Food History

What Two 200-Year-Old Books Can Teach Us About Southern Cuisine

January 18, 2017

A descendant of Pocahontas and cousin of Thomas Jefferson, Mary Randolph was 62 years old when she wrote The Virginia Housewife in 1824. Randolph was an American aristocrat, raised in the Virginia town of Richmond. It’s a book of gazpachos and curries of catfish, gumbos and barbecued shoat, ice creams of quince and black walnut.

This motley of recipes has come to be representative of Southern cuisine, in all its intricacies and thorniness. Food historian Karen Hess once called The Virginia Housewife the 19th century’s most influential American cookbook. In spite of its vast import and many facsimiles produced through the centuries, the book remains little-known to the larger American public.

In many ways, it augured the development of Southern culinary literature that would blossom during the Civil War, resulting in such books as 1885’s The Unrivaled Cookbook and Housekeeper's Guide, a cookbook authored by a fictional "Mrs. Washington" that offers a similar cabal of dishes that are uniquely, utterly Virginian.

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These two books will form the basis of the first installment of a monthly event series, put on by the Manhattan-based restaurant Root and Bone, exploring the origins of Southern cooking. Each night consists of a rich menu based on an entry from the canon of Southern cooking literature. The first night, for example, features a mock turtle soup, browned hominy, and huckleberry pie.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Root and Bone’s General Manager, David Olson, who conceived of this series. My impression was that these books have been—for whatever reason, and undeservedly—lost to history. I wanted to know what brought him back to them, and why he wanted others to experience their pleasures. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of what Olson told me.

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Top Comment:
“Mary Randolph is my 5x great grandmother and my great grandmother, Emily Randolph, gave me this book years ago. I recently relocated to NYC from Virginia so hopefully I'll make it to Root and Bone. ”
— Sara

I am a North Carolinian by birth with close family ties to South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. I was visiting my godmother's home in South Carolina a short time ago and was looking through her collection of cookbooks, many of which were written by home cooks and ladies church auxiliary clubs. They were a rich and varied resource of what actual Southern families were cooking for themselves, and I was surprised at the variety, and sophistication of many of the recipes. From there I went on a search to find the oldest of these cookbooks and stumbled upon the "Housewife" collection of cookbooks—The Carolina Housewife, The Kentucky Housewife, and The Virginia Housewife—all published in the early-to-mid-1800s.

The first book I cooked from, The Virginia Housewife, is an excellent resource of early 1800s cooking, regarded as one of the first truly American cookbooks. Mary Randolph was a celebrated host in her time. Her recipes are a snapshot of trends, techniques, and resources from that time period. She was active from about 1790 to the mid-1800s.

The other, The Unrivaled Cookbook, is an excellent bookend to the Virginia Housewife; written after the Civil War, it paints a picture of the culinary world during Reconstruction and the new influences that brought with it. Both books are written more as general guides to run a household and include recipes for paint, perfume, soap and other necessities. Neither book is widely read today by anyone other than food geeks and chefs, but they are a fascinating resource and show that culinary experimentation is nothing new, and that the range of ingredients in the early 19th century was varied and complex. There are recipes in both books for ingredients like salsify and sunchokes. 

When adapting recipes from the books, our mission was to be as true to the recipes as possible. The only adaptations we have made are to adjust for scale, and modern ovens. The recipes as written can be quite cryptic, and some feel more like riddles than recipes. There was a considerable amount of testing done to figure out the correct proportions.

I think there is a misconception that all Southern food is fried chicken, mac & cheese and collard greens. That it lacks lightness, freshness and variety. That could not be more wrong. Southern food is as varied and influenced as any other cuisine, if not more so. There are influences from French cooking, from the Carribbean, from West Africa, and Spain. These cuisines came to America and became intertwined, inextricably connected to the American South.

It’s a complex and dark history—many recipes were created and perfected by slave cooks in plantation houses—but it mirrors the history of the country itself. I love these books, and their recipes, because they feel like a seance, like a conversation with the past, with its ghosts. They are reminders that food can be more than fuel; that it can be communion, a lesson, and an answer.

Have any favorite Southern cookbooks? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Michael M. February 4, 2017
If you like hard copies of old cookbooks, check out The books are listed alphabetically so you'll need to scroll down the list. The Virginia Housewife and Kentucky Housewife are on the listing.
Harmony M. January 19, 2017
I think it's also worth mentioning The Founders of American Cuisine: Seven cookbook authors with historical recipes and Rufus Estes' Good Things to Eat. The slaves were the real chefs of the South.
Sara January 18, 2017
Thank you for this article! Mary Randolph is my 5x great grandmother and my great grandmother, Emily Randolph, gave me this book years ago. I recently relocated to NYC from Virginia so hopefully I'll make it to Root and Bone.

Mayukh S. January 18, 2017
Oh, wow! That's a crazy connection—and welcome to NYC :)
Sara January 19, 2017
Thanks Mayukh!
AntoniaJames January 18, 2017
The copyright notice in "The Virginia Housewife" is particularly interesting. ;o)
CaffeineSpasms January 18, 2017
Love this article!
AntoniaJames January 18, 2017
If you love the article, you should peruse "The Virginia Housewife" - what a fun, interesting read. I discovered it a few years ago when helping a niece with a school project involving food enjoyed by our ancestors. (My mother's people go back to the early 18th century in the great Commonwealth of Virginia.) The Google books edition (a slightly earlier printing) can be searched! Here is the link:
Many people don't realize how valuable a resource Google books is for wonderful older resources such as this one. ;o)
CaffeineSpasms January 18, 2017
I found something called "The Forme of Cury" the other day, and it was on Google books! I also used in college for my papers (English majors and their dead writers, what can I say). Such a wonderful trove!
Susie W. January 18, 2017
Mrs. Stanley R Dull's Southern Cooking. Her first name was Henrietta, but she was of her time. She provided for her six children and her invalid husband by taking in boarders and by catering. She was a big believer in clean living and lived to 100. She wrote a weekly column for the Atlanta newspaper for many years. She was all about what were then modern innovations - refrigerators, gas/electric stoves/proper food storage. Her recipes are a little difficult to follow - what does "a good hot oven" mean, exactly? All the same, when I make cornbread, I make it as Henrietta did.
CaffeineSpasms January 18, 2017
Yeah, I found something called "The Forme of Cury." It was compiled in 1390 and then later presented to Elizabeth I. And this was on Google Books!
CaffeineSpasms January 18, 2017
Whoops! Wrong comment thread, but I like the sound of your suggested cookbook!
foofaraw January 18, 2017
I almost want to comment "1390? Was it not 1930?" until I saw Elizabeth *I*