America’s First Regional Cookbook (Thanks, Virginia!)

Today’s post is from Kira Dietz, Virginia Tech Special Collections.

In 1824, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife: Or, the Methodical Cook was published. Considered one of the first American regional and first Virginia cookbooks, it includes an eclectic variety of recipes for the home, along with Mrs. Randolph’s observations on a number of topics. Virginia Tech Special Collections is home to a copy of a coveted 1824 first edition, but its condition prevents it from being scanned. So this week, we’re sharing the 1846 edition from our collection (we also have an 1855!), which was clearly used in someone’s kitchen–and there’s plenty of stains to prove it!

Mrs. Randolph’s book opens with some advice to her readers, or, more specifically, to the ladies of the household:

Management is an art that may be acquired by any woman of good sense and tolerable memory…The Virginia ladies, who are proverbially good managers, employ themselves, while their servants are eating, in washing the cups, glasses, &c.; arranging the cruets, the mustard, the salt-cellars, pickle vases, and all the apparatus for the dinner table. This occupies but a short time, and the lady has the satisfaction of knowing that they are in much better order than they would be if left to the servants.

Title page of the 1846 edition.

Title page of the 1846 edition.

 Regardless of who does the actual cooking, Mrs. Randolph continues to reinforce a woman’s responsibility for the household and kitchen. She should know what is going on at all times to make the best impression.

As for the recipes, Mrs. Randolph offers the total range: beef and other meats (including several uses for calf’s head), poultry, fish and other seafood, vegetables, breads, cakes, puddings, jams, creams, and (what cookbook with be complete without!) pickles. There is also a section with beers, wines, cordials, and vinegars. The book contains international recipes, particularly those with Spanish and East/West Indies influence, as well as recipes from other regions of the US. There are pastas, polentas, and New England style cakes alongside southern staples like croquettes and catfish. Among the puddings and preserves are instructions for coffee and fruit ice creams. (Mmm, coffee ice cream!)

So, whether it’s breakfast for the family or a multi-course dinner for guests, Mrs. Randolph can help. Her book is still reprinted today. Although it shares certain characteristics with other cookbooks of the period (particularly the lack of specific directions of cooking times and temps), none of her recipes are beyond the capabilities of the modern kitchen. As for taste, well, that’s another story. Whether you want to make mock turtle soup from a calf’s head is entirely up to you…

What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections?!” has been an active blog at Virginia Tech Special Collections since 2011 and is largely the work of archivist, amateur culinary history, and wannabe cocktail archivist, Kira Dietz. Each week, it features an item or items from the History of Food & Drink Collection and throughout the year, we share promotions for local food events, favorite images, favorite quotes, unsettling recipes, and food news. And we poke fun—because with the kind of gelatin recipes we have, who wouldn’t?

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