In January 2020, I found myself a stay-at-home mom living in Virginia. I was familiar with the demands of domestic life. My partner and I welcomed our first child in 2015 and second in 2019. We employed a house cleaner when I worked full-time. Still, I accomplished most of the meal planning, grocery shopping, and general care of our home and children. My partner was a willing helper, but more of a sous chef to my head chef. Additionally, as a Ph.D. historian and University faculty member, I was a subject matter specialist in gender, domesticity, and food writing in the nineteenth century. I wrote my dissertation on women’s negotiation of domestic ideals during the nineteenth century, published and presented on similar themes, and developed classes exploring domesticity in the past and present. None of this prepared me to be a stay-at-home mom.
Of course, my introduction to full-time domesticity coincided with a few ill-timed circumstances that made the transition exponentially harder, including moving away from our support system, adapting to a new place, struggling with my youngest’s feeding issues, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As time passed, I found I largely did not miss my academic position but longed for a new research project. When I found a few spare moments, I revised my dissertation for publication, but that work did not fulfill my need for a creative outlet, a community to connect with, or new discoveries. The women in my research spoke to me in ways I previously had not possessed the life experience to fully appreciate. I recognized and empathized with their frustrations as a childless researcher, but as a mother trying and failing to balance motherhood, domesticity, and an identity outside those roles? Their frustrations were my own.
The words of Hannah Rogers Mason, in particular, echoed inside my head. As a young woman living in the Boston area in the mid-1820s, Mason desired a literary life. However, when she considered the intellectual contributions of Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Hamilton, Jane or Ann Taylor, and Hannah Adams, Mason noted that all of them were unmarried. She reflected,
“it is almost incompatable [sic] to attend properly to the domestic duties of a family and to literary pursuits.”
Hannah Rogers Mason, Diary or an account of everyday life, 5 August 1826, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE.
Despite her admiration for these female authors, Mason ultimately concluded, “the sphere of a woman’s usefulness ought to be chiefly confined to her family & friends and to those whom she may happen to fall in with.”
The Virginia House-wife Project is my attempt to combine domesticity and literary pursuits. As a university faculty member, I balanced teaching, service, and research expectations by finding connections between the three and exploiting them to support my research agenda. As a stay-at-home mom, I will seek to do the same by cooking my way through Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook, The Virginia House-wife. I used Randolph’s cookbook and domestic manual as a source in prior research, but since my previous work focused on the northeastern United States, I was not intimately familiar with the book. The Virginia House-wife Project seeks to combine recipes and research with my need to discover a new place and adapt to a new role. Through Randolph’s recipes, I hope to learn more about my new home’s history and food culture and balance my domestic and care work with my research goals.
Welcome to The Virginia House-wife Project! I hope you’ll browse, sample, and share your thoughts.
Note on Editions
For this project, I am using the following editions of Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife:
Mrs. Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife: Or, Methodical Cook (Baltimore: Plaskitt & Cugle, 1838). A digital version of this edition is available from Michigan State University’s online collection, Feeding America, a digital archive of 76 cookbooks from MSU’s collections along with searchable full-text transcriptions.
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), 27. In this project, I am indebted to Karen Hess for her superb commentary and research on Randolph’s life and recipes.