By Bill Daley, Tribune Newspapers
September 18, 2013
Mary Randolph was an American aristocrat, a descendant of Pocahontas, who despite links by blood and marriage to the first families of Virginia fell on hard times, opened a boarding house in Richmond, and later wrote a cookbook called "The Virginia House-Wife."
Published in 1824, it was one of the earliest cookbooks written by an American for an American audience. It was popular from the start, enjoying multiple editions through the first half of the 19th century.
"Her influence was enormous," says Nathalie Dupree, a Charleston, S.C.-based author and Southern food authority. Dupree wrote the introduction to a recently published facsimile of the 1828 edition by The American Antiquarian Cookbook Collection (Andrews McMeel, $24.99): "She was the first one to bring cachet to the Southern household. She was able to infuse everything with a kind of elegance."
Born in 1762 at her grandfather's plantation in Chesterfield County, Va., Mary Randolph counted among her cousins Thomas Jefferson; Mary Lee Fitzhugh, the wife of George Washington Parke Custis who was the stepgrandson of George Washington; and David Meade Randolph, whom she married. David Randolph was appointed federal marshal for Virginia by President Washington, and the couple moved into a grand new house in Richmond called "Moldavia" — a combination of the names David and "Molly," Mary's nickname.
Life for the couple changed abruptly when Jefferson became president and booted David Randolph, a prominent Federalist, from his post. That, coupled with business failures, brought the family close to ruin. Mary Randolph went into action, opening a boarding house around 1808. About 10 years later, the Randolphs moved to Washington, where she wrote her cookbook.
Given this history, it's probably not surprising that being a good manager mattered to Mary Randolph. The title page of her cookbook bears this motto: "Method is the soul of Management." Later, in her preface, she writes that "the government of a family bears a Liliputian (sic) resemblance to the government of a nation" and that, basically, one shouldn't spend more than you take in.
Practicality and common sense courses through the book, which is clearly directed at beginners. Karen Hess, the late food historian, thought quite highly of Randolph and "The Virginia House-Wife" (variously "House-Wife" or "House-wife" or "House wife," without a hyphen, in later editions), which she called the most influential American cookbook of the 19th century.
"Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of her cookery is its eclecticism, which flowed from the fascinating interplay of strikingly different influences that manifested themselves from the very beginning," Hess wrote in an introduction to a 1984 reprint of the book. "A certain eclecticism has continued to mark American cookery, but never again with such eclat."
Randolph's eclecticism can be seen in such dishes as gazpacho, macaroni and cheese, and an East Indian curry. Hess notes the recipes call for 40 vegetables and 17 aromatic herbs.
Randolph died in 1828 while working on a third edition of "The Virginia House-Wife." She was buried on the hill below Arlington House, the grand Virginia mansion built by George Washington Parke Custis overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington. The estate would later pass to Randolph's goddaughter, Mary Anna Custis, and her husband, Robert E. Lee. Hers is the earliest known grave on the property, which was turned into Arlington National Cemetery during the Civil War.
The marker at Randolph's grave focuses on her role as a mother. "The Virginia House-Wife" is not mentioned. Yet it is her cookbook that brought her lasting fame and continued relevance.
As Dupree wrote in her introduction to the cookbook, "For those of us who love reading recipes, captivated by the mental image and anticipation of flavor, Mary Randolph brings us dishes and ideas that are as beckoning today as they were in 1824."
Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a sallad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skins taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkle with pepper, salt and chopped onion; do this until the bowl is full; stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard, oil and water, and pour over it; make it 2 hours before it is eaten.
About the recipes
These recipes are printed as they were published in "The Virginia House-Wife," in a time when recipes usually were written with few exact measurements.
To make polenta
Put a large spoonful of butter in a quart of water, wet your corn meal with cold water in a bowl, add some salt, and make it quite smooth, then put it in the buttered water when it is hot, let it boil, stirring it continually 'till done; as soon as you can handle it, make it into a ball and let it stand 'till quite cold — then cut it in thin slices, lay them in the bottom of a deep dish so as to cover it, put on it slices of cheese, and on that a few bits of butter, then mush, cheese and butter, until the dish is full; put on the top thin slices of cheese and butter, put the dish in a quick oven; twenty or thirty minutes will bake it.
Kitchen note: We used 4 cups hot water and 3 tablespoons butter; then stirred 2 cups polenta and 1 teaspoon salt into 2 cups cold water, before adding it to the hot water as described above. For layering the polenta in the baking dish, we used 2 tablespoons butter and 4 ounces grated white cheddar. We baked the casserole at 375 degrees.
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