Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife and the “Other” American Revolution

“Mrs. David Meade Randolph” by Saint-Mémin, Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de, 1770-1852, artist – Library of Congress

The first regional cookbook in America was Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife. Published in 1824, the book is an absolute marvel and a monument to one of history’s great cooks. I think of it as the first truly American cook book. Mrs. Randolph was married to David Meade Randolph.  “Davies,” as he was called, grew up at Curles Plantation, and I have no doubt he was nourished on foods and medicines prepared in the Curles kitchen from recipes like those from a manuscript known as Jane Randolph Her Book–a typical 18th-century plantation woman’s recipe book begun by Davies’ grandmother. 

Mary was born into the highly privileged Cary-Randolph clan, among the wealthiest 1% of the colony, in the mid-18th century, but she was also a child of the Enlightenment and of the tumultuous changes of the revolutionary period. The Early Republic world of David and Mary Randolph lay cleanly on the other side of Revolution and Enlightenment, and in many ways, it represents what I like to call “The Other Revolution.” This other revolution was economic, in that economic power rapidly changed from the planter elite to merchants and industrial capitalists. It was geographic, in that the focus of culture and power moved from the rural seats of a few privileged families to the urban milieu of the new world of business. It was cultural in that urban values quickly supplanted rural ones, and revolutionary ideas of equality and liberty came to be applied–at least for a few decades–to woman and even in some cases to slaves. Many more woman left the inner sanctum of domesticity and entered into the public domain, becoming economic and political forces of some substance. Many black slaves were manumitted in the heady days following the Revolution, and the rising middle class and huge influx of immigrants transformed American culture almost overnight. Mary’s and David’s lives were very different from those of their grandparents’ generation, and Mary’s cookbook is not merely a 19th-century published version of a Colonial receipt book.

Mary and David lived for many years at Presquile Plantation in what appears to have been a kind of tranquil gentility following the Revolution. Her husband was her first cousin. Cousin marriage was the typical pattern of the Randolphs and other ruling families of 18th-c Virginia, because by marrying within the clan, the vast resources of land and slaves were not scattered to heirs of diverse lineages. David was a son of the second Richard Randolph of Curles. Richard purchased the Presquile tract, built a small but elegant Georgian manor house here, and presented it to his son and daughter-in-law upon their marriage. The Battle of Yorktown had not yet been fought and Benedict Arnold was soon to encamp at Bermuda Hundred, but plantation life went on as it had for a century.

The planter elite had some competition from merchants—especially Scots and Scotch-Irish merchants. While planters attracted merchant ships and consumers to their plantation wharves, the merchants competed for the trade in cities such as Richmond and Petersburg and in regional river market towns like Bermuda Hundred. The Randolph’s chief competitor here was Jonathon Hylton, and, subsequently, his son Daniel. Archaeological evidence from their home indicated that they vied not only for a larger share of the marketing business, dominated by the Randolphs in this area, but also for their share of the planters’ cultural prestige.

David Meade Randolph, like his cousin Jefferson, was highly influenced by ideas of the Enlightenment. He was an inventor, a scientist of sorts, and an entrepreneur in various industrial enterprises. He invested heavily in the cities. He took on a partnership with one of the top Scots merchants in Richmond–David Ross–to start a major flour-milling industry.  He was not content to sit on his farm as a patron of his bucolic rural dominion, because he apparently could see that there was an economic and cultural revolution in the air as well as a political one. Evidence suggests that his relationship with his wife, Mary–known to her friends and family as “Molly”–was much more one of equals than was the tradition. Davies enjoyed a reputation here at Presquile as a scientifically-minded experimenter. He was even called the “best farmer” in the land. But Molly was not simply the household manager. It appears her influence extended into the business, if not the science, of farming at Presquile.  

Historian Rhys Isaac has done an especially good job of describing the relations of debt that seem to have knit together Virginia society in the 18th century. The planters remained hugely indebted to their merchant factors in England and Scotland, while local middling and small planters remained perpetually indebted to the great planters like the Randolphs. These debts were never fully repaid, but, rather, it was the indebtedness that caused small farmers to be obligated to great planters, and the planters, in turn, to be obligated to their British factors.

The Revolutionary War was largely financed by the great Virginia planters, and one of the worries of the other colonies was that, in the new republic, these rich Virginians would have entirely too much power. And so it was that Benjamin Franklin and other delegates to the Treaty of Paris in 1783 permitted the defeated British to legally call in all debts against Virginia planters. These debts were enormous, and the crippling effect on the ensconced planter elite was devastating. In those days, debts passed from father to son and grandson. Among the most heavily indebted of the planters was Richard Randolph of Curles. Those debts caused many of the Randolph plantations to be laid upon the auction block–including Presquile.

Just prior to the turn of the 19th century, Davies and Molly left their plantation, never to return to that life. Instead they took up life in the rapidly growing urban center of Richmond. They built a fine house in the heart of the city and named it “Moldavia” after their nicknames. Davies earned income not only from his various enterprises, but also from his political office of US Marshall. However, with the end of Federalist domination in Washington, and the election of Jefferson, Davies lost his post. The continuing drain of his father’s pre-war debt left David Meade Randolph all but impoverished. Taking advantage of the newly liberal atmosphere, Mary Randolph had created a Boarding House at Moldavia as soon as they had arrived in Richmond. While Davies fortunes sank, hers rose, and they rose largely on her management skills and her reputation as an ingenious cook. Molly’s reputation spread, and society soon came to dine at her boarding house. Her business, it appears, kept the Randolphs in the center of Richmond’s elite circle. There is an apocryphal story that when the slave Gabriel fomented his plot for a massive slave revolt in Richmond in 1800, that he ordered all whites in the city killed except Mary Randolph. She was to be spared if she would agree to be his wife and queen in a new regime. 

Was Mary Randolph’s influence and success simply a result of some elusive qualities, like “feminine charm” and “grace”. I don’t think so. I believe that Mary was as much a product of the Enlightenment period as was her husband. That period was dedicated to the idea that humanity was central, that the application of effort and systematic inquiry would yield knowledge, and knowledge would yield success in all human ventures. This was the age of the dawn of modern science and modern business alike. Let me read from Mary Randolph’s preface to her book, The Virginia Housewife.

The difficulties I encountered when I first entered on the duties of a House-Keeping life, from the want of books sufficiently clear and concise, to impart knowledge to a Tyro, compelled me to study the subject, and by actual experiment, to reduce every thing, in the culinary line, to proper weights and measures…The government of a family bears a Liliputian resemblance to the government of a nation. The contents of the treasury must be known…A regular system must be introduced into each department…The grand arcanum of management lies in three simple rules: “Let every thing be done at the proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use.”

On the title page of her fine cook book, Mary Randolph had the publisher print an aphorism: “Method is the Soul of Management.” Mrs. Randolph’s preface stresses the notion that method and management are the sole of housewifery, a surprisingly modern concept expressed in language that almost presages the “scientific” cooking school that came to dominate American cookery at the end of the 19th century. But Mrs. Randolph’s rationalism is not a product of late modernity, of industrialism, but of its dawning in the Enlightenment. Enlightenment values permeate Mary Randolph’s Virginia Housewife in the subtleties of careful measurements which, the author assures us, she has refined through continual experimentation. This notion of rational order and method as the proper pathway to success in any complex enterprise is very much the same notion that led to so many political, scientific and entrepreneurial successes in the late 18th- and early 19th-century period. Remember, Mary Randolph had many years of experience helping to manage a large commercial farm, staffed by slave labor. She then ran a highly successful boarding house and restaurant, not only enabling her to maintain her household against the loss of her husband’s estate, but also against the loss of her husband, for she outlived Davies by many years. Eventually she remarried–her new husband was George Washington Parke Custis. Mary left Richmond and moved to live with Custis at his home, Arlington, in Washington, D.C. There I suspect she became familiar with another cookery manuscript well known to Virginia’s culinary historians. It is often called the Martha Washington cookbook or something similar and is associated with the Custis family. 

It is to the benefit of all succeeding generations that she decided to commit her own recipes and some cookery notes to a publication. Her book The Virginia Housewife was published in 1824, when Mary was 70 years old. It contains many recipes virtually unchanged from the traditional English cookery represented in the Curles manuscript and in the Martha Washington book. But it also contains much, much more.  Here we find many recipes that are purely American, based on American ingredients and prepared in ways that indicate centuries of creolized cultural practices. Her ingredients include corn, hominy, rice, squashes, chili peppers, and other staples of southern cooking. Recipes for johnny cakes, buckwheat cakes, cornbread and other commonplaces of our culture stand alongside the most sumptuously spiced creations tinged with European, East Indian, and Caribbean flavors and techniques. The Virginia Housewife reveals the unique touches of a talented and creative cook. This individual genius comes through loud and clear and proclaims a very different era in cookery books. No longer are ancient “receipts” faithfully copied for the transmission of a cultural model that stretches back to the Medieval period. Here, instead, is a combination of brand-new creations with the old, tried-and-true ways transformed through an individual vision. And the old includes not only the academic, accepted “English” heritage, but the folk or country creole recipes passed through oral, living tradition rather than through meticulously copied canonical texts. It is easy to detect the strong influences of Native America and African America in Mary Randolph’s world.

Mary Randolph was no housewife. Certainly not in the traditional sense conveyed, for instance, in Richard Bradley’s The Country Housewife published a century before Mary Randolph’s book. Mary did not raise a family, and despite her plantation upbringing and the bucolic beginnings of her married life to Virginia’s “best farmer” –and I have little doubt that her management skills and creative efforts lent much to the success of that farm–she eschewed the role of home-maker. While working within the realm of the “domestic,” it is clear that Mary Randolph’s activities, like those of her husband, were primarily entrepreneurial. There is no hint in the meager documents of her life that she simply wielded her skills at cookery and hospitality to hold onto the fading glories of elite society; rather, she seems a person engaged, like a great many others of her age, in the New Republic, in finding a way to turn her individual skills and efforts into a comfortable living. No longer content with the pre-ordained quarter of life carved out in the traditional plantation-culture landscape, Mary Randolph embraced both the Enlightenment and the Revolution and promises of individual accomplishment. 

Mary Randolph’s is the oldest known grave at Arlington Cemetery. She died four years after the appearance of the first edition of The Virginia Housewife. Her epitaph tells us: “her intrinsic worth needs no eulogium.”  Her book has been republished dozens of times. There are untold numbers of completely pirated editions put out under other names. The Virginia Housewife has never gone out of print, nor, in my mind, should it. I have cooked recipes from the book, and I can vouch that Mary Randolph was a genius at cookery, but she was more than that. Along with others in the urban society of post-Revolutionary Richmond, she embraced the liberty and pride of her American, creole heritage, and the place her new country’s status made for her in a world order of nations tied by diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange. Born a colonial, Mary Randolph lived to help create, and enjoy, her own liberty, and that is what characterizes best the “Other Revolution.”

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