Our Culinary History

Posted in: History- Jan 27, 2011 2 Comments

Looking at my bookshelf this past weekend – I was trying to find my muse in the old cookbooks that I own.  I pulled out The Virginia Housewife and started looking through its pages and it got me thinking about the local food movement, Charlottesville and our regions place in the culinary history.

The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook
By Mary Randolph
Baltimore: Plaskitt, Fite, 1838 (1838)

This is considered by some to be the first truly American cookbook and by all to be the first regional American cookbook. This work is still in print and still forms the basis of traditional Virginia cooking. It has been praised by many culinary authorities both for its delineation of authentic Virginia foods and its careful attention to detail.

Upon its first appearance in 1824 it was an immediate success and it was republished at least nineteen times before the outbreak of the Civil War. In addition, copies appeared in the late nineteenth century and modern Southern authors often reference it.

The recipes in The Virginia House-Wife are simply splendid. It contains a number of Southern specialties, some appearing in print for the first time: Ochra Soup, Catfish Soup, Barbecued Shote (“This is the name given in the southern states to a fat young hog”), Curry of Catfish, Ochra and Tomatoes; Gumbo (“A West India Dish”), Chicken Pudding (“A Favourite Virginia Dish”), Field Peas, Apoquiniminc Cakes (a form of beaten biscuits). Clearly we are in the South.

But Mrs. Randolph knew about much more than Southern cooking; she includes recipes from England, France, Spain, the East Indies, the West Indies and New England (Dough Nuts – A Yankee Cake), among others. Her Spanish dishes are most intriguing: Gaspacho, Ropa Vieja and Ollo. We find polenta, vermicelli, macaroni and curry. We find recipes for corning, for fricando and fricassee, for haricot and matelote and salmagundi; we have a-la-modes, a-la-daubes and a-la-cremes. We learn how to caveach fish and to pitchcock eels. Mrs. Randolph tells us how to pickle several dozen items, including oysters, sturgeon, lemons, onions, nasturtiums, radish pods, English walnuts, peppers, green nectarines and asparagus.

Anyone who doubts that early Americans savored salads and vegetables need only look at what Mrs. Randolph offers. There are recipes for artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, French beans, Jerusalem artichokes, lima beans, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, potato pumpkin, red beet roots, salsify, savoy cabbage, sea kale, sorrel, spinach, sprouts and young greens, squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, turnip tops, winter squash, onions, and tomatoes.

Indeed, Mrs. Randolph has seventeen recipes using tomatoes in the various editions of her cookbook. This provides further evidence to correct the misinformation that Americans did not use tomatoes prior to the mid-nineteenth century.

We should mention Mrs. Randolph’s wondrous ice-cream recipes. There are twenty-two flavors, plus variations, including black walnut, pineapple, quince, peach, pear, chocolate, citron and almond.

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