Filled with the kind of details that come only from wallowing in primary sources, Jane Carson’s synthesis of several cookbooks written by a number of seventeenth- and and eighteenth-century English cookery authors offers modern readers an interpretation of how daily cooking took place in colonial Virginia. The most popular English cookbooks of the times, according to Carson, were Mrs. Smith’s (The Compleat Housewife, 1727), Mrs. Glasse’s (The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, 1747), Mrs. Harrison’s (The House-keeper’s Pocket-book …, 1733), Mrs. Raffald’s (The Experienced English House-keeper, 1769), and Mrs. Bradley’s (The British Housewife …, 1770).
The author described her book in these terms: “Readers interested in learning how colonial housewives managed to serve the elaborate meals that tradition ascribes to them must consult the historical sources. Collectors of antique cooking, too, want to know how all the pieces were used and how to arrange them in a working colonial kitchen. It is to these antiquarians and collectors that I address my study of the procedures in colonial cooking.”
One thing that strikes the modern reader of these old recipes is just how nothing is really new under the sun.
In Chapter 2, Carson presented brief verbal portraits of the cooking equipment likely used by colonial cooks. One of the pans, called a Naples Biscuit Pan, looked vaguely familiar, especially when illustrated by Linda Funk’s realistic pen-and-ink drawings.
Mary Randolph included a recipe for Naples Biscuits in The Virginia Housewife :
Beat twelve eggs light, add to them one pound of flour, and one of powdered sugar ; continue to beat all together until perfectly light ; bake in in long pans, four inches wide, with divisions, so that each cake, when done, will be four inches long, and one and a half wide.
Karen Hess made some interesting comments about Naples Biscuits in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery to the effect that Tudor- and Stuart- era cookbooks called for Naples Biscuits, but rarely included recipes for the same. She suggested that cooks may well have used ready-made confections.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I do the same thing these days — I buy ready-made ladies’ fingers.
In other chapters of Colonial Virginia Cookery, Carson covered cooking methods:
Chapter 3: Boiling and Stewing
Chapter 4: Roasting, Broiling, and Frying
Chapter 5: Baking
And the last two chapters delve into “Sauces, Garnishes, and Made Dishes” and “Food Preservation.” The latter chapter provides fascinating information about various preservation methods, including the use of sugar.
Colonial Virginia Cookery, out-of-print as it is, nonetheless analyzes colonial cookery processes more than most books attempt to do.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen