Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife includes a variety of ways to prepare vegetables, dispelling the myth that early Americans only ate vegetables boiled to an indistinguishable pulp. The vegetable section contains fourth-nine recipes ranging from salad to broiled mushrooms. These recipes are representative of the produce available to early nineteenth-century Virginians, and the number of recipes for tomatoes suggests tomatoes were a common and widely accepted fruit for the times. Perhaps more so than historians previously thought.
Randolph’s seventeen recipes, including tomatoes as a primary ingredient, including four Spanish recipes (Gaspacha – Spanish, Ropa Veija, Olla, Eggs and Tomatos (Piperade)), are evidence of the tomato’s use in Early National Virginia and the spread of the fruit in the United States. The introduction of tomatoes likely occurred through Spanish Florida or emigration between the low country and the West Indies. Randolph’s four Spanish recipes strongly suggest Spanish Florida’s influence in the adoption of tomatoes in the southern United States. Tomatoes were standard in the southern colonies by the mid-eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson grew the fruit in his gardens in Monticello by 1782 and noted others in Virginia did the same for personal consumption. The tomato spread more slowly in the northern U.S. However, by 1832, Lydia Maria Child wrote in her collection of recipes, The American Frugal Housewife, that the tomato “is a delicious vegetable. It is easily cultivated, and yields a most abundant crop.” Child also noted that “the best sort of catsup is made from tomatoes.”
The earliest extant written culinary reference to tomatoes appears in Harriot Pinckney Horry’s manuscript recipe collection. Richard J. Hooker, the editor of the published version of her collection, A Colonial Plantation Cookbook, wrote her recipe To Keep Tomatoos for Winter Use, “could well be the earliest reference to tomatoes in any American cookbook” and likely dates to around 1770. Like Horry’s recipe, Randolph’s To Stew Tomatos calls for peeled tomatoes simmered with salt and pepper. Horry specifies her recipe produces tomatoes for soup during the winter. She also includes instructions to preserve the stewed tomatoes for later use (poured into pint pots and sealed with butter). In comparison, Randolph does not provide a specific purpose for her recipe. The lack of this information suggests Randolph expected her audience to be familiar with uses for stewed tomatoes.
Randolph’s simple recipe for stewed tomatoes is a possible example of the types of tomato preparations enjoyed in early America. The recipe To Scollop Tomatos explores the fruit’s initial introduction to European foodways and the skepticism that accompanied it.
To Stew Tomatos
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 101.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 5 medium tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon butter
- salt & pepper
- ½ to 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
1. Peel, core, and quarter the tomatoes. An easy method for peeling tomatoes is to cut an “X” on the bottom of each tomato and place them in a large bowl. Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit for one minute. Remove the tomatoes from the water and the skins should peel off easily.
2. Place in a pan with remaining ingredients except sugar over medium heat.
3. Once the mixture begins to boil, turn down the heat to low and simmer the mixture. Stir occasionally, and break up the tomatoes with your spoon as they cook.
4. Simmer 30 minutes. Once removed from the heat, taste your tomatoes and determine whether to add sugar.
Yield: 2 cups stewed tomatoes
Serving: For tomato lovers, these are excellent served as a side dish. The intense tomato flavor and juice would make a good accompaniment to a grilled meat. The dish can also be used in place of canned stewed tomatoes in recipes.
Another recipe that is easily scaled up or down.
My tomatoes were very sweet, if your tomatoes are more acidic you may find the addition of ½ to 1 tablespoon of sugar will balance the taste.
 Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter, Hendee & Co., 1832), 35.
 Richard J. Hooker, Ed., A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriot Pinckney Horry, 1770 (Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 89.
Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 800-801.
Hooker, Richard J., Ed., A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriot Pinckney Horry, 1770 (Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984).
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 61-62.
John F. Mariani, The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 506.
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), 294-6.
Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 590-1.
Andrew F. Smith, The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994).