave it), in a house which now constitutes a small portion of the Columbian Hotel. * It was then a quiet spot, with very few houses in its immediate vicinity. The Queen soon attracted as many subjects as her dominions could accommodate, and a loyal set they generally were. There were few more festive boards than the Queen’s. Wit, humor and good-fellowship prevailed, but excess rarely. Social evenings were also enjoyed, and discord seldom intruded. (From: Virginia, Especially Richmond, in By-gone Days, 1860, pp. 127-128.)
One of David Meade Randolph’s business colleagues, Henry Heth, wrote while David was on a business trip in England:
I see your good wife anytime I go to town — she enjoys most excellent health, and, if it possible for one so … far separated from the most affectionate and indulgent of Husbands, to be happy, she is completely so — Her house stays full of the best sort of Profitable company, who treat her more like a Queen than the keeper of a Boarding House … .
Mordecai also mentions something rather astonishing: Mary Randolph’s invention of the refrigerator.
The lovers of comfort and of cool beverages, are indebted to Mrs. R.’s ingenuity, for the invention of the ‘ Refrigerator’ as she called it. The first one was constructed according to her plan, for her own use. It was said that a shrewd Yankee, who was an inmate of her house for a few days, to whom she showed it, carried the invention with him, perhaps obtained a patent, and it soon got into general use.
Sadly, other than that, not a lot of information exists about Mary Randolph’s Cary Street boarding house in Richmond, Virginia, which the Randolphs rented and named the David Meade Randolph Boarding House. Mary ran the boarding house for eleven years. In 1819, the Randolphs closed the boarding house and left Richmond for Washington, DC. Mary was 57.
However, there’s her cookbook, The Virginia House-Wife, which she published in 1824. Food writer and culinary historian Karen Hess called it the most influential cookbook of the nineteenth century. Certainly many copycat versions appeared later, including The Kentucky Housewife and The Carolina Housewife.
No doubt many, if not most, of the recipes presented in The Virginia House-Wife appeared on the Randolphs’ boarding house table.
Remember, as Hess says, that:
All of this cookery was carried out in kitchens that had changed but little in centuries. In Virginia, the kitchen was typically a separate building for reasons of safety, summer heat, and the smells and brouhaha of the kitchen.
Of the influences on Mary Randolph’s cooking, Hess adds:
These creole cuisines were to color Virginia cookery to an extent which has not been fully appreciated, I think, because in addition to actual borrowings, there is the thumb print that each cook leaves on a recipe, even within the same culture, no matter how skilled she [sic] may be or how faithfully she follows the recipe. The Chinese call this wok presence. … The black presence was infinitely more subtle in Virginia cookery than that of New Orleans or the West Indies, but no less real for that, … (Hess, p. xxx)
In regard to the slaves working in Mrs. Randolph’s kitchen, Hess goes on to say:
Mrs. Randolph was a fine practitioner who knew her way about the kitchen but the actual cooking and toil fell to black women. (Mrs. Randolph indicates as much in her Introduction; other sources confirm this.) When slavery was ended at long last, and more and more housewives everywhere had to do more and more of their own work, it is easy to see why the great fireplace gave way to the kitchen range.
RICE MILK FOR A DESSERT.
Boil half a pint of rice in water till tender, pour off the water, and add a pint of milk with two eggs beaten well, stirred into it; boil all together two or three minutes; serve it up hot, and eat it with butter, sugar, and nutmeg. It may be sweetened and cooled in moulds, turned out in a deep dish, and surrounded with rich milk, with raspberry marmalade stirred into it, and strained to keep back the seeds — or the milk may be seasoned with wine and sugar. [From: The Virginia House-Wife (1824)]
Mary Randolph died in 1828 and was the first person buried in what is now Arlington Cemetery. (At the time it was the Custis plantation. It became the home of Robert E. Lee, when he married Mary Randolph Custis, Mrs. Mary Randolph’s goddaughter and cousin. The Lees lost the mansion and the land after the Civil War, when the Union took it over for use as Arlington National Cemetery.)
For some background to Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife, look at Katharine E. Harbury’s Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty (2004), although Harbury’s book unaccountably fails to discuss the black presence in the Virginia kitchen). Other works of interest include Jane Carson’s Colonial Virginia Cookery: Procedures, Equipment, and Ingredients in Colonial Cooking (1968) and Nancy Carter Crump’s Hearthside Cooking: Early American Southern Cuisine Updated for Today’s Hearth and Cookstove (2008).
*Especially Edmund Wilcox Rootes, who dubbed her with the name in the first place.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen