Why Mary Randolph?

Virginia_HousewifeVisitors to our kitchens frequently ask where the Historic Foodways staff find our recipes.

Our staff has at its disposal well over 140 cookery books, as well as a large collection of hand-written receipt books, and hundreds of secondary source books on all aspects of foodways.

Since many of the primary cookbooks were printed year after year, we will often have every edition published. As new sources are found, they are incorporated into our collection. So, with such a plentiful quantity of primary information, why would be use “The Virginia House-wife,” by Mary Randolph, which was published in 1824? The Foodways staff uses the first edition of the cookbook here.

There are several reasons.

Mary Randolph was 62-years-old when she wrote “The Virginia House-wife.” Her work was based upon a solid foundation of cookery learned as younger woman, during the last quarter of the 18th century. Dishes such as Fried Oysters, Chocolate Creams and To Stew a Rump of Beef clearly have stepped directly out of the 18th century.

In fact, her recipe for Bacon Cake is lifted, word for word, from another 18th-century cookbook in our collection. Though the book was not published until the 19th century, Mary’s book is a culmination of what she learned over a lifetime, much of which was solidly placed in the 18th century. Cooks today don’t simply stop making their most beloved dishes simply because of the passage of time, nor do we stop including new ones. And neither did Mary Randolph.

Though we have all kinds of foreign influences on dishes we replicate in our kitchens, truth be told we are an English society, thus we naturally gravitate towards the English cuisine. Yet, “The Virginia House-wife” offers something unique — It is also Virginian.

Culinary historian Karen Hess, in her commentary in the reprinted edition of “The Virginia House-wife,” published in 1984 by University of South Carolina Press, sums it up perfectly: “Mrs. Randolph left her own imprint on these Virginia recipes … she was working within an already sophisticated cuisine, a harmonious interweaving of colorful Indian, African Black, and Creole strands on the warp of fine cooking of seventeenth- and eighteenth– century England, all of which has been transformed in various ways to respond to local produce and talents. In short, an authentic American cuisine.”

Here in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, we are an English society, but we are also Virginians. As Virginians we would have had access to a wide variety of native plants, fish, fruits, vegetables, animals and grains. If we truly want to represent all aspects of life here in Colonial Williamsburg we simply have to include Virginian foodways, and “The Virginia House-wife” is the way to do it.

And really, what a lovely way to celebrate our Virginian history by cooking Virginia food!

Finally, Mary Randolph’s recipes are, to be plain, delicious. The vast majority of them are clearly written, easy to follow, full of wonderful insightful information. And the taste is amazing. Anyone who has made a Chicken Pudding, a Favourite Virginia Dish, will tell you it is simple and lovely. To quote Karen Hess once more: “But nothing in history of the early American cookbooks quite prepares us for the sumptuous cuisine presented by Mary Randolph in the Virginia housewife (1824). She brought her personal flair to everything she did but her reputation as the best cooking Virginia in the early success of her work indicate that her cookery was solidly based on Virginia produce and Virginia practice.”

 Kimberly Costa

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3 Responses to “Why Mary Randolph?”

  1. May 29th, 2015

    Susan says:

    Your readers who have the opportunity to visit the Washington, D.C., area or Colonial Williamsburg may also be interested to know that the grave of Mary Randolph is very near Arlington House on the property of the Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac from the capital in Arlington, Virginia. Here are 2 brief quotes from the site’s web site:

    Mary Randolph – First recorded person buried on the grounds that became Arlington Cemetery. She is a cousin of Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, wife of George Washington Parke Custis, builder of Arlington. ~ http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore-the-Cemetery/Notable-Graves/Prominent-Women-Figures

    The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and constructed by the first president’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington. ~ http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore-the-Cemetery/History/Arlington-House

  2. November 14th, 2015

    Mick says:

    That’s a remarkable fact, that she’s buried at Arlington. I was there and thought the pre-National Cemetery history was an interesting aspect of Arlington.

  3. January 25th, 2016

    Years ago when we visited Williamsburg, we ate peanut soup and had home made blue cheese dressing on our salads. I am trying to find these two receipes but having no luck. Please help me if you can.I will be most apprecitive and if means buying a book, I will. Many thanks.

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