Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Virginia Housewife Cook Book, via Michigan

Sent by Mom, for my birthday, apparently found in an antique store somewhere in Michigan and the penciled price, $9.95. The Virginia Housewife Cook Book by Mrs. Mary Randolph (1762-1828) unlocked a treasure trove of food history. Called the "most influential American cook book of the 19th century" and "the first truly American cook book" it was reprinted many times in the 70 years following the author's death. She is credited with the birth of regional cooking utilizing local ingredients in Virginia agriculture, and incorporating English, African Black, Indian and Creole cooking.

Originally published in 1824, the cook books conceptualization by Mrs. Randolph came during retirement after years of running a popular Richmond boarding house. Born to wealth, educated formally, she was also instructed in good household management techniques. While living in Richmond her home became synonymous with distinctive entertaining. When her husband's political position was removed (by her distant cousin, Thomas Jefferson), and with a decline in their tobacco revenue due to an economic depression, they lost their home, Moldavia. Mary took the brave position of advertising in the local press that they would provide accommodations for Ladies and Gentlemen at their new business, to great success.

Other interesting facts about Mary Randolph, she has been widely credited with the invention of an early "icebox", but was not quick enough to patent it. She was godmother to the wife of Robert E. Lee (Mary Randolph Custis), as well as a distant cousin and Mary considered them her closest family. As such, when she died she was buried on their estate, and her grave is credited with being the oldest on what is now Arlington National Cemetery. How serendipitous that all who were buried afterwards came to the resting place of a great national hostess.

The book given to me has no publication date, but it is marked "Arlington Edition" and the publisher is listed as Hurst & Co., New York (1871-1919), who was a major re printer of works that were losing copyright protections. I had to laugh reading the following quote of their work, "Beautiful covers around deplorable paper", pretty much sums up the condition of this book. Other books published by Hurst & Co under the Arlington label are credited with "circa 1890", I have older books that are in much better condition. When originally published, this book sold for $1.

And here, for historical perspective, I'll share one of her famous recipes:

Peel large potatos [sic], slice them about a quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth; and fry them in lard or dripping. Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire, watch it, and as soon as the lard boils and is still, put in the slices of potatos [sic], and keep moving them till they are crisp; take them up, and lay them to drain on a sieve; send them up with very little salt sprinkled on them.
I think I had these at Nick & Sam's Grill the other night.

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