We began with the best food book, so why not go next to the first cookbook? Buy the Dover Publications print facsimile from Amazon, or your local bookstore, or download a text only version from Project Gutenberg.
Praised by writers as diverse as James Beard and chef Jose Andres, Mary Randolph wrote the first Southern cookbook, and what is arguably the first completely American cookbook. What makes this book so special? It is a fascinating historical and culinary fusion document. Many of the recipes are familiar and accessible, especially to Southern cooks, and others are exotic and challenging. Chef Andres says he still serves her gazpacho at one of his restaurants. Which begs the question–what is a Virginia housewife doing serving gazpacho in 1824?
Mary Randolph was no typical Virginia housewife. She was an entrepreneur, an executive chef, and a chef de cuisine, all at the same time. Her husband David Randolph was fired from his cushy government job by his second cousin, President Thomas Jefferson, for being a worthless crooked Federalist party lowlife. (Strangely enough, Mary Randolph’s father was raised in the household of Peter Jefferson, who just happened to be the father of Thomas Jefferson.)
Mary, who counted among her ancestors a woman named Pocahontas, in order to support the family, became a business woman. (Can stories get any better than this?) She opened a boarding house in Richmond, Virginia, in 1807, for “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The main attraction of this establishment was the magnificent food, which I will address shortly. Mary, notably, WAS NOT A COOK. Here’s how much time she spent in the kitchen, according to the Introduction to the book:
When the kitchen breakfast is over, and the cook has put all things in their proper places, the mistress should go in to give her orders. Let all the articles intended for the dinner, pass in review before her: have the butter, sugar, flour, meal. lard, given out in proper quantities; the catsup, spice, wine, whatever may be wanted for each dish, measured to the cook. The mistress must tax her own memory with all this: we have no right to expect slaves or hired servants to be more attentive to our interest than we ourselves are: they will never recollect these little articles until they are going to use them; the mistress must then be called out, and thus have the horrible drudgery of keeping house all day, when one hour devoted to it in the morning, would release her from trouble until the next day.
Anyone who has worked in a commercial kitchen, such as myself, will recognize the brigade de cuisine. The boss tells you what to do, and you do it. Also notice the mise en place: everything is in order, and in it’s place. Notice that the slaves and hired servants are put on the same level. Arguably, Mary Randolph was the first American celebrity chef, as the book went through nineteen printings in less than forty years. If current celebrity chefs were as honest as her, we would have a more realistic picture of the restaurant business.
Man, did those people eat well! As Joel Salatin, the world’s most famous farmer, who also lives in Virginia, loves to point out, our diet is much less diverse now than it was a hundred years ago. What about two hundred years ago? Turtle, rabbit, eight or nine species of fish, goose, duck, woodcocks, brains, and eyes were all on the menu, as well as about thirty different varieties of vegetables. From the recipe, “Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head,” “The eyes are a great delicacy.”
Here’s where the fusion part really kicks in. Recipes in the book encompass cuisines from the native American, American, African, and European, as well as some Caribbean regions. French and Spanish recipes are well represented. African vegetables such as okra and field peas are mentioned, right alongside potatoes and English peas. My only editorial comment will be to assure Northern writers that African “yams” are not grown in the South, but that the word is a synonym for sweet potatoes, which came from Central or South America. (I have even read that slaves brought tomatoes to the South!)
I will cook a few of these recipes in the next few weeks, and reveal the results in a new Recipe section. The first will be “Corn Meal Bread,” which is not cornbread, but a yeast leavened bread made with corn meal.
Undoubtedly a good deal of this book can be said to be influenced by the great chef James Hemings, but the extent of that influence is impossible to determine. Two of his signature dishes, ice cream and Macs and cheese, make their first American appearance here.