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.
Anna Hinds, “How to Pickle Onions,” Storing and Freezing, (accessed 23 September 2020), http://www.storingandfreezing.co.uk/how-pickle-onions.html.
Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 120.
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), 206-7.
Sue Shephard, Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).