The American Boarding House, a Brief Introduction: The Case of Mary Randolph

The American boarding house played an enormous role in the dissemination of British cuisine across America as the descendants of the earliest settlers began moving westward across the vast expanses of the Great Plains and the soul-searing heights of the Rocky Mountains. The dynamic economic progress of the young country demanded new blood in the form of immigrants, thousands who arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few coins in their pockets in the nineteenth century. Women widowed, abandoned, or nursing husbands and sons invalided by the Civil War often owned large houses with several bedrooms. That’s not to say that families did not also open their homes to paying customers – they did. All of these  people saw an opportunity to augment their incomes. And so they opened boarding houses to house the hordes needing an afforable place to sleep. And eat.

Two of the most well-known food writers of the twentieth century – James Beard and Craig Claiborne – grew up in boarding houses owned and run by their mothers. Many types of boarding houses sprang up to meet the needs of potential boarders, catering at times to specific immigrant groups. But the vast majority of these abodes were run by women needing a respectable occupation at a time when women generally could not seek work outside the home without suffering a loss of reputation.

Of course, opening a boardinghouse was nothing new, and it’d been a relatively respectable choice for many genteel women for quite some time,  before the Civil War as well.

Take the case of Mary Randolph.

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.

Mary Randolph Virginia House-Wife 2Chronicler Samuel Mordecai wrote a few words about Mrs. Randolph’s boarding house in 1856:

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.)

Mrs. Mary Randolph's Birthplace, Ampthill Plantation
Mrs. Mary Randolph’s Birthplace, Ampthill Plantation

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 … .

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.

The Virginia House-Wife
The Virginia House-Wife

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. Examination of manuscript cookbooks kept by Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughters reveal that likely 40 of the recipes used by Jefferson came from Mrs. Randolph.

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.

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.

Slave Cook
Slave Cook

However, all due respect to Ms. Hess, it is important to recognize that while slave cooks did the cooking, they did not enjoy full reign in the kitchen. This is obvious from the fact that for most dishes, with a  few exceptions as in the case of Mrs. Randolph’s Gaspacha [sic], Ropa Veija [sic] and Olla (Podrida) – which she likely got from her sister who spent time in Spain, the recipes of the plantation kitchen were based almost exclusively on English antecedents, okra soup not withstanding. Think about the three just-named recipes: just because they appeared on Mrs. Randolph’s table and in her book doesn’t mean that Spain had an inordinate influence on the rest of her cooking.

And boarding houses such as Mrs. Randolph’s contributed to the spread across America of a cuisine firmly entrenched in British traditions, regardless of who the cook was.

*Especially Edmund Wilcox Rootes, who dubbed her with the name in the first place. 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 their mansion and land after the Civil War, when the Union took it over for use as Arlington National Cemetery.

© 2009, 2016 C. Bertelsen

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