The following scenario might have happened. Who knows? We do know that Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha used to read out recipes to the slaves working in the kitchen at Monticello, because a former slave, Isaac, recalled her doing so. It’s likely that this occurred in countless kitchens. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. I first learned of Mary Randolph and her cookbook when I moved back to Virginia, years ago, and remember the awe I felt in seeing so many recipes that seemed so utterly, completely modern.
She pulled at the puffy sleeves of her dress, copied from a picture straight from Paris, sewn of gauzy cloth and blue as the robins’ eggs she used to find smashed on the cobblestones in front of her house, tumbled from the branches of the tall oaks. And then in a clear voice, rich with the lilting tones of her English ancestors, she read the recipe to the black women standing behind the long wooden table in the kitchen:
To Stew Pigeons
Season your pigeons with pepper, salt, cloves and mace, with some sweet herbs ; wrap a seasoning up in a bit of butter, and put it in their bellies, then tie up the neck and vent, and half roast them ; then put them in a stew pan, with a quart of good gravy, a little white wine, some pickled mushrooms, a few pepper-corns, three or four blades of mace, a bit of lemon-peel, a bunch of sweet herbs, a bit of onion, some oyster-pickle ; let them stew until they are enough ; then thicken it up with butter and yolks of eggs. Garnish with lemon. Do ducks the same way. You may put forc’d-meat in their bellies or shred thyme wrap’d up in butter. Put forc’d meatballs in both.
The old cookbook in her hands – The Compleat Housewife – had belonged to her mother, bought in the shop in Williamsburg, near where William Parker printed it in 1742. She envied the author, Eliza Smith, but surely she, Mary Randolph, could write a better cookbook, one that included corn and okra and field peas (black-eyed peas). And she could probably surpass that other book, the one published in Boston in 1807, by that other English woman, Maria Eliza Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery (published in 1806, in England). And so Mary did just that.
Mary Randolph wrote and published the first regional American cookbook in 1824: The Virginia House-wife. A little later, no doubt influenced by Mary’s work, Sarah Rutledge wrote The Carolina Housewife (1847) and Lettice Bryan came up with The Kentucky Housewife (1839).
It’s no surprise that Mary used the word “Housewife” in the title. “Housewife” in these books carries a more positive meaning than in current usage: it implied “housekeeper” or “keeper of the keys,” an important role when large households required strict oversight of the goods and services necessary for smooth running. People today often forget that to be a good housekeeper, or “housewife,” meant the difference between life and death. What, for example, becomes apparent about the English or colonial American housewife by looking at period cookbooks?
- She healed both her family and the animals with them. If her family owned slaves, they came under her care as well, most of the time.
- She butchered the animals and preserved the meat.
- She managed all the dairying, including making cheese and butter.
- She brewed ale
- She baked bread.
- She tended a vegetable and fruit garden.
And she cooked all the food she grew and preserved. Or at least supervised the labor that accomplished all this. Today commercial establishments handle most of these tasks.
Prior to the publication of The Virginia Housewife, and afterwards, many British authors included the word “housewife” in the titles of their books. (Following this post is a listing of such books up to the year that Mary Randolph published her book.*)
Food writer and culinary historian Karen Hess** called The Virginia Housewife the most influential cookbook of the nineteenth century. Certainly many copycat versions appeared later, including The Kentucky Housewife and The Carolina Housewife, as mentioned previously.
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.
So Mary finished reading out the recipe, and turned to leave, the sound of the keys hanging from her belt tinkling like far-away church bells. The women in the kitchen glanced at Abby, the head cook, and sighed. Another sweat-drenched day in front of the hearth lay before them. Just then Jenny, Abby’s child, shyly approached her mother. “Mama, look what Jeremiah found in the garden,” clutching four tiny red peppers in her warm little hand.
Abby dropped to her knees, hugging her baby, and said, “Why, I think we’ll add one of these to the gravy.”
To be continued …
(Yes, I took a little poetic license with my story about Mary’s kitchen help, but the rest is all true.)
* English Cookery Books from 1550 – 1860, with the word “Houswife” in the title:
The Good Housewife’s Jewel – Thomas Dawson – 1587
The English Housewife – Gervase Markham – 1631
The Compleat Cook, or the Secrets of a Seventeenth-Century Housewife – Rebecca Price – compiled between 1681 and 1740
The Compleat Housewife – Eliza Smith – 1727
The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director in the Management of a House – Richard Bradley – 1732
The Modern Cook and Complete Housewife’s Companion – Victor La Chapelle – 1733
The London or Country Cook, or Accomplished Housewife, … – Charles Carter – 1749
The Family Jewel, or Complete Housewife’s Companion – Penelope Bradshaw – 1754
The Good Housewife, or Cookery Reformed – author? – 1756
The British Housewife – Martha Bradley – 1760
English Housewifery – Elizabeth Moxon – 1764
The Complete English Cook, or Prudent Housewife – Catharine Brooks – 1767
The British Jewel; or, Complete Housewife’s Best Companion – E. Taylor – 1769
The Complete English Cook; or, Prudent Housewife – Ann Peckham – 1770
The New Book of Cookery, or Every Woman a Perfect Cook … to Assist the Prudent Housewife – Mrs. Elizabeth Price – 1780
The Farmer’s Wife or, Complete Country Housewife – Richard Havey? – 1780
The Modern Cook and Frugal Housewife’s Complete Guide to Every Branch in Displaying Her Table to the Greatest Advantage – E. Spencer – 1782
The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook – Susannah Carter – 1795
The Prudent Housewife, or, Complete English Cook for Town and Country – Mrs. Fisher – 1800
The New Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Baking and Preserving Being the Housewife’s Best Friend – Mrs. Hudson – 1804
The Young Woman’s Companion, or, Frugal Housewife – author? – 1811
**Randolph, Mary. The Virginia House-wife. Hess, Karen, ed. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
© 2014 C. Bertelsen