Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph 1762

Looking back on food traditions one can hardly do so without consulting the works of Mary Randolph, to experience early American cookery through the Federalist era at its finest.  I love how The Virginia Housewife Cookbook includes a quick history lesson to start and details her family's connections from the late 18th to early 19th century in Virginia.

Mary's English born grandfather, William Randolph came to America in 1672.  He and wife Mary (n.e. Isham) established the Randolph name to be synonymous with Virginia gentility.  She and Thomas Jefferson are both descended from William Randolph and other connections with our third president are numerous. The Randolphs also intermarried with neighbors and cousins (the Lees, Byrds, Carters, Custises, Carys, Washingtons and Jeffersons) thus becoming an even greater part of the fabric of other illustrious Virginia families.

Mary, known as Molly, was born in 1762 at Tuckahoe, the family's plantation on the James River where her orphaned father was raised by Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's parents. She married her cousin, David Meade Randolph in December of 1780.  Her cook book was first published in 1824 without her name, as it was common for ladies to not have their name appear in print. It recorded what every cook should know to be able to manage a home economically and use ingredients at hand to prepare delicious meals.

With unexpected guests coming often and staying long periods of time, wine and other spirits flowed, there was dancing and other amusements and their guests ate well.  Breakfasts were great meals.  At noon, the main meal of the day boasted several different kinds of meats alongside other accompanying dishes. A popular term of the day, the groaning board adequately characterizes the typical sideboard or serving table with the plenitude of food it held.  There was something for every palette to be followed by teas in the afternoon.  Supper was usually a much lighter, cold meal served before bedtime to help stave off pangs of hunger through the night. This meant that there was constant household activity required to prepare all that food and a great necessity for frugal culinary practices in order to make the most of what was at hand.

The Virginia Housewife shows us that Mary was an educated lady.  Not only in the book sense but skilled in what we would consider today, farm to table management.  The book fully demonstrates the scope of her wisdom from picking vegetables during the peak early morning hours to practices for curing various meats and the art of the charcuterie of pork to eliminate waste.  Careful instructions on how to dress a turtle, other wild game as well as instruction for employing skills to make almost everything that graces your table from scratch are represented in her book.

Between the pages 28 through 33 there are recipes devoted to producing one of Mary's plantation dinners already translated with modern day measurements.  The recipes that follow appear as originally written, including everything from daily dishes, preserving produce, making various vinegars, cordials and liquors for consumption as well as other household items.  I found it very interesting to see vast variety of fish that were popular in the day.  Many are still offered at our seafood counters but I have never had sturgeon.  This once prolific fish was so common to have been served often on the colonial table.  Today however, conservation efforts are in place to insure its survival as a species and it has been placed on the endangered list.  Should it make a comeback, I now know where to go for a source on how to prepare it, whether it is to be baked, in steaks and cutlets or for pickling it too.


You will find this book interesting if you are visiting the many local historic homes of Virginia Beach such as the Francis Land House built in 1805 and Ferry Farm Plantation House circa 1830 because they would have been applying the same household and culinary practices that Mary Randolph detailed in her cookbook.   Other homes in the area that predate Mary's cookbook such as the Adam Thoroughgood House built in 1719 and the Lynnhaven House, circa 1725 would also been using similar skills and preparing similar dishes. This book would make an interesting accompaniment to study foods that would have been prepared during their day. To find more information on historic homes of the area visit their website or phone the Department of Museums, 757-385-5100 for their calendar of events as well as the touring schedules.

If you are interested in visiting Tuckahoe, the childhood home of Mary Randolph pictured to the right , you can find more information on it at their website.

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