Mary Randolph (1762-1828)
Many consider Mary Randolph’s 1824 publication of The Virginia Housewife to be the first American cookbook, despite the earlier publication of Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery, for revealing the intermingling of English, Native American, African, and French cookery techniques in Virginia cookery practices. Randolph was known as the best cook in Virginia based on the success of the boarding house she ran for decades in Richmond after her husband lost his political appointment. She was also an inventor, including plans for a refrigerator in the 1825 edition of The Virginia Housewife.
The daughter of Anne Cary Randolph and Thomas Mann Randolph of Tuckahoe in Goochland County, Mary Randolph was related by blood, marriage, and social ties to Virginia’s most prominent families. Her early education would have focused on running a household and securing a husband but also reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1782, she married David Meade Randolph. As newlyweds, the couple resided at Presquile, a 750-acre plantation in Chesterfield County, Virginia. During their marriage, Mary and David welcomed eight children; four would survive to adulthood. Around 1795, President George Washington appointed David Randolph the U.S. Marshall of Virginia. By 1798, the family relocated to Richmond and settled into an elegant home named Moldavia (a combination of Mary’s nickname Molly and David). Here, the Randolph’s were celebrated for their “lavish hospitality” and provided the social center for Federalist society. When Thomas Jefferson assumed the Presidency, David Randolph, “a bitterly outspoken Federalist” and second cousin to the president, lost his appointive office, and the family’s financial situation declined considerably.
Like many women of her time, Mary Randolph turned to her domestic and writing skills to support her family. In March 1808, the following advertisement appeared in The Richmond Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser: “Mrs. RANDOLPH Has established a Boarding House in Cary Street, for the accommodation of Ladies and Gentlemen. She has comfortable chambers, and a stable well supplied for a few Horses.” All accounts describe the dining and accommodations as excellent, although the veracity of many accounts in undetermined. By 1819, the Randolphs gave up the boardinghouse and moved to Washington to live with their son William Beverly Randolph. During this period, Mary recorded her ample culinary and domestic experience in a recipe book and domestic manual. First published in 1824, The Virginia Housewife was republished at least nineteen times before 1861. At 225 pages, the book contained nearly 500 recipes. The manual secured Randolph’s legacy as an excellent cook, household manager, and significant Virginia woman.
Randolph spent her later years caring for her son Burwell Starke Randolph. When she died in 1828, she was the first person buried in the grounds of what would become Arlington National Cemetery but was at the time, the home of her cousin George Washington Parke Custis (stepson of George Washington and father of Mary Custis, wife of Robert E. Lee).
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.
“Randolph, Mary,” Feeding America Collection: Michigan State University Libraries, https://d.lib.msu.edu/content/biographies?author_name=Randolph%2C+Mary%2C+1762-1828.
Cynthia A. Kierner, Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700–1835 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).
Anna Wells Rutledge, Notable American Women, 1607–1950 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974), 117-118.