When we produce homemade jams and jellies in our kitchens, we often pat ourselves on the back for being particularly frugal. In the early modern period, preserving with sugar was an especially luxurious, even pretentious, means of keeping the summer’s bounty for later enjoyment. Drying and pickling were far more economical in locales and eras where sugar was expensive and firewood scarce. Early National Virginia suffered neither of these scarcities. The number of preserve recipes (and their liberal use of sugar) in Randolph’s collection suggests that sugar preserves were a popular means of putting up fruits for colder months.
Nearly all the preserves in Randolph’s cookbook, except for a few pickles, rely on sugar to prevent spoiling and extend the shelf life of foods. During the eighteenth century, sugar transitioned from a luxury item to an everyday necessity within many European societies, including England and, by extension, Canada and the United States. The establishment of sugar colonies in the West Indies and South America dramatically increased sugar’s availability in English and American markets. In 1660, England consumed one thousand hogsheads of sugar. By 1753, that number had ballooned to over one hundred thousand hogsheads.
As sugar production increased with enslaved labor on New World plantations, a mass market emerged. Before this explosion in availability, sugar was used in small quantities by an elite few as a medicine, spice, or decorative substance. The production and sharing of fruit preserves, such as Randolph’s marmalade, manifested status through women’s “associations with the fruits themselves and, second, in their extravagant use of sugar.” Alongside the increase in sugar production, were new ways of consuming it. Historian Sidney W. Mintz traced growing uses for sugar within the English working class’s diets via increased consumption of “sucrose-heavy foods – treacle, jams, raw sugar for tea and baking, puddings, and baked goods.” Similar transitions occurred in American diets with jam and jellies, cakes, pie, cookies, doughnuts, and many more sweet treats.
Randolph’s Peach Marmalade is an example of the sorts of simple jams produced for short-term use during the Early National period. Currently, we firmly associate marmalade with citrus fruits. However, historically the term refers to a simple jam employing few ingredients and little effort to refine the end product. Randolph’s chunky, delicious peach preserve fits this definition perfectly. It’s an easy jam to simmer on the stove while attending to other matters in the kitchen, and the results are scrumptious served over ice cream for a simple summer dessert.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 156.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 2 pounds peaches
- 1 pound light brown sugar
1. Peel and slices peaches. Randolph recommends paring the peaches, but a simpler method is to plunge the peaches in boiling water with an x cut into the skin. Remove after one minute and place in an ice bath.
2. Place the peaches in a pan with the sugar. Stir and allow the mixture to rest to pull out the juices (10-15 minutes).
3. Simmer the peaches over medium-low heat stirring frequently. Use the spoon to break up the peaches as they cook.
4. Simmer until the peaches become “a transparent pulp” or about thirty minutes. When the mixture thickens and no longer rushes to fill the space when you drag your spoon across the bottom of the pan, the marmalade is ready.
Yield: ~1 pint marmalade
Serving: Randolph notes, “Puffs made of this marmalade are very delicious.” My family enjoyed the marmalade stirred into plain yogurt, as a topping for ice cream, and with whipped cream on puff pastry. This final version, a take on Randolph’s suggestion to serve the marmalade with puffs, was delectable.
Store your marmalade in a tightly sealed jar and refrigerate. This recipe has not been tested for canning.
This marmalade can be made in virtually any amount following to 2:1 ratio of peaches to brown sugar.
Randolph recommends yellow peaches for this recipe and I concur. They make the prettiest and tastiest preserves.
 Amanda E. Herbert, Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), 55-6.
 Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985), 39, 96-102, 143.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 156.
Sue Shephard, Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 477.
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