Christmas in Antebellum Virginia: Part I

Jamestown Smokehouse (Painting by Bill Barber)

What is now the state of Virginia boasted the first permanent English settlement in North America. Despite its rocky beginnings in 1607, the settlement eventually flourished. The first Africans arrived in 1619 and the tobacco industry began in earnest. Along with the need for cheap labor, provided by slavery, the colonialists desired nothing more than to live as English gentlemen and gentlewomen on the edge of the vast wilderness.

That all this transpired thirteen years prior to the Pilgrims’ landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts poses some interesting questions about the transference of English customs to the fledgling settlements. Some scholars believe that Virginians started the westward expansion. If so, then it stands to reason that many of the food-related customs of Virginia would also go west. (See Fischer and Kelly, 2000.)

On one of the most important holidays —  Christmas — cooks rolled out the so-called red carpet for the hordes of visiting friends and relatives who stayed as long as a month.

Slaves at Carter’s Grove, Virginia (re-enactment) (Copyright Colonial Williamsburg)

From the point of view of the white upper class in Virginia, Christmas festivities promised delights and depended heavily on the work of African slaves in a variety of kitchen types. The following description barely mentions a crucial part of the preparations, the work of the African women who cooked for the master and mistress.

Christmas, with its festivities and its preparations, was a busy time to the housekeeper of fifty years ago, ” befo’ de war,” in Virginia. It meant thought and labor for weeks beforehand; especially was this true of the homes in the country, where lavish entertainment was the rule. The home I have in mind is a rambling, old-fashioned Virginia house, thirty miles from Fredericksburg, and in that part of Virginia known as the Northern neck, which is said to have produced more great men than any other place of the same size in this country. Weeks before Christmas supplies were ordered from either Baltimore or Richmond. Then came’ the busy time. The Southern woman in those days, while the ” Lady Bountiful” of her domain, and surrounded by servants ready to do her bidding, had her responsibilities and cares. She was up with the lark, saw her household in order; she ministered to the sick and comforted the afflicted; bond and free alike had her care. There was as much excitement and anticipation among the negroes at Christmas as among the whites, from the smallest little darkey [sic] to Uncle Peter, the oldest negro on the plantation. Two weeks before Christmas began the busy time, seeding raisins, cutting citron, washing and drying currants, for these were the days before all this could be bought. Every housekeeper had her own especial receipts handed down from mother to daughter. In the big kitchen at night, before a blazing log fire, would sit the cook, surrounded by several of the house servants preparing the fruit for cakes, mincemeat and plum pudding. Apple toddy was made by an old family receipt usually a month beforehand, as it improved, like many other things, with age. The menu for a

Dried Fruit (Photo credit: Jeff Kubina)

Christmas dinner at this old house was a soup, either calf’s head or turtle; then a turkey at one end and a young pig or a haunch of venison at the other, with a great variety of vegetables. Wines of different kinds were served throughout the dinner, and of a rare vintage were they, for every man of means had his wine cellar and the Virginia gentleman of those days was a connoisseur. Then came the dessert, to childhood’s eyes most important; a bowl of calvesfoot jelly, sparkling in the cut glass bowl, and the oft repeated comparison of Santa Clans in the old nursery jingle, ‘that he had a round face and a little round belly, which shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly,’* was a good one to juvenile minds. The plum pudding was always brought in, in a blaze of glory, with a sprig of holly in the top,

Mince Pies (Photo credit: Jeremy Kieth)

while the blue flame danced around it. A big fruit cake, mince pies and blanc-mange moulded in the shape of eggs and lying in a nest of thinly shaved lemon peel, were some of the Christmas cheer on that dinner table. The china was the old blue Canton, while the finest damask, cut glass and old silver added its aristocratic touch to the picture. Every servant had his share of the good things, and that night the sound of the fiddle and the shuffle of many feet gave evidence of a dance in the kitchen for the negroes. (Mas. James T. Halsey.) Sue Mason Maury Halsey. (From Jacqueline Harrison Smith; see below.)

Notice the English overtones of the menu, with the flaming plum pudding, fruit cakes, and mince pies.

Mount Vernon, by Francis Jukes (1800)

This menu typically graced the holiday table of George and Martha Washington, who, at the General’s death, owned a total of 316 slaves. At Mount Vernon, the house servants, unlike the field-hands, did not get a whole week off at Christmas, for they needed to cook food for all the visitors passing through the Washingtons’ dining room. Likely they prepared the following recipes:

Martha Washington’s Christmas Pie

First make a good standing crust,** let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot oven, and will take at least four hours.

To Make a Great Cake

Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks & beat them to a froth then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream & put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powderd [sic] to it in the same manner then put in the Youlks [sic] of eggs & 5 pounds of flower [sic] & 5 pounds of fruit.  2 hours will bake it add to it half an ounce of mace & nutmeg half a pint of wine & some frensh [sic] brandy.

Remember that these were the days before KitchenAid mixers. Someone had to provide the muscle power to beat the eggs and butter.

And those people were African female slaves.

*From Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas.”

**Often called a “coffin” in old recipes.

Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly (2000).

Christmas with the Washingtons: Being a Special Account of Traditional Rites observed in VIRGINIA and Historic Yuletides of one First Family, the WASHINGTONS of Mount Vernon, by Olive Bailey and Worth Bailey (1948).

Famous Old Receipts Used a Hundred Years and More in the Kitchens of the North and South, Contributed by Descendants, edited by Jacqueline Harrison Smith, 2nd edition, p. 21 (1908).

Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery, edited by Karen Hess (1981, 1995)

To be continued …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen




2 thoughts on “Christmas in Antebellum Virginia: Part I

  1. I love the casual mention in the menu of calf’s head in the historical description. My family is a bunch of snout to hoof type of people so we often end up feasting on roast lamb and pig heads bought for cents on the pound, I really ought to try my hand on beef head since I’ve eaten but never prepared it, here is the way my family usually enjoys lamb head if curious, it easily feeds 6 people twice (so around 12 or so servings) for about five bucks worth of meat.

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