The first recipe in Randolph’s collection is a recipe for Asparagus Soup. This is fitting since asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a perennial flowering plant, is one of the first spring vegetables. Cultivated since ancient times, asparagus traveled to North America with the earliest colonists. In 1685, Pennsylvania colony founder William Penn included asparagus in a comprehensive list of crops that grew well in the colony. However, asparagus was not widespread in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Asparagus frequently appears in both printed and manuscript recipe collections compiled in the eastern U.S. from the first half of the nineteenth century. In The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child recommended boiling the vegetable for “fifteen to twenty minutes; half an hour if old.” Eliza Leslie included a recipe for Asparagus Soup very similar to Randolph’s in Directions for Cookery. Based on Leslie’s instructions, it appears a green color to the soup was highly desirable, and Leslie advises adding “a handful of spinach” pounded in a mortar “about a quarter hour before the soup is done boiling.” Catharine Beecher suggested serving boiled asparagus on buttered toast in Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, still an excellent light, spring supper. I like to serve it with hollandaise.
Asparagus season in Virginia lasts from April to June. While these first green vegetables are welcome in the early days of spring, the palate longs for variety by the end of often prolific the season. In 1763, Mary Holyoke of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded the first asparagus harvest in her diary as May 10th. By the end of the season in mid-June, she had harvested “1836 heads in all.” Recipes for asparagus soup are the most common in printed and manuscript recipe collections alike. Perhaps as a respite for boiled asparagus on toast.
This recipe, the first from Randolph’s collection I attempted, we enjoyed last spring when we were thoroughly sick of the asparagus that kept appearing in our farm box. It was a welcome respite from our usual methods of preparing asparagus: steamed, roasted, or baked into a frittata. It makes a satisfying light lunch or supper paired with a salad and a bit of good bread if, as hard as it may be to imagine now, we find ourselves inundated with asparagus in the future.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 13.
Adapted by RA Snell
One bunch of asparagus
Slice of bacon
Small onion, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup water or broth
1 cup chopped or shredded cooked chicken
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
½ cup milk
1. Peel the outer layer from your asparagus with a vegetable peeler or knife. Cut one inch off the top of each stalk and place the tops in cool water. Chop the reminder of the asparagus into small pieces.
2. Place a slice of bacon in a small sauce pan, once it has started to cook add the diced onion. Cook together until the onion is soft, remove the bacon and add one cup of water or broth and the chopped asparagus. Simmer together until the asparagus is soft.
3. Place the simmered mixture in a blender and blend until combined. Return to the sauce pan and simmer gently with the asparagus tops and chicken.
4. Melt butter in a small saucepan and add the flour. Mix well and cook together for one minute. Add the milk a little at a time stirring well after each addition. After all the milk is added, combine with the asparagus mixture.
5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chop the reserved bacon and use as a garnish.
 Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel Wood, 1838), 34.
 Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery (Philadelphia: Cary & Hart, 1840), 35.
 Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836), 75.
 Mary Holyoke Diary, 58, 59, quoted inSarah F. McMahon, “All Things in Their Proper Season”: Seasonal Rhythms of Diet in Nineteenth Century New England,” Agricultural History, Vol. 63, No. 2, Climate, Agriculture, and History (Spring, 1989), pp. 150.
Each time I attempt a new recipe from Randolph’s collection, I always do a bit of googling to see if anyone has attempted the dish before. The experiences of others help me plan my approach to the recipe. In the case of Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns, I was surprised to find nearly universal disappointing results (please note, I am not maligning my fellow historical recipe testers, this is a summary of their descriptions of the dish). The recipe looks straightforward enough but is deceptively challenging. Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns provide a good example of two of the primary challenges of using historical recipes: format and assumed knowledge. (Of course, there are numerous other challenges and many rewards, I’ve chosen to focus on just two challenges in this post.)
First, format. Anyone who has perused a recipe collection or published cookbook created before 1900 has noted the differing format of the recipes. In the twenty-first century, we are conditioned to expect recipes to appear in a particular format: a list of ingredients with amounts followed by step-by-step instructions to produce the dish. The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook pioneered this format in an effort to write recipes that could be reliably reproduced by anyone, anywhere. As part of the beginning of the home economics movement, the Boston Cooking School and its leaders, Mary Lincoln and Fannie Merritt Farmer, advocated modifications in measuring, recipe format, and standardized ingredients that transformed the process of cookery. Before the late nineteenth century, recipes, including those in published cookbooks and newspaper columns, appeared in a narrative format with ingredients, amounts, and instructions appearing together. This format made Mary Berry’s famed advice absolutely critical.
The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook also popularized level cup measures. Contrary to popular belief, Fannie Farmer did not invent cup and spoon measures. Recipes using cup and spoon measures appear as early as the 1830s, and Catharine Beecher advised readers to convert their recipes because “it saves much trouble to have your receipt book so arranged that you can measure instead of weighing.” Rather, she created an efficient system for ensuring consistent results by spooning and leveling measured ingredients (of course, all serious bakers realize that weighing ingredients is much more accurate and can be just as efficient). Prior to the widespread acceptance of cup and spoon measures, recipes relied on various methods to convey amounts. A set of scales and weights was a necessary piece of equipment for kitchens, and many recipes relied on weights. Standard units of measure such as pints, gills, bushels, etc. were also common. References to familiar objects such as the size of an egg, a silver dollar, a walnut, or one’s thumb to determine the amount of an ingredient were also common. Finally, many recipes relied on the maker’s experience with instructions to add enough flour, season to taste, and cook until done.
This assumed knowledge, the ability to know from experience how much seasoning to add, the feel of a sufficiently heated oven, the proper amount of flour, or the appearance of “doneness” is the primary challenge of historical recipes. Before the nineteenth century brought tremendous change to how people lived and worked, most women learned to cook by watching and assisting their mothers and other female relatives. Therefore, an experienced hand taught them the feel of bread dough, what sufficiently risen bread looks like, and how long to bake various items. Randolph’s recipe for Sweet Potato Buns assumes a fair amount of experience working with yeast and making bread.
First, Randolph instructs the reader to mix mashed sweet potato with “as much flour as will make it like bread.” This is subjective, to put things mildly, depending on the size of one’s potato and one’s opinion on the texture of bread dough. The instructions to add “a spoonful of yeast” not only does not specify the amount (what size spoonful?) but also obscures the difference between yeast in the past and today. While we purchase our yeast in packages or jars, women carefully saved and cultivated yeast from bread baking and beer brewing in the past. Louis Pasteur’s identification of yeast as living organisms in the 1850s paved the way for commercially produced yeast, with the first cakes of compressed yeast appearing in U.S. markets in the 1860s. Therefore, Randolph does not mean to add a scoop of baker’s yeast but rather a spoonful of a yeast starter. Finally, like nearly all recipes from the period, Randolph does not provide instructions on temperature or length of baking for the practical reason that these measures did not exist. Instead, women relied on their experience to determine how long and in what sort of oven to bake the rolls.
Mary Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns were delectable! Sweet and tender with a hint of spice, they are perfect alone for breakfast or tea, as Randolph notes. They would also make a delicious sandwich with Thanksgiving leftovers or with pulled pork (I would use ½ teaspoon of spice for these purposes). I used a recipe for Sweet Potato Rolls from King Arthur Flour to guide my adaptation of this recipe. My keys to success were, I believe, proving the yeast with a small amount of water and sugar and melting the butter and adding at the beginning. With a full cup of sweet potato, these are a delicious way to slip vegetables into your baked goods.
Sweet Potato Buns
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 141.
Adapted by RA Snell
1 sweet potato boiled and mashed (about 1 cup)
½ cup warm water (between 100-110°F, 38-43°C)
¼ cup sugar
1 ½ tablespoons yeast
3 tablespoons butter, melted
½ – 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon*
1 teaspoon salt
460 grams (3 2/3 cups) all-purpose flour
* When fresh from the oven, one teaspoon of spice was overpowering. However, the next day the buns were perfectly spiced. If you plan to serve these immediately, I would reduce the spice to ½ teaspoon. If cooling to serve later, use the full teaspoon.
1. Combine the water, yeast, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Cover and rest for five minutes.
2. To the yeast mixture, add the remaining ingredients and mix well. A stand mixer works ideally for this task, however, the ingredients may also be mixed by hand.
3. If using a stand mixer, beat on low speed with a bread hook for 5-8 minutes until the dough is soft. Or knead by hand until the dough slowly bounces back when poked with the finger.
4. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly greased with olive oil or cooking spray (I like to use the same bowl because I am a firm believer in not creating more dishes than absolutely necessary). Cover and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 60 minutes.
5. Grease a 9×13 baking dish (or other dish that will accommodate your buns). Divide the risen dough into fifteen equal-sized pieces and shape into a ball with your hand. Place the dough into the greased dish, cover, and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 30-45 minutes.
6. When the rising time is nearly finished, preheat your oven to 350°F.
7. Bake buns until golden brown on top and baked through, about 20 minutes.
 Farmer’s contribution to cup measures was the introduction of the level-cup measure. Her predecessor at the Boston Cooking School, Mary Lincoln, referred to “rounded” and “heaping” spoonfuls and cupfuls. Feeling this method of measure was too open to interpretation and, consequently, could lead to differing results, Farmer instructed her students and readers to use a knife to level-off their cup measures. This, she maintained, allowed students and home cooks to reproduce her recipes.
 Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, 130.
Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a Supplement to the Treatise on Domestic Economy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1848), 131.
Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896), 28.
Andrew Smith, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 652.
Merril D. Smith, History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2013), 6.
Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
Randolph’s scant two recipes for squash, one for summer and one for winter squash, conceals how essential the family Cucurbita was for early American diets. An excellent source of vitamin C, winter squashes, those members of the Cucurbita family allowed to mature on the vine, were an important crop for Native Americans before contact with Europeans. Southeastern Native American tribes grew winter crooknecks (the squash Randolph refers to in her recipe), cushaws, and sweet potato squashes. Anyone who has grown squash knows these plants are prolific. A 50-foot row of winter squash can yield 80 pounds or more. Native Americans enjoyed squash broiled and roasted as wells as preserving the flesh in syrup. Winter squash’s tough outer rind allowed the vegetables to be stored, providing an essential store of vitamins in the lean winter months. Native Americans enjoyed squash broiled and roasted as wells as preserving the flesh in syrup.
Newly arrived Europeans were initially lukewarm about squashes. However, once they experienced a harsh winter, the hardy and prolific squashes won them over. Early Americans enjoyed squashes stewed, baked with animal fat, honey, or maple syrup, and incorporated into European-style dishes.
Randolph’s recipe for cooking winter squash is a straightforward preparation of a dietary staple and bares some similarities to her instructions for preparing summer squash. Her instructions refer specifically to winter crookneck squash, “the crooked neck of this squash is the best part.” Since I couldn’t source a crookneck, I substituted butternut and followed the instructions for stewing the large part containing the seeds. Randolph notes the squash is “excellent when stewed with pork chops,” however, I noticed no change in flavor from adding the meat.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 110.
Adapted by RA Snell
½ winter crooked neck or butternut squash
1 – ½ bone-in pork chop
1 tablespoon butter
salt & pepper, to taste
1. Peel and cube your squash. Save half for another time in the freezer or double the recipe to use an entire squash.
2. Place the squash in a saucepan with the pork chop. Add water to cover and simmer until squash is soft, about 25 minutes.
3. Remove pork chop (remove the bone and this would be an excellent treat for your dog!) and drain the squash. Mash thoroughly or run through a food mill.
4. Return the squash to the pot and add the butter, salt, and pepper. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is cooked away. Take care that the squash does not burn.
As with Sweet Potato Pudding, Pumpkin Pudding provides a sense of the evolution of Thanksgiving classics Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Pie from English baked puddings. As I’ve argued before, a more accurate expression for something quintessentially American would be “as American as pumpkin or sweet potato” pie rather than apple. Despite its prominent place in American food culture, there is very little uniquely “American” about apple pie. The popular dessert relies upon the English cookery technique of baking a filling between two crusts as a means of preserving food for a short time. While the sugar is New World, the other ingredients and the means of combining them are traditionally Old World: apples, lemon, and various combinations of spices. The 1852 edition of Sarah J. Hale’s The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery included two recipes for apple pie, one marked as English and the other as American. The two versions are, unsurprisingly, remarkably similar. Differences emerge on the next page, where Hale provides two recipes for pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin pie possibly emerged from early American cooks making do with the ingredients available to them. Since pumpkins have a similar consistency to apples, some food historians have suggested cooks substituted them in traditional apple dishes. In Hale’s cookbook, the English version is reminiscent of the earliest versions of pumpkin pie composed of sweetened and flavored pumpkin baked in a single pie shell. The American version is closer to the item that traditionally graces the Thanksgiving dessert table, a pumpkin custard flavored with molasses, cinnamon, and ginger. In The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping, Catherine Parr Traill discussed the differences between English and North American versions of pumpkin pie, “Now I must tell you, that an English pumpkin-pie, and a Canadian one, are very differently made, and I must give preference, most decidedly, to the American dish; which is something between a custard and a cheese-cake in taste and appearance.”
The pumpkin pie described by Traill was not merely the adaptation of American ingredients to an English dish. It also benefited from the culinary melting pot that brought together numerous world cuisines in North American kitchens. The waves of immigrants of the nineteenth century brought new culinary influences to the United States, and recipes reflected these increasingly multinational influences. The influence of German and French immigrants transformed North American pie making from a pragmatic means of food preservation to the decadent desserts enjoyed today. These immigrants revolutionized pie fillings with their use of spices, sweeteners, and native ingredients to create fillings of fruit, preserves, and custards. French practices notably transformed the dense suet and flour crust of English pies by introducing butter into piecrusts. The pumpkin pie, featuring a New World crop, prized by Native cultures, prepared in an Old World manner influenced by several national cuisines, makes a better candidate for an iconic North American dessert. Further, the inclusion of exotic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and mace in the filling connects pumpkin pie to the commonly recognized discovery of the Americas, the abortive search for a western route to the East Indies.
Food and cultural identity are inextricably linked. We are not only what we eat, but how, where, when, and why we eat it. In creating national culture, as many scholars have argued, cookbooks play an essential role in transforming regionalized cuisines and peoples into a unified whole. These texts, compilations of practical receipts, special occasion cooking, and housekeeping advice, “are an expression of the values and aspirations of the people who produced them.” What appears on your Thanksgiving table says a great deal about your family’s identity. As the ongoing pandemic forces us to gather in smaller groups this year, many find ourselves preparing the Thanksgiving feast solo for the first time. While the task of preparing family favorites like mom or grandma is a daunting one, this is also a priceless opportunity to record those recipes and a reminder of all we have to be thankful for this year.
Randolph’s Pumpkin Pudding is a close cousin to present-day recipes. While I prefer brown sugar or molasses in pumpkin pie, granulated white sugar preserves the color of the pumpkin – in my case a deep yellow. The ginger and nutmeg complement the pumpkin flavor but I did miss the usual cinnamon and cloves. Slightly less milk than current recipes results in a texture that preserves the texture of the pumpkin puree (as a opposed to a present-day pumpkin pie that has a more custardy texture). My son gobbled it up and my husband reported he liked it better than my usual recipe.
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 127.
Adapted by RA Snell
1 pie pumpkin (can substitute one can of pureed pumpkin, skip to step 3)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon brandy, optional
2 large eggs, beaten
Pastry for one 9-inch one crust pie
1. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out seeds, and peel. Slice the pumpkin into equal sized pieces and place in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover the pumpkin and boil gently, stirring occasionally, for 1.5-2 hours until the water is cooked off and the pumpkin is fully cooked. For the last thirty minutes, be sure to keep a close eye on the pumpkin and stir more frequently to prevent burning.
2. Run the cooked pumpkin through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor. Place the pureed pumpkin in a fine mesh strainer and allow the liquid to drain for about thirty minutes or until the pumpkin is sufficiently dry (it should resemble canned pumpkin).
3. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and prepare the pastry and place in a 9
4. Add the remaining ingredients except for the eggs. Taste the mixture to ensure it is sweetened and spiced to your taste. Mix in the eggs.
5. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the prepared pie shell. If desired, decorate with strips of twisted pastry across the top.
6. Bake 30-35 minutes until the pumpkin mixture is set and the crust is golden brown.
 Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 17; Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 23.
 Catharine Parr Traill, The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (Toronto: MacLear and Co., 1854), 127-8.
 Pat Willard, “Pies and Tarts” in Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 272-3; Carroll, Three Squares, 43.
 Arjun Appadurai, “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1988): 5; James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating Habits: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 8-9; Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 278.
 Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), xxix.
Last week’s recipe for Baked Apple Pudding provides a sense of the evolution of American favorites pumpkin and sweet potato pie. These dishes, frequently enjoyed at Thanksgiving, combine New World ingredients with Old World culinary techniques. Food historians theorize pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie developed when innovative cooks used these ingredients in dishes that typically relied on apples or root vegetables. Pie, defined as a sweet or savory filling encased between pastry, descended from an English cookery practice of baking a filling between two crusts to preserve it for a short time. Also called coffins, these somewhat edible storage containers were a dense combination of suet or lard and flour. Over time, influences from other cuisines transformed pastry into the flaky encasement we enjoy today. Randolph generally uses the term “pudding” in her recipes (except for an apple pie recipe). Still, we would define her dishes as pies today.
There is considerable regional variation in the flavors of pie enjoyed by Americans. Of the many divides between North and South is a preference for pumpkin or sweet potato pie. While both groups appreciate pumpkin pie (Randolph includes a recipe for Pumpkin Pudding), sweet potato is a rare ingredient in northern cookbooks. Sweet potatoes, native to Central and South America, were among the first New World crops embraced in Europe. One reason for the enthusiasm was the purported aphrodisiac qualities of the tuber. Sweet potatoes were grown commercially in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia beginning in the mid-1600s. Sweet potatoes appeared on the tables of white southerners in various forms; Randolph includes recipes for broiled, stewed, boiled sweet potatoes. However, they were also a vital source of nutrition for enslaved black Americans. The tuber was a typical food and frequently appeared on the tables of the less well-off in the south. The vegetable was a luxury item in the North before 1830. With just a few decades to become a part of northern diets before the establishment of the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s unsurprising the more familiar (and more easily grown) flavors of apple, pumpkin, and squash dominated the dessert table for northerners.
The similarities between Randolph’s Baked Apple Pudding and Sweet Potato Pudding suggest how the tuber was incorporated into Anglo-Southern diets. The recipes are nearly identical. The most significant differences are the pureed sweet potatoes in place of the pureed apples and the addition of a spice, nutmeg. The sweet potato-based pudding also includes more sugar than the apple. In addition to apple pudding, British cuisine imported to North America with the colonists included a variety of root vegetable puddings. Cooks produced these dishes by boiling and mashing the vegetable, mixing it with butter, eggs, sugar, and spices, and baking in an open-faced pie shell. Before the introduction of New World ingredients, English cooks prepared parsnips, carrots, and other root vegetables this way. One interpretation is that lacking apples and familiar with root vegetable puddings cooks substituted sweet potatoes in the recipe and liked the results enough to adapt the seasoning to highlight the tuber’s sweet flavor. Further experimentation produced satisfactory results with pumpkins and sweet potatoes. However, Randolph notes in a postscript to the recipe, “Irish potato pudding is made in the same manner, but is not so good.”
An alternative explanation for the origins of sweet potato pie focuses on the similarities between yams and sweet potatoes. Yams, often mistaken for the sweet potato and vice-versa, are an edible, starchy tuber native to Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Oceania. Enslaved cooks, familiar with yams from African culinary traditions, may have incorporated sweet potatoes into dishes requested for the master’s table. When cooking for themselves and their families, the sweet potato could serve as a stand-in for the unavailable tropical yam. Adrian Miller, James Beard award-winning author, chronicles the history of the sweet potato and other soul food staples in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Miller argues the earliest desserts enjoyed by enslaved people were
Roasted sweet potatoes cooked in the embers of the fire or they started eating mashed up sweet potatoes that were spiced. As [they] got access to cooking technology and equipment, like ovens, that’s when they started to add pie shells.
From these simple origins, sweet potato pie became an essential part of soul food cuisine. From its roots as a mixing pot of American, European, African, and even Asian (source of the nutmeg) culinary techniques and ingredients, the sweet potato pie is a fixture in southern cuisine. With a New England background stretching back generations, I had never sampled sweet potato pie. Although my partner has Southern roots, his dislike of sweet potatoes prevented him from ever digging into a slice. Through preparing Randolph’s recipe, we both discovered sweet potato pie is delicious! My partner even asserted a preference for sweet potato over pumpkin pie (sacrilege!). While I still prefer pumpkin, we’re looking forward to adding a sweet potato pie to our Thanksgiving dessert table this year.
Sweet Potato Pudding
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 120-1.
Adapted by RA Snell
1 lb sweet potatoes
¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon lemon zest
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon brandy, optional
1. Peel and cube sweet potatoes into roughly equal pieces. Boil until tender.
2. While hot, pass the sweet potatoes through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor.
3. Add sugar, butter, nutmeg, lemon zest, and brandy. This is a good moment to taste the puree and make any adjustments to the seasoning.
4. Cover a 9-inch pie plate with a crust. While preparing the pie crust, allow the apple mixture to cool and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
5. Add the beaten eggs to the sweet potato mixture and mix well. Pour into the prepared pie crust.
6. Bake 45 minutes. I recommend covering your pie with aluminum foil for the first thirty minutes of baking to prevent burning your pastry.
Serve warm or cold. Whipped cream is an excellent addition!
Note: a can of sweet potatoes may be substituted for the whole sweet potatoes. Skip to step 2 and be sure to have about two cups of pureed sweet potatoes before moving on with the recipe.
 Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 17; Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 23.
Boiled carrots, a side dish so uncomplicated, few would consult a recipe to prepare them. Mary Randolph’s recipe for cooking carrots draws into question her prowess as a cook. Further, it reveals who likely did most of the cooking at her renowned boarding house. The recipe also shows how Randolph viewed her recipes and her editorial process.
Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife, first published in 1824, was republished at least nineteen times before 1861. The rate of new editions is a testament to the popularity of Randolph’s work. Changes between editions and Randolph’s descriptions of her work suggest how the recipes were compiled. In the preface to the 1824 edition, Randolph declared, “the greater part of the following recipes have been written from memory, where they were impressed from long continued practice.” This statement infers that Randolph herself did not keep a collection of written recipes to reference as she prepared The Virginia House-wife. Rather, she wrote the recipes from memory. Writing from memory could explain the imperfections in the text. Randolph recognized the flaws in her work. In March 1825, she wrote to James Madison:
“I did not offer you a copy of the first edition of my cookery book because it was exceedingly defective. The second is more correct and I have the pleasure of asking you to accept one.”
Her instructions to boil carrots in the 1824 first edition are curious. Much of the method for cooking carrots relies on the preceding recipe for parsnips. In this recipe, Randolph reveals boiling as the cooking method. In the carrot recipe, she focuses on preparing the carrots to be cooked and instructs on the reader on checking the vegetables for doneness. She writes, “let [the carrots] be well washed and brushed, but not scrapped.” Once cooked, she commands the reader to “rub off the peels with a clean coarse cloth.” Reading Randolph’s directions raised an eyebrow, but I gamely followed along, boiling my carrots without removing the outer layer. I simmered the carrots until tender, strained them, and rubbed them with a clean cloth. The results confirmed my suspicions that this was a terrible method for preparing carrots.
First, the hot carrots were difficult to handle. Second, the peels did not easily remove. Hard rubbing broke or squished the carrots. At the same time, soft rubbing did not remove the outer layer. A bowl of lukewarm carrots with the peels mainly intact appeared on the table. I simply did not have the time or patience to fiddle with rubbing more peel of hot carrots. Bemused, I consulted the 1838 edition. These instructions could not be correct; would Randolph correct them in later editions? I discovered in the 1838 edition revised instructions: “let [the carrots] be well washed and scrapped.”
Why would Randolph include such strange instructions for cooking carrots in her cookbook? Even if writing from memory, the instructions are too specific to be accidental. Surely anyone who attempted to rub the peels of hot boiled carrots will realize the folly of their ways? My theory is that Randolph did not cook many carrots. In fact, she likely did little cooking despite her reputation as the best cook in Virginia. She may have produced showpiece dishes like cakes and puddings. She may also have made recipes that used rare or expensive ingredients like preserves. Who did the everyday cooking in Randolph’s home, you ask?
Enslaved persons, likely women, cooked, cleaned, and performed other duties related to maintaining the home. Randolph, as the mistress, managed and oversaw their labor. In 1810, two years after the advertisement for her boarding house ran in The Richmond Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser, the Census listed Mary Randolph (husband David was in England at the time) as the head of a household that included a total of twenty-six people – twelve of whom were enslaved.
Celebrations of Randolph’s work focus on the melding of Native American, African, and European cuisines displayed in her recipes. However, we must also recognize a long history of white women appropriating black women’s labor and expertise in the domestic and public realms. Randolph’s cookbook is part of this history. Like other southern cookbooks, The Virginia House-wife “give[s] instructions on how to cook, but [it] also expose[s] this more complicated history of conflict and culinary adaptation.”
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 103.
Adapted by RA Snell
1 lb carrots
Butter, salt, and pepper, to taste
1. Wash and peel the carrots. While Randolph boiled her carrots whole, cutting the carrots into roughly equal sizes will accelerate the cooking process.
2. Place the carrots in boiling water. Reduce the heat and simmer until tender. The amount of time will depend on the size of your carrots and, as Randolph notes, whether they are young or fully grown. Test for doneness by “thrusting a fork into them while they are in the water; when this goes easily through, they are done enough.”
3. Season to your taste with butter, salt, and pepper.
Yield: four servings
 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), x.
 Christopher Farrish, “Food in the Antebellum South and the Confederacy,” in Helen Zoe Veit, Food in the Civil War (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 1.
 Mrs. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, (Baltimore: Plaskitt & Cugle, 1838), 102.
Beth A. Latshaw, “The Soul of the South: Race, Food, and Identity in the American South” in John T. Edge, Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt, and Ted Ownby, eds., The Larder: Food Studies Methods in the American South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013).
Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (New York: Harper Collins, 2017).
Katharina Vester, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).
Andrew Warnes, “‘Talking’ Recipes: What Mrs. Fisher Knows and the African –American Cookbook Tradition” in Janet Floyd and Laurel Forster, eds., The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 52-71.
Mary Randolph included a handful of recipes for pickling in The Virginia House-wife. While sugar fulfilled an essential function to prevent spoiling and extend the shelf life of foods in the form of jams, jellies, and whole fruit preserves, vinegar also performed a critical role in the fight against food spoilage. Pickling in vinegar was the preferred method for preserving vegetables until the invention of safe and reliable canning methods. Vinegar pickles allowed for the preservation of vegetables unsuitable for drying or cold storage, such as green beans, asparagus, and cucumbers. Peaches, apples, plums, oysters, mussels, and clams were also preserved as pickles. Kept in a cool place in earthenware jars and crocks, pickled food preserved foods from one season to the next. Sealing options were limited. Until the invention of home canning equipment, beginning with the patenting of the screw-on zinc lid in 1858, home preserving was limited by unreliable methods to seal preserved food from bacteria. Prior to 1858, sealing methods were imperfect with domestic advisors recommending queensware pots or glass jars or tumblers covered with tissue paper, writing paper dipped in brandy, or oiled paper. Pickles could be kept by keeping the food submerged in the pickling liquid. With these imperfect methods, the housewife had to be constantly vigilant for signs of decay amongst the family’s food stores. Lydia Maria Child advised her readers to regularly, “examine preserves, to see that they are not contracting mold; and your pickles, to see that they are not growing soft and tasteless.”
For rural women, especially those growing their own food, preservation was essential. Living in an urban area, food preservation likely was not among Randolph’s chief domestic concerns. Her pickle recipes make evident that Randolph pickled for flavor or substitutes for hard to find items. Among the small number of pickle recipes are cucumber pickles and a couple of relishes, accompaniments to meat dishes in an era before ketchup. Randolph’s recipes for Oil Mangos and To Make the Stuffing for Forty Mellons were popular substitutes for mango in early American cookery. Another popular substitute was pickled green peaches. British Cookbook author Dr. William Kitchener opined these were “the best imitation of the Indian mango.” Pickled nasturtium served as a stand-in for capers.
This is not a quick-pickle recipe. Randolph’s recipe includes a two-week brine for the onions, a step that draws moisture out of the onions and softens them. This step allows the onions to fully absorb the vinegar and be preserved (or pickled) all the way through. Most modern recipes for pickled onions are a two-day process. One day for brining and pickling on the second day.
Randolph’s pickled onions, simply flavored with a small amount of turmeric, were crunchy with a sharp bite from the onion and vinegar. Her instructions advise, “with a little turmeric. If the vinegar is not very pale, the onion will not be a good color.” Presumably, the tiny amount of spice is to preserve the onions’ color rather than dye them yellow with too much turmeric. I may have erred on the side of too much turmeric, as the onions were slightly yellow on the outsides even though the vinegar they steeped in was a very pale yellow. Nevertheless, the turmeric flavor was imperceptible. I thinly sliced the onions and enjoyed them on a burger. They could also be chopped and used as a taco or hotdog topping. Randolph likely served them alongside roasted meats.
To Pickle Onions
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 167.
Adapted by RA Snell
2-3 medium white onions (enough to fit in a 1 quart wide-mouthed mason jar)
4 cups white vinegar
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
Brine (Note: the brine is prepared four times for the recipe.)
4 cups water
4 tablespoons salt
1. Wash your onions and cut the stem close to the root (onions purchased from the grocery store are usually already trimmed). Place the onions in the jar.
2. Prepare the brine: bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Once boiling, add the 4 tablespoons of salt. Stir and boil until the salt is dissolved.
3. Pour the brine into the jar with the onions, ensure all the onions are covered by the brine.
4. Allow the onions to stand for two weeks. During this time, shake the jar daily to ensure all the onions are brining evenly. Every three days, change the brine.
5. After two weeks, remove the skin and outer shell from each onion. Place the onions in a new jar and add 4 cups white vinegar and 1/8 teaspoon turmeric. Shake well and leave the jar in a cool, dry place for at least two weeks.
6. Thinly slice the onions and enjoy!
 Mrs. (Lydia Maria) Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel S. & William Wood, 1838), 8.
 William Kitchener, M.D., The Cook’s Oracle; And Housekeeper’s Manual (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1830), 404.
Randolph’s recipes provide a sense of vegetable preparation in the Early National South. As a general rule, vegetables played a supporting role to a meat-centered main dish. In most recipes, vegetables were boiled and served with butter, salt, and pepper. While Randolph relies heavily on boiling for her vegetable recipes, she includes several variations.
Squash, like tomatoes, were relative newcomers to the diets of European colonists and their descendants. The name derives from the Algonquian word askut asquash, meaning eaten green or unripe. Introduced to the so-called Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans) by their Native neighbors, colonists quickly adopted these reliable crops that could be used in European-style dishes. Squashes lent themselves to English puddings, pies, and simply baking or boiling. The squash family includes summer and winter varieties. Summer squashes are picked at an earlier stage while the seeds and skin are edible. Winter squashes have tougher skin and require peeling and seed removal before cooking. The thick skins of winter squashes provide a long shelf life when stored in a cool, dry place, making them a staple vegetable for long winters.
Randolph’s recipe uses the southern term for pattypan squash. The name of this summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) derives from its scalloped appearance and varies by region. Randolph spells it “cimlin,” but simlin, symbling, and cymling are common spelling variations. Robert Beverly, a historian of early Virginia, wrote, “They are sometimes call’d Cymnels . . . from the Lenten Cake of that name, which many of them very much resemble.” Beverly refers to Simnel Cake, a light fruit cake layered with marzipan and capped with a circle of marzipan eggs or crenelated decoration, traditionally served on the fourth Sunday in Lent in Great Britain, Ireland, and other European countries. The cake has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years thanks to a technical challenge on The Great British Bake Off.
The persistence in names for this squash, pattypan in the northern United States and cymling in the southern, is a legacy of the earliest colonists’ religious affiliations. In New England, the first colonists to encounter squash and adopt the vegetable into their foodways were Pilgrims and Puritans, members of separatist faiths who eschewed the Anglican tradition’s pomp and circumstance. These colonists consequently named the squash for its resemblance to a pan for baking a patty. In the southern colonies, first populated by Anglican and Catholic colonists, a cake connected to a Lenten celebration inspired the squash’s name.
Randolph’s recipe for summer squash follows Beverley’s recommendation for preparing the vegetable in The History and Present State of Virginia. Beverley advised,
These being boil’d whole, when the Apple is young, and the Shell tender, and dished with Cream or Butter, relish very well with all sorts of Butcher’s Meat, either fresh or salt.
Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (London: R. Parker, 1705), 27.
Randolph elevates the dish by pureeing the squash by passing it through a colander before cooking it with the cream and butter. Randolph describes this preparation as “the most delicate way of preparing squashes.” Since the butter and cream mask the subtle flavor of summer squash, if you’re overrun with squashes and absolutely tired of them but compelled to eat as many as possible, this recipe could be a welcome change in flavor and texture.
Squash or Cimlin
Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 110.
Adapted by RA Snell
2 medium summer squashes
4 tablespoons cream
1/2 tablespoon butter
salt & pepper
1. Peel your squashes, cut them in half, and remove the seeds. Cut into smaller pieces, roughly uniform in size.
2. Boil until tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the squash well allowing the squash to sit in the colander for 5-10 minutes to drain all the liquid.
3. Run through a food mill on the medium texture grinding disc.
4. Place the squash puree in a small pan with the cream and butter. Cook over medium heat until the liquid has cooked off and the puree is, as Randolph describes it, “dry.”
5. Season with salt and pepper.
Yield: ~ ½ cup (a dismally sad amount)
Randolph describes her recipe as “the most delicate way of preparing squashes,” but I’m skeptical squashes were regularly prepared in this manner. First, my two medium squashes yielded a parsimonious ½ cup of squash. Squash are abundant in the summer months, but it would still require a large number of squash to feed an average sized family for the early nineteenth-century, even as a side dish. Secondly, the method is labor intensive. Before I pulled out the food mill, I attempted Randolph’s method of rubbing the squash through a colander with a spoon – it was difficult bordering on impossible. Too much work for too little result, in my opinion.
I’ve used straight neck squash for this recipe as that is what I had available. This recipe will work with any summer squash. When using a thin-skinned squash like straight neck or zucchini, peeling is unnecessary.