Martha’s Mushrumps and Mary’s Catsup, or, Mushrooms in Early American Cookbooks

Portobello sepia

Portobellos (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

NEWS FLASH: My book, Mushroom: A Global History, which covers the culinary history of mushrooms, may well arrive at the University of Chicago Press (the distributor here in the U.S.) by end of next week, so the book will be available far sooner than expected!

Mushrooms crop up everywhere these days; just about every day a new story about these mysterious entities appears somewhere. Neither animal nor vegetable, and still poorly understood, mushrooms seem to be relative newcomers to the American kitchen. But they’re really not.

They graced the tables of some of Virginia’s gentry, before and after the Revolutionary War.

Take George Washington’s wife, Martha Custis Washington, for example.

Her family cookbook - Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, actually a manuscript cookbook dating to Elizabethan and Jacobean days, and passed down to her in 1749 – contains one recipe for mushrooms on their own, “To Dress a Dish of Mushrumps,” and also includes “mushrumps” to be included in “To Make the Pasty [Royall]. (1) And Mary Randolph, well-known for her cookbook, The Virginia House-wife (1824), urges the reader forward with 4 recipes for mushrooms, although the word “mushroom” appears 36 times, including the use of the famous mushroom catsup in such dishes as Gravy Soup and Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head.

Compared to, say, the Russians or the French, the English tended to believe mushrooms to be noxious and not to be trifled with, in part due to certain writings, such as those of botanist John Gerard, as well as folk culture which associated mushrooms with the devil and witches. This attitude no doubt crossed the ocean on the sailing ships that brought the English to the New World. Added to that state of affairs was the fact that Native Americans, for the most part, did not eat mushrooms either, although some groups used shelf mushrooms in healing and ingested “magic” mushrooms in certain religious and spiritual rituals.

Until 1796, with the publication of Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, no truly American cookbooks existed, and so, naturally, housewives turned to cookbooks from England and France, the latter particularly since the English elite lionized French cuisine and sought to hire French cooks – male – whenever possible. (See my previous posts on this phenomenon: French Chefs Abroad: Clouet to Newcastle;  The Duke of Newcastle’s Pique, or, A Good Chef is Hard to Find; and Recipes from the White Hart Inn: An 18th-Century Cookbook for Today’s Cook.)

Some English cookbooks used in the American colonies during the 1700s were Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727) (2), Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife (1770), and possibly Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifery (1790), where mushrooms come up 64 times.  Smith’s book offers recipes for mushroom powder, pickled mushrooms – five different variations, potted, and stewed. She exhorts her readers to “Gather your mushrooms in the morning, as soon as possible after they are out of the ground ; for one of them that are round and unopened, is worth five that are open ; if you gather any that are open, let them be such as are reddish in the gills, for those that have white gills are not good … . (p. 103)” Glasse, on the other hand, provides a couple of recipes for “Mushroom-sauce” for white fowls. She also describes just how households might grow their own mushrooms, “To raise Mushrooms” (p. 279, of the 1805 “American” edition). Raffald mentions mushrooms 12 times in her book and includes a recipe for “Mushroom Catchup” that reads suspiciously like the recipe from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife. (3) Amelia Simmons did not include mushrooms at all in her oeuvre.

Another book, found in households boasting French speakers -such as Thomas Jefferson at Monticello -proves the point that French cuisine, in spite of the protestations of various cookbook authors, still held sway over the English and American kitchen. Menon’s La cuisinère bourgeoise (1746) contains 88 references to champignon. (4)

So there you have it, a very abbreviated survey of the written record on mushrooms in early American cuisine. As Karen Hess rightly states, in many cases written recipes lag behind actual hands-on practice.

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(1) Karen Hess edited and annotated this cookbook, as well as The Virginia House-wife, with useful asides about the recipes and ingredients, placing things in some sort of historical context.

(2) The Compleat Housewife, published in Williamsburg in 1742 in an American edition by William Parks, who removed several recipes, because of the difficulty of acquiring certain ingredients in the colonies.

(3) Jane Carson lists the popular cookbooks of the day in Colonial Virginia Cookery: Procedures, Equipment, and Ingredients in Colonial Cooking (1968), p. xi-xviii.

(4) For more about the French influence on British cooking of the time, see Gilly Lehmann’s The British Housewife: Cookery Books, Cooking and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2003); it contains a wealth of information about cookery books, readers, and cooks.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.

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