Modern Cooks Inspired by Early Virginian Plantation Housewives

Early American Food

By Stefanie Jackson – In November, the thoughts of cooks across America turn to planning the menu for the annual Thanksgiving feast, what is for some the most elaborate meal they will prepare all year.

In modern times, with smaller numbers of women claiming the profession of housewife, it can be mind-boggling to consider that 200 years ago, the lady of the house often planned and managed the preparation of a much bigger meal of more complex dishes every single day.

But that is exactly what a majority of young women did, as Virginia author Leni Sorensen describes in her lecture, “Mary Randolph, the Virginia Housewife and the Unsung Heroines of Her Kitchen, 1780-1826,” as presented at the Barrier Islands Center in Machipongo.

Mary Randolph, born in 1762, was the daughter of wealthy Virginia politician Thomas Mann Randolph Jr.

Thomas Randolph was orphaned at age five and taken in by family friends Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson, the parents of Thomas Jefferson, who was seven years old at the time.

Mary Randolph, nicknamed Queen Molly, wrote “The Virginia Housewife,” published in 1824 – what some historians consider as the first American cookbook.

It was a guide for new housewives on plantations, who were learning how to run a kitchen.

As early as age 14, these young women were given the responsibility of “keeping the keys.” Common ingredients that contemporary cooks take for granted, like flour and spices, were very expensive and had to be locked up.

Every morning, the housewife would unlock everything and give the head cook only the items needed to prepare the day’s meals.

Spices and seasonings used included parsley, basil, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, saffron, shallot, and hot peppers.

The black slaves on the plantation were good at using the spices to create “essential” flavors, and they also introduced Caribbean influences into American cuisine.

The plantation housewife usually didn’t cook – that was generally a task for the slaves – but she knew how to cook, and it was her duty to ensure everything was done properly.

In fact, Randolph said “we have no right” as housewives to expect slaves to be more attentive in the kitchen.

Timing was key. For example, corned beef had to begin curing four days ahead of a meal, and herring – while still alive were put in a brine for 24 hours before they were made into pickled herring.

The Virginia housewife’s culinary repertoire was extensive. She had to know how to make 16 different sauces. She knew how to brew mead and craft spruce beer, fruit-flavored brandy, and cordials.

The housewife also had to know how to prepare white foods like milquetoast and custard, which were thought to be beneficial for the ill or the invalid.

A yeast pot was kept for making white bread, a staple of the upper class. Corn bread was for the lower class.

Most of the cooks were black slave women, and each had a specialty and responsibility for a certain type of dish, such as bread, soup, or meat.

Dinner was the main meal, and since there was no electricity, the meal was served from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., to make use of the day’s last light.

Every dinner featured four courses, including three to four meats, three to four vegetable dishes, soup, salad, plus dessert, which included two to four types of cookies.

Not only were a dozen or more dishes served at every dinner, there were plenty of guests every night. Thomas Jefferson hosted as many as 52 guests at once, all of whom ate dinner and stayed overnight.

Jefferson’s favorite dish was pot roast, made with either fresh or salted beef.

Supper was later, a recapitulation of dinner, served with tea.

Mary Randolph and her husband, David Randolph, moved to Richmond, Va., in 1798 and built a house they named “Moldavia” after themselves – Molly and David.

David Randolph criticized the politics of Jefferson, his second cousin, and there was a major falling out in 1801. After Jefferson became president, he fired David Randolph from his position as a U.S. marshal, and the Randolph family fortune suffered.

Mary Randolph put her culinary skills to new use when she opened a boarding house on Cary Street in 1808. It served black slaves who were “free by night” and had money to buy rations and lodging.

It was through the boarding house that Randolph became famous as a cook and hostess, which led to her writing “The Virginia Housewife” a few years later.

Sorensen is working her way through Randolph’s cookbook, including her recipe for mincemeat – one of the most popular pie fillings in the 19th century.

Mincemeat in the 1800s actually contained meat. Other ingredients included molasses and fruit such as apples, all preserved with brandy.

Sorensen prepares every recipe with admiration for the “incredible, professional, fine work” of the slave women who cooked in Randolph’s kitchens.

She has written cookbooks of her own and teaches cooking classes at Indigo House, her home near Charlottesville, Va.

For more information, visit


Leni Sorensen. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

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