Reading “Jane Randolph Her Book.”


To make Alamode Beef

Take a Bullocks heart cut of ye Strings

Skinns & Deaf ears & fat then Stick it

with a Scewer in many Places, then take

an Ounce of Salt petre, with a little Salt

& rub it well in, then Cast on two handful

of Salt then lett it Stand 4 Days, then

Bake it in a Slow oven, then take it

out of the Liquor, then put it up with ye

Same weight of butter & Sewett as the

meat is, with a Nuttmeg & Little Cloves

& mace & half an ounce of Pepper; then

put it into a pot & put it into ye Oven

for half an hour

Jane Randolph Her Book, p.28

Sixty feet down at the southern end of the colonnade from the ice house and the eastern gable of the Curles mansion stood the kitchen. It was 54 feet in length, 22 feet in breadth, a single story with a garret, built of brick and roofed with wood. Though it had been destroyed a century and a quarter earlier, it’s outline was easy to see from the air, from the window of the small Cessna hanging at stall speed with its wings nearly perpendicular to the ground, no more than a hundred feet up. A stain of clay and brick-red dust lying at the edge of the terrace, in front of the site of the 95-foot long mansion, facing the James River. That’s how it appeared in the spring of 1985.

A decade of archaeology at Curles Plantation has taught us that the kitchen began life as a house built by William Randolph sometime after he acquired the tract in 1699 and before his death in 1711. By the time he reached his majority in 1715, Richard Randolph, William’s son, had come to possess Curles Plantation and it was here a few years later that he brought his bride, Jane Bolling Randolph. The house they first lived in is what we have come to call the kitchen, and it became a kitchen shortly after Richard and Jane settled in, for they soon built one of the grandest Georgian plantation houses to stand along the banks of the James.

There are no photographs or paintings of Curles; just a rough plan of some of the main buildings drawn for an insurance policy in 1806. We have identified traces of at least 45 buildings which once stood here. There were many more. All were gone before the Civil War ended. Nearly half a century before Richard and Jane Randolph arrived Curles had already been referred to as “an ancient seat.” The remains of an earlier mansion on the site, built by Thomas Harris about 1635, lay directly beneath the Randolph’s brick kitchen, and Nathaniel Bacon’s brick manor house, built in 1674, had stood just a few feet in front of the spot the kitchen occupied. The Harris house had lasted perhaps 25 years, and Bacon’s no more than 10. But the brick kitchen stood at Curles a century and a half until it was taken apart, brick by brick, by Union soldiers probably during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.


Historical archaeology, we are often reminded, promises an opportunity to give voice to history’s unheard. Before the 19th century very few women were literate. Those who were came mainly from elite or gentry households, and, even so, they have left us very little in the way of diaries, letters or literature. Among the very few written works by women of the Colonial period are a handful of “receipt” books. These contain recipes for culinary and medicinal preparations, and they were frequently passed from mother to daughter over several generations. We are fortunate to have a manuscript–or, rather, a facsimile of a manuscript, for I have had no luck locating the original–of a receipt book from Curles Plantation. It is called Jane Randolph Her Book and it was begun by Jane Bolling Randolph and passed down, apparently, to her daughter, Jane, who married Anthony Walke in 1750. The book then apparently passed to Jane Bolling Randolph’s granddaughter then living at Curles: another Jane who added a few additional entries beginning in 1796. While the earliest entries are those of Jane Bolling Randolph, and date to as early as 1739, the majority of entries appear to be her daughter’s.i

My field school students have excavated the Curles kitchen and much of its environs over the past ten years, and throughout that time I have read and re-read Jane Randolph’s book. I have prepared dishes from some of the recipes. I have tried to identify people who are mentioned in the book–often as sources for recipes–and to determine their relationship with the women who kept the book. I have also combed other cookery manuscripts which were kept in 18th-century Virginia as well as published cookbooks available in Virginia at the time. I was convinced that, somehow, the kitchen and the book belonged together so naturally that the reading of one would interpret the reading of the other. At the bottom of this effort was my hope to say something more of women’s lives at Curles Plantation. Not just those of the plantation mistresses and their daughters, but also the enslaved cooks and their daughters who, after all, actually prepared most of the foods and medicines, dug and tended the gardens, gathered the roots and herbs, and ministered to the sick.ii

The cross reading of site and document, site as text, document as artifact, seems to be one of the most powerful and elegant methods of historical archaeology. At times we find text and material telling much the same story, one virtually illustrating and underscoring the other. Other times we find a friction or dissonance between documents and sites or artifacts, and here, too, lies grist for the interpretive mill. What I found reading cookbooks and digging bricks, bones and rusted lumps of kitchen equipage was two parallel stories: one of the architectural changes to a building and its setting, of emerging patterns of marketing, husbandry, butchering, ceramics preferences, bottle usage, gardening methods, of evolving technologies and aesthetics. The other is a story of continuity through networks, kinship, and traditions which seemed untouched by history. A woman’s world was described in some particular and limited ways through the receipt book, and it seemed that Jane Randolph’s followed a track already well-worn by the late Medieval period. Bringing parallel texts to convergence was the problem.

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. Mrs. Randolph was married to David Meade Randolph, Jane Bolling Randolph’s grandson. David, or Davies as he was called, grew up at Curles, and I have no doubt he was nourished on foods and medicines prepared in the Curles kitchen from receipts like those in Jane Randolph’s book. But Mary’s and David’s lives were very, very different from those of their grandparent’s generation, and Mary’s book is not merely a 19th-century published version of a Colonial receipt book. It was here, then, I found a larger context that goes beyond Jane Randolph’s book kept through three generations to the end of the 18th century and the Curles kitchen and its associated trash pits, middens, drains, garden beds, wells, cisterns, etc. For the Early Republic world of David and Mary Randolph lay cleanly on the other side of Revolution and Enlightenment. Here was a focus, a point of convergence for the collocating or juxtaposing of separate texts which, if we accept Richard Rorty’s view of the matter, is one of the key paths to interpretation.iii


Remedy For the Chollick & Stone 

Take a pint of white wine & make thereoff

a possett then take off the Curd & seeth it

again to Clarifye it then take of Mallow

seeds an ozce Alkalingey berrys an ounce

Philopendula roots an ounce Gallingall roots Do.

beat & Seeth these altogether in a posset

Drink then Strain it & Lett the Patient

Drink it as warme as he can & Lay him

Down to Sweat & within two hourse the

Stone will break & void & he shall be


Jane Randolph Her Book, p. 39

The kitchen was built with foundations two-and-a-half bricks thick laid in English bond buried nearly three feet into the packed clay of the artificially constructed terrace. The foundation sat on a broad spread footing. Just above grade the brickwork changed to Flemish bond, as revealed by mortar patterns from the salvaged brick work. Hundreds of fragments of bricks with glazed headers indicate that the building had the familiar checkerboard look of early 18th-century brick buildings in Virginia. Perhaps the endwalls had been decorated with diaperwork like that which once adorned the chimney of this building’s near-neighbor and contemporary, Malvern Hill Plantation house. The building had been constructed originally with two rooms and a central chimney with small fireboxes facing each room. Sometime later, in the 1720s or 30s, another room had been added to the building, and the central wall had been demolished and rebuilt with an enlarged cooking hearth and bread oven facing the center room. A new firebox was constructed behind the main hearth, on the other side of the crosswall, in order to warm the eastern room. The large western room had been floored in small cobblestones. A perfect rectangle with no paving indicated the location of a boxed-in stair against the south wall leading to the garret quarters above. The eastern room contained a root cellar lying in front of the hearth. In it we found the remains of a large stoneware jar that had once held beer, or vinegar, or meat pickled in brine.

The partially robbed foundation trenches and adjacent middens contained fragmentary remains of kitchen hardware: a bit from a butcher-block plane, chain and dogs from a spit jack, iron hooks, cutlery, trivets, pots, and other pieces still unidentified. Outside the eastern door lay a rich midden with food remains, ceramics, and scattered arms and weights of one or more stillyard balances. Just south of the building we found the filled excavation of an underground cooler or meat house, abandoned in the late 18th century and filled with huge amounts of kitchen refuse. Likewise we found a kitchen well. It too was filled with trash at the same time as the meat house. A barrel cistern had stood at the southeast corner of the building and its overflow was carried by a deep drain to a “stew pond” which had watered and fertilized the kitchen garden beds lying at the foot of the terrace. The beds themselves were square and rectangular excavations paved, or “crocked” in the mid-18th century with broken pottery and bottles to provide drainage. Another drain ran from the laundry and brew-house to the stew pond and garden beds

From the door in the south facade of the building a brick wall ran out across the middle garden terrace towards the river. From the opposing door in the north facade ran the colonnade back to the mansion. This axis formed by the colonnade and brick wall divided the manor house complex into its east working half and its west formal half. The colonnade ran to a bulkhead entrance into the basement in the east gable end of the mansion, and there, in the basement, had been a warming kitchen and storage rooms paved with broken glass beneath a rammed clay floor to prevent vermin from getting to the food supply and wine cellar. Lying just below the kitchen at the foot of the terrace, alongside the brick garden wall, stood one of the small frame buildings which probably housed enslaved servants assigned to duties in the kitchen, garden, and elsewhere in the manor house compound. The stair in the kitchen led to garret quarters where the chief cook and her family lived.

We can conceive of the Curles manor house complex in the 18th century as having been divided axially into quadrants. Crossing the north-south axis formed by the colonnade and garden wall, passing through the kitchen, was an east-west line which ran parallel to the 95-foot-long mansion, continuing across the tract to the laundry, and on to the barn, then along a road and fenceline to one of several field quarters. South of this line lay the river face of the plantation, stretching out on three broad terraces fringed with yet another cluster of quarters for the enslaved workers and artisans that made the plantation work. The northern face of the complex faced towards the Curles Church, built by Richard Randolph, toward the Quaker’s Road, the guest quarters and overseer’s compounds. Lying immediately in front of the mansion was a parterre and a family burial plot. Later in the century the master stable, ice house, and store house were constructed here as well, and the northern end of the parterre was fringed with a lane lined with shops and more quarters.

The prime division was along the axis dividing east and west halves of the compound. The western border was yet another line of shops and quarters, and the steep rolling road to the vast Curles wharf and landing. The western rooms of the mansion, I believe, served as the dining room and parlor. East of the center passage were, I suspect, offices for the master and mistress to manage their respective domains.

Perhaps it isn’t too much of a structural stretch to see the west half of the plantation complex as male, oriented to public interaction, church and state. The eastern half seems to include the domains of work, of production, of activity. The east yard and eastern rooms were lighted and warmed by the morning sun. As day passed, the western yards and rooms gained the advantage of the late sun. The northern face was towards the neighborhood, the church, the Henrico community. The southern face was to the river, the colonial networks, commerce, the world accessed by water. The mistress’s charge included the eastern quarters of the manor house compound with the kitchen, the laundry, the vegetable and herb gardens, the stockyard, barns, and the houses of the servants who worked in the manor house compound.

The kitchen stood firmly in the southeastern yard, but walled off from the river entrance path, excluded from the broader colonial domain. It dominated and defined the eastern yard with its numerous quarters, shops, work spaces, pens, barns, and kitchen gardens. Leading east out of the compound was the principal road to the main field quarters. Tucked far to the south on the terrace edge, the kitchen, too was excluded from the neighborhood interaction, the social life centered around the church and courthouse, the primary world of three generations of Richard Randolphs. While the east yard, and especially the southeast or kitchen quadrant could be viewed as a female-gendered space, it would be a big mistake to see the domestic and managerial domain of the plantation as the sole sphere of the Randolph women.


Shugar Cakes the

best way

Take 1 lb 3qrs. of good butter

Well washd in rose water

A pound of flower a pound

of D.R. Shugar Beat &

Sifted 10 Egs Leave out

1/2 the whites a whole

Nutmeg grated mix the

Butter & Shugar together

first then half the flower

then the Egs and Nutmeg

then the rest of the flower

put currants in some

Carriways in Some, &

Some plain Bake y’m in

Little Pans-

Pr. Mrs Herbert

Jane Randolph Her Book, p. 145

Like other receipt books of the period, Jane Randolph Her Book contains recipes for food and medicine preparations which were gathered from various sources. Many of these came from kinswomen and neighbors, others from chemists and physicians, and many were adapted from published sources and widespread oral traditions. The sources credited by the book’s authors are sometimes given in the receipt titles, such as “Mr Chowns receipt for fitts in children,” or, to give an example of a particularly descriptive title: “Mrs Barretts approv’d Oyntment For the Irruptilis or St Anthony fire or a blast or any Swelling in ye Breast or in any other part or to Anoynt a woman after hard Labour or for the Piles outward or inwardly given in a Glister useing it Instead of Oil for the Same or any other sort of Burn or Scald.”

Some other examples are:

–To make a Cake Madam Orlis’s way

–Dr Butlers Oyl

–The Lady Allens water

–Thomas Edwards Receipt for Sturgeon

— Mrs Chiswel’s Receipt for a Cake, very good

— Mrs Lanhorns way to Bottle Cherrys

— Mr Hinters Receipt, to harden Fat

— The old Talors Receit for a Purging.

— Barans Receipt for a Rumatism

— Eye Water, by Mrs Farquer.

— Doctor Jemmisons Diet Drink

— Mrs Dudlys Cake

–A Very Good Plumb Cake, Not too Rich Thise Reecipt is in the Book Mr Rees gave to Jenny Walke, and is exceeding good

This last receipt was probably entered by Jane Randolph Walke and may have come from her sister-in-law. One of my favorite receipts, and one which I have tried to duplicate with my amateurish brewing skills, is for “Good Ale.” This receipt is noted as “P[er] Mrs. Cary.” Mrs. Cary was a kinswoman of Jane Randolph.

Take 3 Bushels malt 1/2 high & 1/2 Pail

dry’d let your water boil them & put into your

Mashing tubb, When the Steem is gone

off, so as you may see your face; then put

your malt, & after mashing it well then

cover it with a blanket, Let it stand 2

hours, then draw it of Slow, then boil it

three or four hours, till the hops curdles

when boiled Enough, cool a little, & work

that with your yest, & so put the rest

of your wort in as it cools, which must

be let in small Tubs, let it work till

your yest begins to curdle then turn it

& stop your Barrel when it has done

working; Note to Every Bushels malt

a Quarter of pound of hops

The resulting beer is a dark sweetish brew and, in its 18th-century incarnation, it was probably embroidered with the “house flavors” of the wild yeasts and bacteria endemic to the Curles cellar, as well as the distinctive blending of lactic acid, acetic acid, tannic acid and complex esters and oxidation products one expects from open ferments in wooden tubs and storage in barrels. The very foreigness of my approximation to Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale serves well enough to remind me of the distance between history and present experience and expectation, but when I realize that I cannot imagine if the hops available to 18th-century Virginians were fresh, floral, spicy, cheesy or just bitter, then I am forced to admit the impossibility of knowing the past in those nuances which make all the difference.iv

Besides “Good Ale,” Mrs. Cary also contributed one of several plum cake recipes in the manuscript. There is a recipe for cookies titled “Mrs. Byrd’s Jumbels.” Mrs. Byrd was the mistress of neighboring Westover plantation. Other neighbors and kinswomen who contributed to the manuscript include Sally and Elizabeth Pleasants, who lived at the head of Curles Neck beside the Church, and Jane Randolph Walke’s sister, Elizabeth Randolph. A receipt credited to “AW” probably came from her husband, Anthony. There is also a recipe for metheglen credited to “Mrs. Mary Randolph,” probably Mrs. Cary’s grand-daughter. I will return to her shortly.


The trash pits and middens contained the bones of beef and hogs, sheep, deer and rabbit, tortoise and turtle, frogs, raccoons, catfish, sturgeon, and gar. Chickens, of course, and quail, and ducks, geese, and passenger pigeons and a bald eagle. And the leg of a bear.


For a broken Cancer 

this Receipt Cost

the old Lady Rundell 200 L in germany

The Caustick powder

Take yellow Arsenick an Ounce Bole

Armoniack half an ounce make ym to

fine powder & mix them well together

Jane Randolph Her Book, p. 35

The manor house complex is covered with broken wine bottle fragments. The garden beds were paved with them. The trash pits are full of them. Hundreds, probably thousands, of smashed wine bottles aerate the earth of the archaeological site of Curles Plantation. The first firm confirmation that we had, indeed, found the Curles site came from a wine bottle seal marked “R. Randolph, 1735.” Most of the few dozen seals we have recovered are marked with the initials of one of the Richard Randolphs, but other names occur as well, including the Randolph’s neighbors, the Pleasants, and the mens’ more distant colonial-elite cronies, such as Carter Braxton. But we don’t need archaeological artifacts to trace the networks of the Richard Randolphs of Curles, for these are inscribed in dozens of documents, through court proceedings, land transfers, marriages, etc.

No networks were more important to the 18th-century elite men of Virginia than those mapped out in kinship relations, and the cookery manuscript reveals that the women of Curles maintained equally extensive kin-based networks as well as neighborly relations. Some of the contributions to the book come from well beyond the neighborhood and the family, however. There is a “Philadelphia Receipt. for a Fever, & Ague.” Another is annotated: “Mr. Sylvanus Bevin Apothecary, Plow Court Lombard Street, London,” and there is one “Prescrib’d by Mr. John Watson of Suffolk.” And one can’t help but wonder what led “the old Lady Rundull (Randolph?) to spend 200 pounds on a receipt for “a broken cancer”–probably a cancor–in Germany.

Even more revealing insight into the nature of Jane Randolph’s domain at Curles comes from a precious few leaves from her plantation stores accounts which appear in the cookery manuscript. These records are for debits to accounts for disbursements from the plantation stores during the fall of 1739, along with credits tendered towards those accounts as late as 1743. The first account is that of “Mrs Margery,” who, on 19 October 1939 obtained various dry goods which, along with her debit of 1 shilling on “George’s acct.,” indebted her to Mrs. Randolph to the tune of 1 pound sterling. Nothing in the credit column suggests this debt was ever paid.

The next account is that of “Cate,” whose purchase if dry goods on the 21st and 22nd of October, 1739, cost 12 s, 4p., of which she immediately paid 1 shilling, but no other credit is noted. Also on the 21st, “Joan” received cotton valued at 7s 7p, but only after paying 1s 7p on an older debt. The following day “Sam” bought stockings and a worsted cap worth 5s. He paid half the bill only. And so it goes. In fact, there is little evidence that anyone every paid off their entire debt to Mrs. Randolph. One exception is “Joan,” who was finally credited with the 7s 7p she owed for cotton. She paid her debt on June 2nd, 1743. There are notes that some other accounts were settled. A relatively large debt of Mr. Peter Randolph, Mrs. Randolph’s brother-in-law, for dry goods, clothing and other goods was listed as having been settled by private account with “R R,” Jane’s husband, Richard.

From these account entries it seems that Mrs. Randolph’s world had three sorts of people in it. The first group comprises persons known primarily by their functional relation to Curles, such as “the gardener,” and a large number of persons of both genders known to Mrs. Randolph primarily by their given names: Cate, Joan, Sam, Ned, etc. There were also people she referred to by both given and family names, such as Mrs. Sackville Brewer, Mrs. Baugh, and Mrs. Joseph Hobson. Anyone familiar with local history will recognize most of this second group as middling and yeoman planters living in the neighborhood. The third group were gentry, many of whom were her or her husband’s relatives, such as “Beverly Randolph, Esqr.,” “Mr. Peter Randolph,” “Major John Bolling,” and “Madm. Carey.”

Jane Randolph handled the accounts of these three sorts of people differently. The singly named persons, like Joan, were expected to pay something on their debt immediately, even though the amount collected was often a small percentage of what was owed. Of the middling or small planters, most seem never to have repaid their debts even in part. For the great planters, there was some special treatment. Either a large debt was simply crossed out, as in the case of that of “Madm. Carey,” or, as with Peter Randolph, settled in private by Mrs. Randolph’s husband.

Rhys Isaacs has done an especially good job of describing the relations of debt which 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. There does appear to be one group from whom repayment was expected, and those were the folks with single names: mostly likely Curles servants, indentured or enslaved. One can only wonder, of course, what benefit accrued to Joan for settling her debt of seven shilling seven pence four years after she incurred it.

While Jane Randolph’s plantation store accounts speak of her relationships to a broader community of household, neighbors and kin, and of her responsibilities for managing at least a part of the commercial enterprise of the plantation, they also show the boundaries of her world. She was not, for instance, privy to the debt arrangements of her husband’s relations and peers. That was simply none of her business. On the other hand, she kept close track of the withdrawals from stores by her husband himself.

Those credits which do occur are for payments in cash. In fact, the accounting is all in sterling rather than in pounds of tobacco, which was the more common currency of the country. I suspect that her husband kept track of, and produced the bills and receipts for, exchanges valued in tobacco. These were the larger and, in many ways, more visible transactions of the plantation. But Mrs. Randolph’s handling of the stores accounts shows that she had access to an extremely scarce and highly valued resource. The culture of debt was a system of perpetual IOUs and bills for tobacco put up in cask in public warehouses. The ultimate reckoning lay in factors’ account books in London, Bristol, and Glasgow. Cash, many often complained, was practically unseen. William Byrd wrote of going for long periods of time without two coins to rub together in his pocket. But Mrs. Randolph had the keys to the storehouse, and she had cash in an economy of honor and promise among men.


A Receipt for a Purging

Take half an oz: of Kipscacuanna, decant it in one

equal quantity of Clarit, & Water. let it boil from a qut

to less than a pint. Strain it, & add one Spoonful of Oil

give it in a Glister. If the Patient be very weak, or

a Chid, you must infuse less, of the Root. a Dram

being a full Quanty for a Man–J Coupland

Jane Randolph Her Book, p. 97

The recipes in Jane Randolph Her Book are notable for their almost complete lack of American ingredients and techniques. The recipe above is an exception. It is based on the American Indian purgative, Ipecac (Kipscacuanna), a member of the holly family. The rarity of American influence isn’t unusual, for most of the Colonial receipt books contain recipes which vary but little from their Renaissance and Medieval counterparts. Many of the recipes have almost exact parallels in other manuscripts and, indeed, in the most popular published cookery books of the era, such as those of Richard Bradley and Eliza Smith. The manuscript gives us no recipes using maize, or “Indian meal,” although we know from sources such as William Byrd and Phillip Fithian that corn and corn meal were regularly used in the elite plantation households of 18th-century Virginia. There are no recipes using beans (other than European-bred “French beans”), or squash, or pumpkins, or black-eyed peas, or watermelons, or rice. One of the few food recipes using New World Ingredients is for a pickle. It calls for the use of “long pepper” and “Jamaico” (sic) pepper, The first of these may refer to capsicum, while Jamaica pepper is allspice (pimento). Both of these ingredients appear in European recipes at least by the late 16th century, so while they are of New World origin, they are not Virginian, and they don’t reflect a local creole cuisine.

Like the purge receipt given above, another of the very few recipes in the Curles receipt book which is centered around an American ingredient is also medicinal. This receipt is unique in some other ways. It is one of the longest in the book, and while many of the medicinal preparations include a description lauding them for their efficacy in various cures, none approaches “The Oyntment of Tobacco” for its praise of nearly miraculous properties spoken in nearly liturgical tones.

The Oyntment of Tobacco

Take of Tobacco Leaves 6 pounds

hogs Lard Clarifyed 3 pounds Lett ye

Herb being bruised be infused in a pint

or read Sed wine a whole night in

the morning put the Lard to the

herbs & Lett it boyle Over a Slow

Fire to the Consuming of the wine

Then strain it of the Juice of Tobacco

a pint Rosin 12 ounces sett it on the

Fire again & Lett it boyle to ye consum

ption of the Juice then take it off

& Lett it stand a whole week then

Sett it on a Slow fire & when it boyls

Putt in a Little by Little of a time of

the Powder of round beachworck roots

6 ounces then Lett it Stand boyling

for half an hour Stirring it all the

Time with a wooden Stick then add

it half a pound of bee’s wax & when its

Melted take it off & Lett it Stand to

Settle then pour it off gently from ye

Dregs you must Stir it first nor Losse

it till its Cold

The Virtues of this Oyntment

It Cures humorous Apposthumus wounds

Ulcers Gun Shots blotches & Scabs Itch

Stinging with Bees or Wasps hornetts

Venemous Beasts wound made with

Poysned Arrows it helps Sealing with

burneing Oil or Lightning & that with

out a Scar it helps nasty Rotten

Intryfied Ulcers though in the Lungs

In Fistulaes though the bone be

Afflicted it Shall Seale it without an

Instrument & bring up ye flesh from

ye very bottom a wound Dresst with

This will never Putryfie a wound made

with a Weapon that [illeg.] Can follow

Oint with this & you need not fear any

Danger of your head Aches anoint ye

Temples & you Shall have Ease the

Stomach being Anointed with it no

Infirmety harbours there no not

Asthmas’s nor Consumptions of ye Lungs

the belly being Anointed with it

Helps the Chollick & Passion

it helps the Hermoroids & piles &

is the best for the Gout of all sorts

Jane Randolph Her Book pp78-80

Clearly tobacco held a very special place in the culture of Colonial Virginia. Its virtues for that period are more typically seen as economic ones, but here we can see that the magical properties which the Indians themselves once credited it with were appreciated by women charged with the responsibility for curing. I wonder from what source comes the testament of this ointment’s effectiveness against poisoned arrows! While many of Virginia’s young gentry, including several Randolph men, fought in the Indian wars on the frontier at mid-century, there surely was little call for such a cure in the precincts of Tidewater.

There seems to be little or no Indian or African influence in the culinary receipts, even though we know that African and Native American crops were widely grown and African- and Indian-influenced dishes were completely entrenched in the cuisine of the period. Certainly the fact that African and African-American women did nearly all of the gardening and food preparation helps to explain the widespread influence of African foodways on Southern cuisine to this day. So why is it so blatantly absent in the cookbooks of the 18th century? An answer suggests itself in reading Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife written in the following century.


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.”

Mary Randoph, from the preface of The Virginia Housewife (Hess 1984).

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 which 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: 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. Whether as the result of such rationality, or of pure talent and intelligent intuition, we cannot doubt the quality of the results. Mary Randolph was hailed as the finest cook of her day in Richmond. Apparently, people vied for invitations to her dinner parties, and when she opened a boarding house, it became the dining spot of the state’s capital city.

Her cook book differs from its predecessors in many other, more important, ways, however. 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, chile 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” — were they called that because they were “received” rather than created?–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.

Mary Randolph, whose nick-name was Molly, was a great-granddaughter of Jane Bolling Randolph. She was born in August of 1762 and raised at Tuckahoe Plantation just west of Richmond. She married her second cousin, David Meade Randolph, a grandson of Jane Bolling Randolph. He grew up at Curles, just east of Richmond. David’s father, Col. Richard Randolph (II), had established a plantation for Davies and Molly just across the river from Curles, and it was here they lived through much of the 1780s and 90s. They were visited in 1796 by the Duc de la Rouchefoucault Liancourt at their farm, which they called “Presquile.” He wrote that “Mr. Davies Randolph is fully entitled to the reputation he enjoys of being the best farmer in the whole country.” The Randolphs, along with six adult and two child slaves farmed a plantation of 750 acres, most of which was forest or swamp. They produced primarily highly profitable harvests of wheat. From the James River they harvested sturgeon, shad, and herrings which, once salted, added an additional 800-900 dollars annually to their income.v


Thomas Edwardses Receipt to keep Sturgeon

You must wash & Scrap it very clean,

then take out the bones, and grisle,

then boile it in Salt and water, scum it

all the while tis boiling

when tis Colld enoug, lay it on clean straw to

drain, then take some vinegar, and the

liquor it was boild in, an equal guan-

tyt boil it together with pepper and

Salt, let it cool and settle, when cold,

wipe the sturgeon, and put it into the

Souce, put the oil on it and cover it close

Jane Randolph Her Book, p. 161

To Boil Sturgeon

Leave the skin on, which must be nicely scraped, take out the gristle, rub it with salt, and let it lie an hour, then put it on cold water with some salt and few cloves of garlic; it must be dredged with flour before it is put into the water, skim it carefully, and when dished, pour over it melted butter with chopped parsley, a large spoon of mushroom catsup, one of lemon pickle, and one of pepper vinegar; send some of it to table in a sauce boat; the sturgeon being a dry fish, rich sauce is necessary.

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (Hess 1984: p. 69)

Among the faunal remains recovered from late 18th-century trash deposits adjacent to the kitchen at Curles were the bones of sturgeon, catfish, and gar. Oddly, there were no white bass, striped bass, yellow perch, pickerels, shad, alewives, porgeys, or any of the other dozens of food fish species which are common to this stretch of the James River, and which play so important a part in the cuisine of the Chesapeake region. The Curles receipt manuscript contains only two recipes for fish, and neither are for preparing them for the table. Both are for preserving fish: the sturgeon recipe, above, and another for pickling herrings.

In contrast to the kitchen trash pit assemblages, remains from the root cellar of an 18th-century slave quarter at Curles contains a richly varied assemblage of fish remains. One possible reason for the paucity of fish at the manor house compound is that this class of food was perceived by the Randolphs primarily as either food for slaves, or as a product to be prepared for sale in local markets, or more likely, for export. The testimony of Liancourt from his visit to Presquile shows that some fish proved a valuable commodity.


Due, in part, to Davies’ poor health and to the burden of tremendous debt left him by his father, Davies and Molly sold Presquile before the turn of the century and moved to Richmond where they bought a large house which soon acquired an amalgam of their nicknames and became widely known as “Moldavia.” Davies had held an appointment as federal marshal of Virginia under Washington and Adams, but his federalist politics caused him to have a bitter falling out with his cousin, Jefferson, who fired him in 1802. While Davies proved to be a capable entrepreneur, and is credited with a number of inventions, the primary support of the Randolphs soon became the responsibility of Mary. One important bit of fall-out from the American Revolution was the end of the system of perpetual debt. The Treaty of Paris provided that Virginia’s planters would repay all their debts British factors, and those markers were called in. Richard Randolph’s debts had been no greater than those of most of his peers, but they were great enough to lead to the loss of numerous plantations. David Meade Randolph, his brothers, and their sons would fight much of their lives to avoid financial ruin from the debts of Richard of Curles. Mary Randolph’s boarding house and her extraordinary cooking skills kept her and her husband not only solvent, but centered in Richmond society, although they eventually had to sell their big town house.

I have little doubt that Mary urged the sale of the plantation and the move to Richmond. For reasons history doesn’t tell us, she eventually moved to Washington D.C. where she lived for a while apart from her husband, although he soon joined her. In Washington, Mary Randolph again became known for her cookery and hospitality. Here she worked to complete and publish her masterpiece, The Virginia Housewife. Four years after its first edition was issued, Mary Randolph died. She is buried at Arlington, then the home of some of her kin. Her epitaph tells us that “her intrinsic worth needs no eulogium.”


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 semiotics of a Georgian plantation landscape, Mary Randolph embraced both the Enlightenment and the Revolution and promises of individual accomplishment. And 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.


About the time that Mary and David Meade Randolph moved to Richmond, just as the 18th century drew to a close, David’s older brother, the third Richard Randolph of Curles, was also forced by their father’s debts to sell Curles Plantation. Throughout most of the Antebellum years the estate was owned by absentee owners. Even the overseer lived elsewhere. The mansion house and kitchen became quarters for slaves and tenants. Curles became a kind of industrial farm, a vast 2500-acre tract worked by a hundred or more slaves. The old axial symmetry of the manor house compound remained partially intact, due to some remaining fences, but the kitchen gardens appear to have been abandoned. The stew pond dried up. The ditches which had fed it were filled in. A huge hog butchering shed and rendering hearth were erected right in front of the north facade of the mansion, bringing a dirty activity out of the kitchen yard and into the former parterre, defacing the ornamented house with an edifice of practical purpose. A storage shed was built across the southern facade of the kitchen, covering its century-old checkerboard brickwork. In 1812 the plantation was leased to the militia who trashed the mansion and yards. In 1814, John Randolph of Roanoke visited the old estate, probably on the occasion of his grandmother’s death, and complained of its dilapidated condition.

Federal soldiers camped at Curles through the Peninsula Campaign, and probably continually thereafter until the fall of Richmond. They tore down the kitchen, brick by brick, leaving behind their own trash. The hardware of fallen soldiers and horses were buried on the site to keep them from enemy hands. Soldiers hauled bricks, boards, nails and other useful things off to wherever they were needed to build their winter huts.


Structuralism is seductive. James Deetz’s brilliant book, In Small Things Forgotten, has influenced a generation of the brightest historical archaeologists in many good ways and, like most who teach the subject, I make my students read it carefully. But I worry about finding some essential structural property–a Georgian mind set, or whatever–an adequate summary of a people, a culture, a time. Reducing the contingencies of history and the vagaries of individual actions and motivations to an elegant corporate intuition, a frame described by a few limited axes of variation, to use Mary Douglas’s model, seems no different to me than attempting to describe all human life by a small set of simultaneous differential equations. The model may be real, but I’m not sure it tells us much.

It is not difficult to see Deetz’s “re-Angicization” model, originally proposed for 18th-century New England, reflected in the “Georgian” world of Virginia. But New England and Virginia were nonetheless very different places, and life for Jane Randolph followed a very different model than it did for Cate or Joan or Mrs. Margery, or Richard Randolph, for that matter. But the imposing of different frames upon the same scene can help animate the scenario. Jane Randolph Her Book is an example of an ancient model for women’s place in English culture, one which far pre-dates the Georgian formal division of space and action found in the structure of Curles Plantation. These two very different worlds are like a cross-polarized crystal specimen in a petrographic microscope. Illuminate them with the light of the Enlightened world of Mary Randolph, and the colors begin to dance. There is something to be said for seeking difference, rather than commonality, the playing of atoms in the interstices and at the margins of structure.

As a text for revealing “real life,” Jane Randolph’s manuscript is severely limited, because it is a document of culture transmission, not of cultural creation. It, too, is a frame, a structure into which the Randolph girls were to grow, and the enslaved cooks were to become enculturated. But history tells us that it didn’t work out that way. The kitchen and plantation provide us insights into the imposed spatial zonation of activity, but they give us little insight into individual actions within, across, in spite of those prescribed boundaries. Jane Randolph’s life was not lived by a cook book. She probably cooked very little, and the recipes in her manuscript probably reflect very poorly the nature of meals actually consumed in any given day at Curles Plantation.

Mary Randolph broke the frames, and while her time period permitted a more public display of initiative and performance by some women, we should not imagine that her female ancestors were somehow less innovative, less effective, less important in creating, testing, and re-creating their own cultural matrices. Nor should we believe that 18th-century Curles was somehow English and that only after the Revolution did culture take on American flavors. While The Virginia Housewife is surely the product of individual genius, it, too, is a cultural document, the product of those Georgian mind-sets and ancient traditions and treatises on housewifery. But also of a lived world that no longer had to be described in prescriptive, mythological terms.

For the Bite of a Dog

Take of grey ground Liverwort; in Powder, one

dram; of Elicampane Powder one dram; of black

Hellebore Root, in fine Powder, twenty grains;

of native or factitious Cinnabar, well levigated, ten

grains. mix them together for one Dose, to be taken

on an empty Stomach the first Morning, if possible,

after the Bite (fasting a few Hours after it) in a glass

of Wine; or Wine and Water.

This Medicine is such a powerful Alterative, that,

if taken in fortyeight Hours after the Bite (Temperance

strictly observed) it will not only resist and correct, but

soon expel the Poison. Innumerable Experiments have

been tried with the greatest Success, not only upon the

Human Species, but upon Dogs and other Animals;

when those that took it did well, and those who

took it not in a short time died raving mad.

Tho’ it may appear to some a Remedy of no consequence,

as most things do when once made public, it is,

notwithstanding found by Experience (if given in

due time) to be as infallible a Preservative in the

above mention’d case, as Mercury is in raising a

Salivation, or the peruvian Bark in curing a

regular Intermittion

Jane Randolph Her Book, p. 94

Like Mary Randolph, historical archaeology is partly a product of the Enlightenment: in its faith in method, and its quest for management; in its notion that a recipe is a repeatable experiment rather than an instantiation of history; in the belief that the human world can be adequately described as patterns and processes. But God, the devil, and the truth, are in the details, and I worry about the taste of Mrs. Cary’s “Good Ale,” and I am astonished at how little I can know about the world described in Jane Randolph’s book.


i . Jane Randolph Cook Book, Mss 5:5 W1507:1, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond. My attribution of the majority of the receipts to Jane Randolph Walke follows that by historian Jane Carson, in a letter dated February 1, 1970 which accompanies the facsimile. As the 1796 and later entries include names of the Curles Randolphs of that era and their neighbors, I assume that this third Jane was the daughter of Richard Randolph (II) and Ann Meade. That makes her both a sister-in-law and a first cousin of Mrs. Mary Randolph, about whom I will write shortly. If my attribution is correct, then the receipt book may have remained at Curles throughout the 18th century, or else returned there after a sojourn with the Walkes in Princess Ann County.

ii . Some important published works include Rennaissance Lady’s Companion ***; Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Ladyís Director, Prospect Books, London, 1980 [originally published in 1727, 1732 and 1736]; Eliza Smith, The Complete Housewife, Studio Editions, 1994 [This is a facsimile of the 16th edition of 1758, but the recipes are most from the 17th and very early 18th century period]. A much earlier, but very useful source is The English Hus-wife by G. Markham. A facsimile of the 1615 edition is published by Walter J. Johnson, Norwood, 1973. For a classic Virginia manuscript that has been published in a very authoritative edition, see Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, edited by Karen Hess, Columbia University Press, 1981. Below I will discuss in greater length The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. A facsimile of the original 1824 edition, along with additions from 1825 and 1828, is available with excellent scholarly comment and criticism by Karen Hess, University of South Carolina Press, 1984. For those interested in colonial cookery in general, two very good secondary sources are Jane Carsonís Colonial Virginia Cookery, Williamsburg Research Studies, 1968; and Nancy Carter Crumpís Hearthside Cooking, EPM Publications, McLean, Virginia, 1986. Crump’s book is the place to look for those who want to try their hand at hearthside cooking, or to prepare recipes based on colonial originals adapted for modern equipment.

iii . Rorty, Interprepation as Re-Contextualization.

iv . The Mrs. Cary referred to here and elsewere in the book was probably Mary Randolph Cary, Jane Randolph Walkeís sister, or, perhaps, it was her sisterís mother-in-law. The Cary’s lived at Ampthill, just a few miles away across the river from Curles.

v . Hess, Liancourt, and Odell

The War is Never Over. The Revolution is Never Won

I am an unreconstructed Flower Child, matured and mellowed a bit, but I have never surrendered to what seems to be any version of “normal” USA culture. Back in the 60s and 70s we “freaks” felt that we were instigating tremendous change, and we were, but these battles have to be fought again and again, generation after generation. Of course, there is such a thing as progress, and nobody can deny that there has been much positive change in our culture’s way of treating women, minorities, the poor, LGBT folks, immigrants, and other “others.” Nonetheless, the battles rage on, sometimes hotter and sometimes cooler, but they never are over and done with.
Mass murders in a Southern church are a reminder. The never-ending flood of black-on-black violence and police-on-black violence is a reminder. The rude, disgusting misogynistic comments in mass media and social media about Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are a reminder, as are the equally ugly and hateful blathering of Donald Trump and the Brown Shirt/Hitler Youth-type behavior of many of his supporters. North Carolina’s HB2 and similar legislative actions in other states, whether passed, proposed, or pending, are a harsh reminder.
I was a witness to the so-called Stonewall Riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement in New York in 1969 (see my Facebook Note from 2010 titled “The Queens are Bashing the Cops”). While I am thrilled that our country has finally granted the fundamental human right of marriage to same-sex couples, it is clear that there is still an abundance of potentially violent hatred against anyone queer, and this current rash of anti-queer legislation and litigation are simply the more civil expressions of that hatred. Beneath the veneer, violence is on the prowl, and whether it is fully expressed or not, it is hurtful.
No sooner had North Carolina’s HB2 been announced I found myself awakened by my transgender spouse one morning, as he told me of a terrible nightmare he had just experienced. In the dream he was traveling to see friends in North Carolina and, as a result, a woman was murdered in a woman’s room simply for being Rob’s friend. This past weekend we were, in fact, traveling in North Carolina to visit friends. On three occasions we were out in public places when Robin experienced nature’s call. Two of these occasions occurred in fairly hip restaurants in a college-town urban setting. In one of these cases, there was an available gender-neutral loo available for folks with physical disabilities, so he chose that one.
The third occasion was a very different situation. We were on farm in a very rural area. Many farms rely these days on various forms of agri-tourism to supplement income, and that was the case here. A large dairy farm has opened a popular ice cream parlor to promote their rich Jersey milk products. It was a sunny, warm Sunday, and the place was crammed with families bringing children for a treat. There were lines for ice cream, a crowd of kids waiting a chance to pet the cute Jersey calf, and, of course, there was predictable demand and use of the two gendered restrooms. I’ve been married to Rob for over 34 years, so even if he hadn’t felt the need to talk about it today, now that we are back in Virginia, I would have known that this situation had rattled him.
It seems that an awful lot of people still seem to feel it is quite okay to rape women, to roll queers, to beat up folks who support a different politician, and to assault a person whose looks don’t conform to someone’s notion of what is properly gendered appearance or behavior. In just the past week the news has reported on two different women being roughed up in public simply for looking a bit butch. This shit is real. If you are a friend or relative of a GLBT person, please understand that the rabid hatred being floated in the news, the social media, and in the state capitols of this country has real-life effects on people you love. Be sensitive to this and be ready to be supportive if you can. Offer to go into public places with a gender-non-conforming person. Speak up loudly when you hear bigotry spoken. Offer hugs, even if they don’t seem immediately necessary.
There is a strong effort in the land by millions of people to revitalize a romanticized golden-age vision of the 1950s. There was nothing golden about it that dark era of coat-hanger abortions, repressed sexuality, racist lynchings, patriarchal dictatorships in the home and the office, and queer-baiting gang-rapes. I was there, and there was nothing there that I would ever want to return to (except, perhaps, for a Republican Party led by the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower). I hope that we are simply witnessing the death-throes of a tired old order, but we must be vigilant. Revitalization movements often die away quietly, but they can–as in the case of the Third Reich–light a spark that turns into a conflagration. It’s not just about politics–not by a long shot. No matter who you vote for, the cultural wars must be fought every day, again and again and again.

Making Mrs. Cary’s “Good Ale.” Brewing Beer in Colonial Virginia


A version of this article appeared in Brew Your Own magazine in January 2003. See that edited version here:

Have you ever dreamed about digging in the ground and suddenly have your shovel strike a rare ancient treasure? A chest of gold coins, perhaps? Or maybe, even better, a tightly-sealed, well-preserved bottle of beer from the Colonial period? Occasionally archaeologists do recover old bottles of wine or brandy, but beer? I doubt such a find would tell us much about what beer really tasted like two or three hundred years ago.

I am an archaeologist and anthropologist with a primary research interest in the 17th- and 18th-century plantation cultures of the British New World colonies, and with a particular interest in the foodways of these colonial cultures. As a homebrewer and winemaker, I am also, naturally, interested in the nature and role of these beverages in historical societies. Among my various research projects has been the 15-year archaeological study of Curles Plantation, at Curles Neck on the James River in eastern Henrico County, Virginia. The first colonists may have settled Curles as early as 1614, but they were certainly there by 1630. Curles was the home of Nathaniel Bacon, whose revolt against Virginia’s colonial government in 1676 presaged the American Revolution by a century. From 1699 to about 1840, Curles Plantation was owned by four generations of the Randolph family.

Between 1986 and 1988 I excavated remains of a 54’ x 22’ brick plantation kitchen at the Curles site. This building had been constructed (originally as a house) about 1700. The building was razed and its bricks salvaged by Union soldiers during the Peninsula campaign of the Civil War in 1863. The kitchen excavation provided a wealth of architectural details about the building as well as archaeological evidence related to food preparation and service over a century and a half. My earlier excavation of the remains of the 18th-century Randolph mansion house had uncovered a huge colonial basement that had included a warming kitchen and wine-and-beer cellar.

Material-culture evidence of the sort recovered by archaeological digging can be extremely useful in understanding early lifeways, but when we combine these findings with the analysis of historical documents, we have a true treasure-trove of insights into the cultures of the past. And so I was quite excited to find, lurking in the Virginia Historical Society’s manuscript collections, a copy of a an old plantation kitchen cookery manuscript from Curles. Women used to write down recipes passed on by relatives and neighbors and collect these in “receipt” manuscripts. These cookery books were one of the tools of the day for socializing young gentlewomen. There are only a handful of plantation cookbooks extant from early Virginia. The one in question is titled “Jane Randolph her Book,” and it appears to have been begun about 1715 by the mistress of Curles Plantation, and then was passed on to her daughter and, eventually, her granddaughter—all named Jane. The last entries are from the 1790s, so the book covers three generations and most of the 18th century.

As a homebrewer, I could not help but note recipes for “Good Ale,” Small Beer” and “Metheglein” (sic). I also could not help but want to attempt to duplicate these recipes. Here let me talk specifically about the recipe for “Good Ale,” provided to the second of the Jane Randolphs by “Mrs. Cary,” who was her older sister, her aunt, or her sister’s mother-in-law living just across the James River at the Cary’s Ampthill Plantation.*

The “beerology” of Colonial Virginia

Before we get to the recipe and the beer it makes, lets examine for a moment what we know about beer in Colonial Virginia. The terms “beer” and “ale” are commonly found in Virginia records from the earliest colonial period. Beer was brewed in Jamestown from the beginning of the Virginia enterprise. We can assume that the British settlers brought with them the traditions of brewing and drinking that they had known in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Early settlers also included Germans and French, and they, no doubt, brought their own traditions. Of course, enslaved African women, who had their own brewing traditions, would have done most of the brewing at Curles, especially after 1700. Foodways on the plantation, however, were controlled primarily by the senior woman of the household, and we can assume her understandings of beer were descended, through cultural tradition and recipe manuscripts, from the earlier “alewives” of Britain. Cookery manuscripts typically contained very traditional recipes. When we compare them with printed and published English works of earlier years, we often find that identical or very similar recipes—often with the same words and phrases—were repeated over hundreds of years. For instance, the “Good Ale” recipe in Jane Randolph’s book is clearly related to one published in The English Huswife by G. Markham in 1615.

Modifications from tradition came, we can expect, mainly from differences in access to materials, and so it is important to understand what was available to Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Cary in 18th-century Virginia. We have a notion that early plantations were self-sustaining entities, but nothing could be further from reality. The colonies existed to provide commodities for consumption in the British marketplace (or export from Britain to other European countries), and to serve as markets for goods produced in Britain. The Navigation Acts of the mid 1600s strictly limited the colonies’ ability to trade with other nations, and corollary statutes made it illegal for colonists to produce most goods for themselves. In short, plantations were tied to the world-system economy, especially the trade based in London and Bristol.

So, we might well wonder, was the beer produced in Colonial Virginia made from locally available produce? Numerous records indicate that a small amount of barley was produced on plantations in the 1600s and 1700s, but was this for consumption as a cereal grain or as beer? Early in the history of the colony, barley was probably malted and brewed in Virginia for local consumption. At least one archaeological site—the Walter Aston Site in Charles City County–contained remains of what I believe was a malting kiln. This was probably in use in the decades of the 1640s and 50s.

By the 18th century, the much shorter, much cheaper, North Atlantic passage between Britain and America had been developed. It was now much easier for the colonies to be kept dependent on British commodities—and so they were. Virginia’s plantation wharves and stores were outlets for the commodities of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution of 18th-century England. In the 1700s the vast majority of malt was imported from England rather than produced in Virginia. Hops were grown on Virginia plantations at least as early as the 1680s—probably earlier. They continued to be a minor product throughout the 1700s, but the majority of hops were also imported from England.

What was ale like in 18th-century Virginia?

We need to keep in mind that commercial beers today owe quite a bit to the industrial and scientific revolutions. In the mid-1700s the brewers of Burton began to make “pale ale” for the first time, and this clear, relatively light-colored beverage spread in popularity thanks to technological breakthroughs in malting, mass-production of glass bottles, and in shipping and marketing of the product via newly constructed canals, etc. But these pale beers were extremely expensive. The vast majority of English, Scots and Irish drank ales called “mild,” “brown” or “porter.” All of these were somewhat dark, though not as dark as modern black beers made with roast malts. The very dark malts we know so well were developed primarily in the 19th century, and the crystal and caramel malts came later still. This means that 18th-century British beers were generally lighter in color and in body than the darkest, heaviest beers of the later Industrial Age, but they were darker than the “pale ales” that were to become so popular in Burton, London, and Glasgow.

Hops had been used in German beers since mediaeval times, but hopped ale was a new-fangled notion in England at the time Virginia was settled. By the 18th century, however, hops were universally included in British ales—often at a pretty high rate. Hops, however, were expensive, and they did not ship well. Hoppy beers originated in hop-growing districts of England, just as they did near the hop fields of Germany, Bohemia, and, more recently, Washington and Oregon. Traditional beers from areas without their own hop crops tended to be malty rather than hoppy. The best example I can think of is to compare English ales and Scottish ales—the latter emphasizing malt and using very low hopping rates. It was even more risky and more expensive to ship hops to Virginia than to Scotland, and so we might expect a malt emphasis in indigenous beer.

It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that Pasteur isolated and identified beer yeast, but today nearly all commercial brews are made from carefully cultured selected yeast strains. Even our homebrews have benefited enormously from the recent development of single-strain liquid yeast cultures. While I didn’t happen to excavate a nice sample of yeast at Curles that I could culture for this re-creation, I feel that use of a generic, long-established, dry ale yeast was likely to produce a better approximation to the historical beer than would a modern liquid single-culture strain. Yeast was routinely “made” in the plantation kitchen by harvesting “barm” from ale fermentation, mixing it with flour and hops into cakes, and drying it by the hearth. While the Randolph women and their enslaved cooks/brewers did not understand the biology of yeast as we do, they clearly knew how to select what they called “good” yeasts, and to make potent starters. They also differentiated between “ale yeast” and “bread yeast.” For fermenting my version of this historic brew, I used two packets of Danstar’s Manchester yeast, a variety favored by many brewers for traditional ales.

While these women were without a modern understanding of “germ theory,” they did know that good ale required cleanliness. We should assume they were good at their task of brewing, even though they didn’t have modern sanitizers, stainless steel containers, etc. Boiling-hot water is a potent sanitizer, and we must assume it was used liberally in colonial brewing. Just the same, the use of open wooden fermenters, and storage of ale in barrels probably led to more complex flavor profiles than we tend to get using closed fermentation in glass and steel. Likewise, the advent of refrigeration and air conditioning mean that stored beer can age more gracefully than it did in the cellar of a central Virginia farmhouse.

So now we come to the crux of the matter. What did colonial beer taste like? Did it resemble any beers we now know? Well let’s see if we can figure that out by analyzing, and then brewing, “Good Ale,” as recorded by Jane Randolph of Curles Plantation sometime in the mof-1700s. Here is a transcription of the handwritten “receipt” as it appears in the Curles manuscript:

Good Ale

Take 3 Bushels malt 1/2 high & 1/2 Pail

dry’d let your water boil then & put into your

Mashing tubb, When the Steem is gone

off, so as you may see your face; then put

your malt, & after mashing it well then

cover it with a blanket, Let it stand 2

hours, then draw it off Slow, then boil it

three or four hours, till the hops curdles

when boiled Enough, cool a little, & work

that with your yest, & so put the rest

of your wort in as it cools, which must

be let in small Tubs, let it work till

your yest begins to curdle then turn it up

& stop your Barrel when it has done

working; Note to Every Bushels malt

a Quarter of pound of hops

Let me transcribe this into contemporary English, with comments.

Take 3 bushels dried malt, ½ high and ½ pale, and put it into your mashing tub (or tun).

British malt of the period was all “floor” malted, with direct heat from wood or coal fires, which led to uneven modification and kilning levels in any batch of malt. Presumably the malt was then divided into relatively pale- and relatively high-colored fractions. How pale was pale and how high was high? For the high malt we can rule out anything like chocolate and black malts. Many 18th-century British brewing books and recipes refer to the practice of blending pale and brown malts. To Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Cary, the “high” was undoubtedly what London brewers meant by “brown.” The high malt could not have been as dark as some modern “brown” malt, however, because this is well roasted and, consequently, has little or no diastatic action due to the high roasting temperatures. Some modern brown malts are as high as 70-100 degrees Lovibond. However, one English maltings produces a brown malt that they claim is meant to approach the darker malt of the 17th and 18th centuries (SRM near 60). This is Crisps, and it so happens that Crisps’ Brown malt is stocked by my local homebrew dealer, The Weekend Brewer in Chester, Virginia.

I chose Maris Otter for my pale malt; it seems to be the malt of choice by those of England’s commercial brewers who produce more traditional beers. While Maris Otter is thought of today as”traditional” English pale malt, even it is made by methods (and with a barley strain) that didn’t exist before the modern era. It is, nonetheless, I think, as close as I can get to traditional malt made by a cottage-industry craftman-maltster of the period.

The recipe calls specifically for “dry” malt. Today’s standard bushel weight for dry malt ranges from 32 to 38 pounds. I found one source claiming that 34 is a good target, and that’s the number I used. So a barrel of Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale required 3 bushels, or 102 pounds, of malt. Mrs. Cary’s recipe is to make a barrel of beer. So what, exactly, is a barrel? That question sent me on a quest! I consulted numerous historical sources, the writings of some other brewers of historical beers and living-history interpreters who work at historical sites in Virginia. In the mid-18th century, there were wine barrels, beer barrels and ale barrels, and these were based on capacities defined in terms of “beer gallons,” versus “wine gallons.” This dichotomy reflected the marketplace in which English citizens enjoyed domestic products (called by the Anglo-Saxon term “ale”) as well as imports from the Netherlands (using the Germanic word “beer”), and these nations measured their brews with different sorts of gallons. In fact, these distinct gallons were the antecedents to our current distinction between U.S. and British Imperial volume measurements.

That said, almost everyone I spoke with agreed that, while the urban taverns of the day would have used statute ale barrels, the most likely containers to be found on plantations were wine barrels that had once held sherry, port, or Madeira. These held the equivalent of 31 ½ English (roughly similar to Imperial) gallons, or about 36 U.S. gallons. Therefore, if I wanted to make a five-gallon batch, I needed a little over 14 pounds of malt, divided equally between pale and brown.

Wood- or coal-fired kilns tended to lend a slight smokiness to the malt. London brewers of the day disagreed with the desirability of smokiness in their malts, but I assume some amount of it was inevitable. I, therefore, added a touch (2 ounces) of smoked malt, choosing to use wood-smoked rauchbier malt rather than peat-smoked malt.

Bring your water to a boil and put it into the mash tun. When it has cooled such that the steam has cleared and you can see your reflection in the water, add your malt to the tun. Mix it up well and let it mash for two hours.

The water I chose for this brew was Richmond, Virginia city tap water, after passing it through a consumer household filter to remove metals, chlorine, and chloramines. This water is not substantially different from the shallow well water used at Curles and Ampthill plantations. As can be seen from a later statement in the recipe, only part of the water is used in the mash; presumably enough to make a proper mash thickness—whatever that was! I would have preferred to have used a moderately thin mash to de-emphasize dextrin, as is typical of British common ales; however, my mash tun is a 5-gallon cooler, and with the quantity of grain called for, a thin mash was not possible. I could get about 3 gallons of mash water in my tun, a bit under 0.9 quarts per pound of grains.

Jane Randolph and her cooks had no thermometers, so they waited until the water stopped steaming enough to see their faces in it as an indication that they should now add the malt. In re-creating this mash, I followed these instructions. I waited until the steam had died down substantially on my boiling pot and then I took a temperature reading. It was about 165 degrees F, about 5 degrees cooler than my normal strike temperature. Jane’s tun was a wooden tub covered with a woolen blanked. I used a cooler. After mixing liquor and grains my thermometer told me we would begin the mash at 148 degrees. Not a bad temperature for maximizing extraction and attenuation, but I boosted it to about 152.

At the end of the mash, draw your wort slowly from the tun into the boiler.

The cooler’s spigot provided the means to accomplish this feat. My boiler is an 8.5-gallon enameled canning pot, rather than a really romantic humongous, ancient, copper or black iron kettle. My fire comes from a propane crab-boil burner that is probably as good at producing BTUs as was a roaring colonial kitchen hearth or large outdoor open fire pit, as was often used for tasks such as laundry and brewing.

Boil the wort three or four hours until your hops “curdle.” Then take some of it aside and cool it to make your yeast starter. Add the rest of the “wort” (liquor) needed to make up your final quantity of ale.

Presumably, the coagulation and settling of the hot break is what “curdling” meant. Setting aside wort for a starter is straightforward, but the instruction to “put the rest of your wort in as it cools” is ambiguous at best. Were the grains sparged? I think not. Instead I believe that they were “re-mashed.”  Several sources suggest that additional hot liquor (brewing water) was added to the grains and allowed to “mash”—actually, to steep—for a while in order to extract more sugars. That is the approach I took in recreating the brew. This procedure tends to extract a bit more tannins from the grain husks than does sparging, but, as far as I have been able to learn, sparging, as we know it, was simply not practiced—at least not by small-scale brewers.

I decided to ignore the recipe in one minor way by adding all the water at the beginning of the boil, rather than adding “the rest of the wort” at the end of the boil. While boiling 36 gallons of wort in an open kettle would be a serious headache, boiling 7 or so gallons in my cooker was a cinch. Adding the water afterward may have helped to affect a “cold break,” but the chance of introducing unwanted microbes unnecessarily bothered me a bit. Throughout the boil I had to replenish the water several times.

Hops? Did she say hops? Well, notice that, at the end of the recipe, she prescribes a quarter pound of hops per bushel. My recipe required 2 ounces of hops, and I chose East Kent Goldings at 6% alpha acid. Goldings were already a favorite hop for British ales in the mid-18th century, and they were undoubtedly among the most popular imports from England in the colonies. The recipe makes no mention of staged additions of the hops, and so I simply added them at the beginning of the boil. There is no doubt that a 3-4 hour boil will extract the maximum bitterness from hops, while leaving behind only minimal hop flavors and, most likely, no detectable hop aromas.

Place your wort into one or more small tubs or other open fermentation vessels.

Why small tubs? The 18th century kitchen was not equipped with pumps or siphons or hoses. The women brewers of the day were no doubt physically strong individuals, but they couldn’t expect to empty 36 gallons of beer into a barrel when the time came. So a series of small wooden tubs was used for the ferment. I decided against my usual closed blow-out system using a carboy and decided instead to ferment in a plastic bucket fermenter. I did cover it with its lid and inserted a lock, so I may have sacrificed some opportunities to introduce a nice component of “house flavors” to the final brew.

When the primary fermentation is over and the yeast falls back into the brew, pick up your tubs and turn them over to pour the beer into your barrel. When it’s full, hammer in a tight bung.

As is still typical of some cask-conditioned ales, the carbonation comes from the last couple days of fermentation in the barrel. In taverns and breweries, we also know that kegs were sometimes conditioned by adding some new ale at high kraeusen; however, the average family would not always have a ready source of kraeusen beer. Some historical documents suggest that they could increase the priming condition of the ale by adding some molasses. Keep in mind, there was no dried malt extract, and sugar was extremely expensive. It would not have been feasible to prime with sugar, while molasses was readily available and inexpensive. My approach was to use the traditional method of waiting until yeast cap fell back into the beer, then racking to a stainless Cornelius keg without any priming sugar. The completion of fermentation provided all the necessary spritz for the beer. I wouldn’t attempt this method if I intended to bottle the beer!

So what’s the recipe in plain English

Grain bill: Seven pounds Maris Otter pale, seven pounds Crisps Maltings Brown, 2 ounces Bamberg-style smoked malt.

Infusion mash with approximately 3 gallons water at 150-152 degrees F for two hours.

No mash out

Drain sweet wort to boiler and replenish mash tun with another 3 gallons of water at 152 degrees. Allow to rest 15-20 minutes, then drain. Add water to boiler to make approximately 7 gallons of sweet liquor.

At boil add two ounces East Kent Goldings hops. Boil 3-4 hours, replenishing water as needed to result in five gallons, or less, of bitter wort. If less, add cold water to make five gallons.

Rehydrate and pitch two packets Danstar Manchester dry yeast. Ferment in 7-gallon food-grade bucket at 70–75 degrees F. until yeast head falls (S.G. approximately 1.025-30), then rack to stainless steel keg. Condition in cool (55-65 degrees F.) temperatures for 2-3 weeks before tapping keg.

Original gravity: 1.066. Final gravity: 1.014

Note: If you don’t want to mash for two hours, feel free to shorten the time to 90 minutes. This may reduce the phenolics and astringency a bit in the final brew, although I found those flavors a nice balance to the sweet malt. If you don’t want to boil for four hours, then try mimicking the flavors of caramelized wort by adding about ½ cup of molasses at the beginning of the boil. Many modern British breweries use molasses (or treacle or dark refiner’s syrup) to provide the slightly sweet caramel notes formed by burning wort in a copper kettle heated over an open flame. It’s a good approximation.


I presented Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale with a talk about its creation to the James River Homebrewers this past April. The beer was a real success. Here is how I described it in my tasting notes:

This beer is fairly clear, deep brown in color, with good condition and head retention. The aroma and flavor are clearly malt-accented, with strong dark-coffee-like tones from the brown malt, and subtle smoky notes. Hops are present solely as a balance to the malt, but they contribute little to flavor or aroma. If this were sweeter, it would most resemble a strong Scottish ale. Instead, it has the dry finish and mouthfeel of an English ale, probably due to the attenuation properties of the yeast, and the lack of a mash-out. This is a fascinating, and somewhat foreign brew. I’ll certainly have to make it again. It is probably best classified as “old ale,” though some Scottish wee heavies come close in style.

Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale is a smoky-dark, coffee-and-toffee-flavored brew and, in its 18th-century incarnation, it was probably embroidered with the “house flavors” of the wild yeasts and bacteria endemic to the Curles Plantation cellar, as well as the distinctive blending of lactic acid, acetic acid, tannic acid and complex esters and oxidation products one expects from open ferments in wooden tubs and storage in barrels. The very foreignness of my approximation to Mrs. Cary’s Good Ale serves well enough to remind me of the distance between history and present experience and expectation, but when I realize that I cannot imagine if the hops available to 18th-century Virginians were fresh, floral, spicy, cheesy or just bitter, then I am forced to admit the impossibility of knowing the past in those nuances which make all the difference.

* I hope to have the opportunity to bring you Jane Randolph’s recipes for Small Beer and Metheglyn (spiced mead) in the near future.


I’m Glad My Husband is Gay!

Parts of this article first appeared in the essay “Transitions,” in War Baby: Talking About My Generation by L. Daniel Mouer, Createspace 2011. The present version has been updated for inclusion in Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resistance , edited by Jordon Johnson and Becky Garrison, Transgress Press.

“Dan does the cooking and I fix the toilet when it breaks. It’s a good thing we found each other, otherwise, we both would have had to go get a ‘sex change’.” That’s what my wife, Robin, used to tell folks. The truth is I have never thought about getting a sex change. I’m not shy about allowing my “feminine side” to show, but I am quite happy with the body in which I was born, and I cannot imagine wanting to trade in my “parts” for a woman’s, nor have I ever felt tempted to dress in women’s clothes. The day I first asked her to think about moving in with me, she glared at me accusingly and said, “I hope you don’t think I would strap on an apron and turn into Suzie Homemaker!” To that I quickly responded that I hoped she didn’t think I was offering her free range in my kitchen!

Rob and I have been married for 33 years. I’m sure that one of the things that attracted us to each other is that neither of us are entirely conforming to anyone’s notions of gender norms. I first met her in 1978. We were married four years later. We worked together in the same profession, watched our son grow up and give us grandchildren. Twenty seven years after our first meeting, my wife confessed to me that she is and always has been a guy, and that it was her wish to alter her body, with hormones and surgery, to look more appropriately masculine. My wife wanted a “sex change.” Unless you are someone who has heard something similar from your spouse, that must sound like the punch line to a very bad joke.

Many years ago Rob and I each took an online quiz that had been generated by one of the big English universities. The goal was to identify if one’s brain is more “masculine” or “feminine.” Well, I used to joke that Robin probably had more testosterone in her veins than I did, so I had little doubt that she would score more manly than I would be on that test. I was right. Her score put her in the “very masculine” category, while I landed smack in the middle: equally masculine and feminine in the views of then-contemporary brain science.

As a child I had felt restricted and oppressed by traditional gender norms. They never made sense to me. There were things I enjoyed doing that were “girly” things, and others that were “masculine.” I was never very interested in sports, at least not until my senior year in high school, and that, alone, is enough to make your masculinity suspect when you grow up in a sports-obsessed town like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robin has always been “one of the guys:” no dresses, no make-up, never even close to being “girly.” I am quite happy with our flexible and often-reversed gender roles, and I never found Robin to be less attractive for being butch. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m attracted to strong, capable, straightforward women. Similarly, I find men more likable if they also have a “softer” side: guys who aren’t afraid of being emotionally vulnerable. Gender extremes, in either direction, are a turn-off for me.

I was stunned nonetheless when Robin finally sat me down and informed me that he is transgender, that he sees himself as a man and has never been comfortable when others view him as a woman. What’s more, he wanted to have surgery and to take hormones to physically change his appearance from female to male. (In this paragraph, my “wife” becomes my “partner,” “husband,” or “spouse,” and “she” becomes “he,” for that is the way I now know him.) This announcement came sometime in 2004. My initial reaction was predictable. My brain screamed out “No! No! Hell no! This cannot be real!” But, at the same time, I had come to know Robin well enough over the previous 25 years that I knew he was telling me the truth. This was not a whim, fantasy, or delusion. And at that realization, I began to catch up on my inadequate understanding of the mysterious world of gender identity

Over the next many months, I read every book and article I could find on the subject of transgender. I joined online support and information networks. I am a scholar by profession, and I knew I would not be able to relax with this idea until I had learned enough to consider myself a minor expert on the subject. Of course it was not an entirely new subject to me. As an anthropologist I had been teaching students for years about the cultural relativism of gender norms, and the ways various cultures deal with non-conforming gender behavior or with individuals and groups who blend or border-cross gender categories.

Robin and I frequently discussed the implications for our relationship, both between ourselves alone, and with a couple’s counselor. I could not promise Robin I would find him attractive as a lover. I have no prejudices against homosexuality; I think of myself as being at least capable of being bisexual, but I was facing the reality of becoming half of a same-sex couple, socially as well as sexually, and that is just not how I have ever seen myself. We live in (and were married in) a state that had passed a constitutional amendment banning anything that even smells like same-sex partnership, let alone marriage.

For nearly a year I learned, listened, talked, cried, thought, felt and imagined myself living not with Robin, my wife, but with a guy with whiskers, a flat chest, and a deep voice. No matter how strange it felt, I simply kept coming back to the same answer. I know this person, I love this person, and we had come through way too many serious difficulties to allow a “sex change” to put an end to a good thing. We decided to go ahead with this transition and to tell the world: “We are now husband and husband, partners, two guys who are in love and we are married.”

Rob and I are equestrians. We spend a few days a week out in the country where we board our horses and where, over the years, we have made many strong friendships. We worried the most about coming out to the barn gang. We were afraid they might not be quite as open to the changes we were about to announce as our academic friends back in the city might be. The year was 2005. Brokeback Mountain had just been released and talk of gay cowboys was in the air. That day Robin and I showed up at the barn, and the first person we told was our dear friend Susan. She’s a deeply religious “country girl,” with good old-time values, and we were really worried this just might not go too well. Robin was very direct. He explained that he feels like a man and he was going to go through the process of changing his body and his persona to reflect his proper gender. I mentioned that we would now be a same-sex couple. I was standing behind Robin and wearing a wide-brim straw cowboy hat that day. Susan seemed a little flustered. At first she just muttered that it really wasn’t any of her business, but then curiosity overcame her and she asked, “But why?” I couldn’t resist. I said that now that I had seen Brokeback Mountain, I really wanted to be a gay cowboy, and now I was going to be just that!

Susan looked at me oddly, trying to understand what I had just said, and then she started laughing. It was a nervous laugh, but she laughed. By our next trip out to the barn two or three days later, everyone knew that we were undergoing a transition. The gang had decided on their own that Robin would, from that point on, be “Rob,” and to this day it remains so. We needn’t have worried about losing friends, because they are, truly, good friends and good people. So Rob started on hormone treatments and we went off to San Francisco for three weeks to have his body altered. We tend to think of it now not as changing sex, but more as a “gender correction.”

Over the years since Rob first came out to me, I have come to know—online or in person—many dozens of transmen and transwomen. It is statistically rare for a person to be so transgender that they seek to undergo the transition across the sexes, but it isn’t as rare as most people might imagine. My transgender friends are a cross section of the North American population (with a sprinkling of Europeans and Aussies for spice). There are elders and juniors, war heroes, artists, construction workers, teachers, and engineers. Among them there are a few who have serious emotional or psychological problems that have been brought on by, or aggravated by being “trans,” but most of them are as sane and levelheaded and “normal” as all the rest of the folks I know in this life.

I have become an advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people, and my passion for the cause has helped keep me active in these years of my retirement. Much of GLBT activism these days revolves around the right of same-sex marriage. That is one cause I feel I must support, if for no other reason than because my own marriage was threatened by the hateful public backlash stirred up by religious zealots and political reactionaries. However, my main focus is on doing whatever can be done to stop the emotional and physical violence that comes down on GLBT people from the time they are young children. Every year this world loses good folks to ignorant violence and to the suicide that many people choose as an alternative to their own persecution and social isolation.

I’ve become proud to think of myself as a member of the GLBT community, but it took me a while to get here. Early in this transition, when Rob and I were in San Francisco for his surgery, another friend who was married to a trans person took us one evening to an event at the large community “gay center” in the Castro District—arguably the “capital” of gay America. There, for the first time, I heard Robin and I being introduced to strangers as each other’s “husband.” It sounded odd, but it was also liberating: a way of chipping away at the tyranny of gender roles in personal relationships. When we were back home in Virginia, one old friend asked me if I now feel like I am gay. My response came quickly. “I don’t know about me,” I said, “but I’m sure glad that my husband is gay!”

Making the actual transition was nowhere near as difficult for us as I had feared it might be. Friends and family have mostly been respectful and accepting. If not, they have kept their reservations to themselves. There are personality changes that go along with transitioning. Some of those are no doubt due to hormonal effects, but others are simply the result of the trans person allowing their “true self” to emerge in ways they could not do in the past. Because Rob was never a girly-girl, those changes have been minimal for us.

For some folks the thing that kills a relationship in which one partner is transitioning is s-e-x. I admit that I preferred Rob’s former body style, but we have also found ways to enjoy learning some new tricks. Folks who are very strictly heterosexual may find transitioning to be a game killer, so if you are facing a relationship with a trans person, it’s good for each partner to be very clear with themselves and with each other about what lines can and cannot be crossed. It helps to keep in mind that all of us experience changes in our own sexuality, our attractions and preferences, and in what we can or are willing to offer our partners when it comes to sex. Any long-lasting relationship faces challenges from aging, injuries, and illnesses, among other things. A partner’s “sex change” may not be the greatest challenge any of us face in our love lives

I have learned that in many cases, a transgender person is often in a very big hurry to go through a full transition once they have admitted their condition to themselves and have kicked down the closet door and informed family and friends. The problem is this: The trans person has at least had clues about their gender issues since they were young, but for we partners, friends, and family, this is a revelation that takes time and patience to adapt to. I find myself cautioning trans friends to slow down and give their loved ones time to catch up to this runaway freight train. Rob was willing and able to do that. He was able to say that transitioning was extremely important to him, but so was my love, our relationship, and our sex life. So he was able to give me the time I needed no only to learn what I needed to learn, but to imagine my own changes and to even come to look forward to them.

Now, after living nine years as the partner of another man, I think about what has been the most significant change in our relationship. From the moment we made the decision to transition, it seemed as though a huge weight had melted away from Robin’s shoulders. Rob shed a lifetime of pent-up anger and frustration. There are problems, to be sure, but they are no worse than, and little different from, the problems that any couple faces after thirty-three years of marriage. So far, they seem insignificant in the face of three decades of mutual trust and love.

Manhood and the Killing Thing

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in my original “Genderwonky” blog. I then included it as a chapter in my memoirs book. In resurrecting “Genderwonky,” I am now returning this piece to it’s proper home.

The Rifleman

Until my wife decided to transition from female to male, I thought that war was the one situation in my life that would lead me most to question, contemplate, and refine my own ideas about manhood. After all, war is the archetypal context for testing courage and cowardice, strength and weakness, the litmus tests of masculinity. And, of course, there is the killing thing.  Men are supposed to kill,  at least be willing to do so, even if as a very last resort.

Our man-images are almost always killers, after all. Even Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey shot down a bad guy now and then, though I think the Lone Ranger always managed to shoot the pistols out of the bad guys’ hands. One can apparently avoid killing if one’s aim is good enough.
Really good men were not only reluctant to kill, but very reluctant: forced to it, after all. The Rifleman, Lucas McCain, was the widower farmer who lived outside of North Fork. A pinnacle of masculine goodness, he was tall, strong, God-fearing, a loving single-parent father. He wouldn’t hurt a flea, except when driven to it by confrontation with unadorned evil. And then his weapon, his simple rancher’s carbine, loosed its fateful lightning, week after week, round after round, and bad guys’ bodies filled the ditches and watering troughs and alleys and galleries of North Fork. Before the blood had stopped running, Lucas would stow his highly modified Winchester, with its large hand-loop lever modified to fire rapidly―a cowboy’s assault rifle―in his buckboard, then he’d grab his son, Mark, and ride home to complete the day’s chores.

The Rifleman television series was created by a master of the subject of violence and our cultural ambiguities about a man’s obligations to, and reservations against, life-taking. Sam Peckinpah  is best known for writing and directing The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  All of his best-known works explore violence, especially men’s violence. I remember seeing Straw Dogs, certainly his most controversial work, in 1971. I thought, then, that the film was reflecting a national obsession with violence stimulated by seven or eight years of the Vietnam War. That same year the country encountered A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection. But, for me, that was post-Vietnam. My developing years were informed by The Rifleman, not The Wild Bunch, and certainly not by Vietnam. Proper violence was the redemption of manliness and the essence of goodness. It contrasted starkly with the cruel, senseless, evil violence that brought suffering to the innocent.
My formative visions were in black-and-white. Bloodied black faces and club-wielding white sheriff’s deputies in Southern towns. Civil-rights marchers set-on by police dogs. And there were the newsreel visions of Nazi death camps, enemy’s films captured by the white hats, of bulldozers plowing naked bodies, stacked like cordwood, into vast trenches.  These evils demanded counter forces of good. They came in two very different forms. The fascist evil was countered by G.I.s, Tommies, and the French Resistance: the good guys. Our bombs were the good bombs, cast like the Rifleman’s carbine, only when evil demanded it. On the other hand, the evils of American segregation and racism were countered by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by the Freedom Riders, by Martin Luther King, Jr., by a doctrine of non-violent confrontation. I was completely confounded by the competing rightness of the “Good-guy” force of the Allied military struggle over Nazism and Fascism versus the “soul force” of Gandhi’s spirit. I just could not figure out how to be a proper man. Would I walk quietly with a big stick, or be one to shout out loudly for what is right with empty hands, and a willingness to die for that right?
I did not want to enter the military if it meant participating in the war. I did not feel even slightly threatened by Uncle Ho. I was afraid of being killed or maimed. I was even more afraid of being incompetent as a man and getting someone else killed or maimed. This last fear, I realize now, was the fear that I might not be willing to do the killing thing when, or if, it became necessary. Oh, I was afraid of other sorts of unmanliness, too, such as physical weakness or clumsiness, or a lack of courage, but the Army pretty much trained those away.
On the rifle range in Basic Training I learned a trick. The pop-up steel targets could be knocked down more easily by aiming low. Either I would hit the target, or my round would land in front of it, kicking up a shower of sand and stones that, in turn, would hit the target and actuate the scoring mechanism. While I had been unwilling to “kill” targets on the bayonet training course, shooting into the sand and getting guilt-free scores on the rifle range suited me fine. And it won me a Sharpshooter’s Badge. Several months later, while training recruits on the machine gun course at Fort Leonard Wood, I discovered I could do the same thing with the M-60 machine gun. My moral pangs about sighting a weapon on a man could be alleviated by firing into the ground in front of the target.

Bong Son Plain

My company was attached to the 70th Combat Engineer Battalion.  Because we owned a fleet of dump trucks, we were used more often as a dump truck company and a general purpose combat engineer company than as a bunch of bridge builders. It was early in my year in Vietnam when the call came that my platoon would be working a mission in the Bong Son Plain, northwest of Qui Nhon. Bong Son was “Indian Country.” Not only were there numerous Viet Cong units, but whole regiments of North Vietnamese regulars were thought to be headquartered up there. The First Cavalry Division was engaged in a major campaign to secure this Province, and we were going to help.
My memories are vague. We were working on clearing forest in a low-lying, somewhat swampy area. I don’t remember other 70th Engineer folks being there, nor even any 2nd platoon folks from my company. There was a detachment from a Navy construction battalion (“Seabees”) with heavy equipment. We were working together with them preparing a landing zone or landing strip. Our trucks were hauling bundles of steel matting. Our guys were wielding chain saws, hand-excavating “dead-man” trenches, and burying huge logs to which they secured the matting.
I was in my usual position, as platoon machine gunner, on the headache board of a dump truck. However, the trucks were needed to continue hauling matériel, so I was told to prepare a small defensive bunker for the gun. I used a shovel to hollow out a shallow pit, and then I filled a bunch of sandbags and stacked them around the pit. There is where I set up the gun and the spare boxes of ammunition. Nearby there was another, similar ad hoc bunker where I think our platoon leader’s radio operator was set up. Throughout the day the drone of saws and bulldozers was enhanced by the constant buzz of distant machine guns, the crackle of small arms, and the concussive whoomps of mortars or artillery. The air overhead was buzzing with helicopters, and occasionally with the passing of jet attack fighters.
What happened next is so strangely embedded in my mind, that it’s hard to describe it without it seeming bizarre. I became aware of the whiz-thud sounds of bullets arriving around me before I was even aware of the sounds of the rifles shooting them. I feel as though I was frozen in time and I sat there on some sandbags looking around, trying to see who was shooting, and where they were shooting from. I realized they were right in front of me, maybe only 200 feet away inside the tree line. I couldn’t actually see people, just the quivering of the leaves and branches. Then some shadowy life movements I recognized as legs appearing occasionally between tree trunks and bamboo stalks.
I seemed to grasp all at once, but in extremely slowed-down time), that there were a couple or three snipers, perhaps more, perhaps many more, firing away in my general direction from the trees at the edge of the clearing. I did not know, and could not determine, if anyone else was shooting. The racket of the heavy equipment and chain saws was far louder than the rifle shots. Slowly I became conscious that someone, the lieutenant perhaps, was yelling at me to shoot the gun.
My responsibility as the only immediate defense of this site was crystal clear. I had to return fire-for-effect. I had to find people targets and kill them, or try to. But that was not possible. How in the world had I managed to get into this ridiculous position as the conscientious-objector-cum-platoon-gunner?  In frozen time I plotted and schemed, trying to find ways to do both: to kill without killing, to protect those who were counting on me, myself included, without violating the lives of people I couldn’t even see, let alone hate. Rice farmers in pajamas: that’s how I pictured them.
“Lower the gun, you’re shooting the trees!” The voice again? My platoon leader? I was shooting into the tree canopy. I suppose I thought I could scare them away. Like the Lone Ranger, I thought maybe my machine gun could chase away the threat without any moral dilemma. But the threat continued. Men scattered behind trucks and bulldozers, looking for cover. The trees quivered ahead of me as enemy rifles continued firing. “Lower the fuckin’ gun!!!” And I did. Not at the quivering trees and shadowy life-leg apparitions among the tree trunks and bamboo, but at the ground just at the tree-line, just in front of the “target.”
The deafening roar of Huey helicopters came from nowhere, from behind and above me, at the treetop level. My head filled with the chop-chop-chop of rotor blades, the whine of the turbines, and a chorus of chukka-chukka-chukka from the choppers’ door guns harmonizing with my own gun’s song. Three of them banked hard just above me. As the third gunship passed, the door gunner’s left hand, which had lain across the chamber cover of his M-60 suddenly shot an exuberant middle finger toward the tree line, then morphed into a “thumbs-up” followed immediately by an “A-OK” sign aimed directly at me. “We did it! You and I,” he seemed to be saying. “We got the bastards!”
That day in the Bong Son Plain ended quickly as the Cavalry literally moved in to rescue us. We were hustled back to our trucks and back up the long mountain passes to our base camp. There was no searching for enemy dead or wounded. That wasn’t our role. We had to rest up so we could come back the next day and keep on hacking out forest and swamp and laying down steel. There was no debriefing. There was nothing but talk among my platoon mates about what had happened, and then chow, and then sleep.
Many months later I would have another chance to try out how I might handle the killing thing. That happened completely differently. Time didn’t stop. There was no conversation in my brain about philosophy. There were no words in my mind at all. It wasn’t surreal. It was, in fact, all flesh-and-blood too real. There was no  wiggling or quivering of leaves or a movement of shadowy forms, it was the face of a man, a young man, not more than 25 feet from my own young man’s face. It was all so plain. Only afterward did my mind begin to create, conflate, digress, imagine, and remove itself from what had been uncharacteristically clear. Unbearably real.
For more than forty years these and other wartime incidents have kept me wondering about my manliness. I am not Gandhi, obviously. I am not MLK. These were the “real” men, in my estimation. Nonetheless, I am here and able to contemplate ethical vagaries, and other men are not. Did I prove my manhood in war, or did I fail it? I’ve never felt like the Lone Ranger, and “Mad Sam” Peckinpah never gave us any real insights into what it was supposed to feel like to be Lucas McCain.

Pink or Blue? A War Veteran Learns to Knit

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in “Genderwonky” on Blogger.

My mother taught me to knit. Mind you, I didn’t learn how to knit from my mother, but she taught me nonetheless. She also taught me to sew. I don’t know why. My brothers weren’t taught these things, as far as I know. I don’t even think my sisters were. Maybe I was the only one who seemed interested. Maybe I just tended to hang around Mother too much.
I think I was probably 9 or 10 when she taught me to knit, but I didn’t actually begin learning how to knit until I was 58. I enrolled in knitting classes at a local knitting shop. Richmond, my hometown, has at least five knitting shops. For reasons I can’t fathom, I chose to take lessons at the oldest, best established store in town: the “West End” shop, whose habitués are mothers of children enrolled in the city’s exclusive local private academies. They are the wives of lawyers and doctors and politicians—no that’s not quite right. They are the wives of judges, chief surgeons, and governors of the Commonwealth. I drive to my lessons in my ratty little ‘72 Beetle. They drive in humongous Lincoln Town Cars, 700-series Beamers, and Range Rovers.
There are other places to learn knitting and to buy yarn. There’s the store with all the high-fashioned glitzy yarns and the workshops taught by international knitting stars. There’s the newer shop full of hip, high-end luxury fibers, all natural of course, down in what passes for Richmond’s version of Greenwich Village. Then there’s that newer shop with the laid-back, crazy, funny women who smoke too much and, I wager, keep bottles of whiskey or brandy tucked away with their stashes. They are fun-loving yarn-addicts, pure and simple. But, for reasons still unclear to me, I wound up in the high-brow shop with the tennis-club and equestrienne set. Go figure.
Let’s make one thing very clear. I am the only man taking these lessons. I continually hear rumors of other men who knit, but, so far, they are just rumors. “Lots of men knit these days,” says one of the shop’s owners. “But Dan’s the only straight guy, isn’t he?” Straight guy? But I knit! Some would say I can’t be straight by definition.
I point out to all who will listen that men do the knitting in Peru, that men were traditionally knitters at various times in “The Old World,” and that male soldiers in World War I routinely knitted their own socks! I get quiet, knowing smiles. No sense trying to tell anybody anywhere anything about gender. It is, after all, completely “natural,” and everyone knows all about it practically from the day they’re born.
I am working a cable row in the front on my alpaca sweater. I hope to complete it by the time it’s cold enough to wear an alpaca sweater. The ladies of the shop love to talk about the multi-colored socks I knit myself last year. “He even wears them,” one hastens to add. While I quietly knit away, my teacher, the shop ladies, and the other students all talk about babies. Always. Someone at the table is always knitting a baby sweater, or baby booties, or baby blanket, or a baby hat. Sometimes these items are being knit from a pure-white soft cotton or washable wool. More often, they are either pink or blue.
The talk invariably turns to when “the baby” is due, and whether the mother or grandmother in question yet knows “what it is.” That means, in case you didn’t get it, whether the fetus in question is on its way to becoming male or female. Even in this day of sonograms, lots of people don’t know. The parents-to-be all know, but they’re not saying. So even the expectant mothers are not revealing the big secret: they knit in white, or they make one item blue and one pink… “just in case.”
“Why don’t you make something green? Or purple?” I ask, playing the devil’s role, of course. Nobody bothers to answer. It can’t possibly be a serious question. I don’t follow up, because I’ve tried dozens of times. That conversation just doesn’t go anywhere, and, anyway, I’ve just dropped two stitches in the middle of a “cable back,” and that demands all my attention.
When the conversation isn’t about babies, which is rare, it’s about the older children: the boys in St. Benedict’s and the girls in St. Catherine’s. They don’t talk about the students’ grades or their sports accomplishments. Instead they discuss their summer art programs in Florence, and their intensive language programs in Moscow, and their pending appointments as congressional pages. But the real concern is not for this ascending generation, but for the babies, for what is being knit for them, and “what they are.”
Doing It In Public
My cousin recently needed someone to accompany her to the hospital for a surgical procedure. I knew I’d be stuck in the waiting room for three or four hours, so, naturally, I took my knitting. As time passed, other patients and their drivers/helpers/loved ones arrived. And every so often one would have a bag of knitting. Each of these knitters gravitated to my side of the room, made friendly inquiries about what I was making, gave their compliments, then took up an adjacent seat. After a couple hours, we had a phalanx of knitters, all sitting along one wall of the waiting room, chatting away merrily.
Knitters don’t just knit when they get together. We shared knitting stories. We shared knitting tools. We commented on color combinations and yarn choices. All the other knitters were women, of course. One of them noted my wedding ring and asked me if my wife were also a knitter. Of course I (and all the other women) took her question to really mean, “So, are you married or available?”
And so I comfortably lounged away a few hours, surrounded by women of all ages, knitting, knitting, knitting. Were I to suddenly find myself single, it would never dawn on me to go seeking company in a bar, when I could find myself a corner in any public space—say, a Starbucks Café—open my knitting bag, and soon have plenty of company.
Of course, not everyone is happy to see a man knitting in public. There is clearly something odd, suspicious, maybe even frightening about such a scene. I remember one time taking my knitting to the clinic at the VA hospital. It always takes my doctor way more time than seems reasonable to see me on appointment day. No sense complaining, though. I might as well just plan on getting some knitting done. And so I do.
On the day in question, I noted that my knitting had just the opposite effect as what I had experienced the day of my cousin’s surgery. I soon found I was sitting surrounded by empty chairs. Other patients were giving me a rather wide berth. But then, none of the other patients was also knitting. You see, most of the other patients were men: men my age or older. Men wearing their veteran’s hats, their combat colors, their manly accomplishments on their proverbial sleeves. These guys don’t knit. Or, if they do, they damn sure don’t do it in public! I’m the odd man out. I’m also a war veteran, and I’m wearing my colors, too. My combat engineer’s hat is set off nicely by the colorful stripes in my latest silky-soft scarf.
Finally, into the waiting room came a couple. They were much younger than I. Both were wearing some indications that they were in or had served in the military. I later learned they had both served in Iraq. She carried a knitting bag. After registering at the desk, she walked directly over to me, asked about my project, asked if she could join me, plopped down beside me and pulled out her work. Her partner—her husband, I soon learned—stood across the room glaring at me. He stood! He couldn’t even bring himself to sit. My knitting companion kept gesturing to her hubby to come join us, but he insistently stood and glowered.
After a few minutes, a nurse appeared and called the wife’s name, then took her back into the clinic to test her vital signs, etc. The man slowly approached me. I stopped knitting, met his eyes, and held my hands with the #3 needles angled just enough to suggest that they could serve as defensive weapons if need be. (For some reason, I tend to knit a lot of things with sporting weight yarns and small needles. For once I wished I had been working on a bulky Icelandic sweater. I would have been holding # 13s instead of # 3s!)
He stared into my soul and, I suppose, something he found there told him I was not really a threat to his marriage or his masculinity or anything else. Or perhaps he decided I was too dangerous, or too deranged, to tangle with. He grabbed a hot rod magazine off the rack nearby and walked back across the room to sit by himself.
What would happen to our planet if, all of a sudden, infant girls were swaddled in baby blue blankets? And what disastrous consequences could ensue if baby boys came bedecked with little pink pom-pom hats? What in the world can the world possibly find frightening about a 6’2” 200-pound man with a bag full of wool and knitting needles? What in Heaven’s name leads some people to a murderous rage at the very thought of a man in a dress and panty hose?
A former high school friend is a highly accomplished and respected poet. He’s 60 years old and holds a professorship at an major New England university. He has published numerous books and won many awards. Lately he has been writing to some of us, his former classmates, online, pouring out his heart full of hurt and his still-hot fury about how he was treated by the bullies in high school nearly a half-century ago. I, myself, harbored a fantasy of taking a baseball bat to one punk’s head for more than 30 years for beating me up and calling me a sissy. A recent study suggested that the rash of violent school shootings we have experienced in this country over the past few years were almost all perpetrated by boys who had been bullied and hounded and terrorized for not meeting some arbitrary norms of masculinity. In our culture we seem to think that violation of gender codes is an egregious offense upon society, punishable by torture and death.
It starts, innocently enough, by choosing to knit pink or blue. It proceeds from there by making girls who would rather have a Jedi’s light saber play with Barbie dolls. And if the gender variance hasn’t been shamed out of our children by the time they reach high school, we find it acceptable to let society’s goons try to beat it out of them. Besides schoolyard bullies, we have skinheads, good ol’ boys, queer-rollers, tranny-bashers, and many other sorts of “concerned citizens” waiting to finish the job. Call me Pollyanna, but I think we could end this sort of violence by knitting the rainbow for babies without first stopping to inspect their plumbing.

War Baby

This essay, which served as the introductory chapter of my memoirs collection, was written in the late 1990s. At the time there was a reinvigoration of the 1980s punk culture which, from the perspective of someone raised in the 1950s, was a strange admixture of violent symbolism and latter-day hippie values. At the time, I was struggling with my own moral dialectic over abstract ideas of peace and violence.

I was a war baby, conceived on or near VE Day and born in December 1945 just months after the surrender of Japan. My father was in the Navy, a chief yeoman’s mate on a sea going tug out of Norfolk, looking for U-boats, rescuing sailors from hurricanes. My mother was a Navy clerical worker; she met my father in the Navy. My mother’s brother, Uncle Sonny, was a sailor: one of the unlucky ones who saw too much, experienced more war than human tolerance allows. He drank, broke up his marriage, left my cousins fatherless, drifted, drank more. I always liked him. He seemed more real than most men. My brother joined the Navy out of high school. My mother beamed with pride when he went to the Naval Academy Preparatory School. She so much wanted a son to become a naval officer, but he got married to a WAVE instead. He cruised the world, including a tour as member of the “Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.” My folks couldn’t afford to send me to college without assistance, so I had to find a scholarship. I got one through the Navy ROTC; went to the University of New Mexico and spent the summer in San Diego at North Island Naval Air Station. I learned about anti-submarine warfare, flew in planes, went on ships, learned how to be a sailor. Then I dropped out, let my hair grow, learned how to play the guitar, then got drafted into the Army, and went to war.

I was born in the Naval hospital in Key West, though my grandma always said I had crawled out of a conch shell on the beach. She gave me conch shells for my birthdays. My father said I was born at Hemingway’s old table at Sloppy Joe’s. But I was born in the Navy. A baby sailor who was the baby of sailors in a family of sailors. A sailor baby who got drafted and became a soldier. My mother called me a “war baby.” I never thought of myself as a soldier or a sailor. As life unfolded I thought I was a writer, an artist, a photographer, a scientist, an anthropologist, a lover, a spouse, a father, a hippie, a freak, a professor. I never thought of myself as a war baby, except as a cute idea, a statement of demography, a generational positioning at the advance guard of the baby boom. Now I think of war a lot, and I realize I have always thought of war a lot. It’s like breathing; you don’t think about it because you’re already thinking about it. It’s the scenery, the background, the context of everything else, so you don’t pay it much attention. But I have always been at war; even at war with war.

Maybe that especially. In the 60s we called it “peace,” but I’m not sure any of us—us being war babies, boomers—know what peace is. We tried to create it as an antithesis of war, rather than simply its absence, and as an antithesis of war, it, too, became war: a war of soul-force, of moral high ground, of freaks versus pigs, the doves against the hawks. In our recent maturity we have practiced other wars: wars for justice, social equity, clean air. Business-people wars and environmental wars and feminist wars and anti-homophobe wars and wars on poverty and more wars on war. We have never been without war.

Germany surrendered and Japan prostrated itself in the glare of the nukes, but war didn’t end in 1945. Within moments we were embroiled in the Cold War, the Korean War, the War of Falling Dominos, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, and on and on. And there were the oil wars, from latter-day Suez crises to Desert Storm, and peace-keeping wars like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. The Cold War grew until the end of the 40s and then flourished through the entirety of the 50s. My childhood memories are dominated by Saturday matinees with re-runs of WWII newsreels and current newsreels of Korean battles, of Ike and Monty and Mac and all the other generals governing our provinces in Japan and Germany, beating back the Yellow Menace, the Red Menace, running the government, advising us to build bomb shelters. Kids’ movies were likely to be about some Menace, even the little Green Menace from Mars! America saved the world every time.

Every year was marked by a succession of parades filled with soldiers and sailors, tanks, jeeps, kids trying to blow Taps and not doing so well, and older kids giving 21-gun salutes. Then we fought the big war again when they held the Nuremberg trials and again when they caught Eichmann. Every evening for years, it seemed, the television showed the black smoke of the chimneys at Auschwitz, the captured Nazi films of bulldozers burying Jews by the thousands, and the skeletal hollow-eyed ghostly survivors, if they could even be called that. We began every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance, with the civilians’ salute, the hand to the heart. The same salute we used when they sang the national anthem at ball games—rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air—and which we assumed for the sour blowing of taps and the rifle salutes on Decoration Day, July 4th, and Armistice Day. I played the drums in the marching band, in a martial uniform with braids hanging from epaulets, and brass buttons and white gloves and a billed hat. The drum beat huge bruises on my leg as we marched and tapped out the cadences of war on every holiday and at every firemen’s parade and high school football game. Our civic recreation was patterned after 19th-century infantry maneuvers.

It was always during nap time in the first grade—usually on Mondays—that the sirens would go off and we had to get under our desks and wait for the world to blow up. I was a junior in high school the night we all went to bed with our hearts breaking our chests and our teeth grinding themselves to dust because Kennedy stared down Khrushchev and a bunch of Russian guys and a bunch of American guys put their keys in the slots and their fingers on the buttons and we all knew the last war had finally come.

Boys, by the time they were ten or twelve, got buzz cuts: crews, butches, burrs with white sidewalls, stuck up with Butch Wax or Crisco or Brylcreem. Military haircuts that showed you were a man who had been to war, who was capable and ready and willing to go to war. Soldiers wore their hair short to keep the lice away, and in a world in which nearly all men had been soldiers, boys had to wear their hair short in order to be men, to avoid being sissies. Only two kinds of males wore long hair in my childhood world. One kind was punks, hoodlums, bullies. I thought they were all violent and stupid, poor, working-class sons of coal miners and steel workers and foundry men. They were violent young punks living the truly hard life.  The other kind was just the opposite: the kind people meant when they talked about “long-hair” music. They were effete geniuses, artists, musicians, weirdos of a higher order. I found their images enticing: Leonard Bernstein waving his white trusses in the windstorms of his music, Albert Einstein thinking thoughts unthinkable to others, Albert Schweitzer in exotic lands enduring the unimaginable for selfless service. I dreamed of long hair. I read stories about Wild Bill Hickock with his long golden curls, and I relished my grandma’s tales of selling lotteries at Buffalo Bill’s carnival. Jefferson was my ideal and he wore a ponytail. Washington was the ultimate manly man and had a wig. Sampson had long hair until it got cut off, then he was a weakling. Jesus had long hair, for Christ’s sake. You gonna to call him a sissy?

Like all middle-class American boys of the 40s and 50s I had toy soldiers and toy guns. Metal models of tanks and plastic or balsa-wood models I built of warplanes and warships. When we played, we played cowboys or war or space, and, being the oldest, I got to be sheriff or captain or commander. Boys, men, were supposed to aspire to ranks and wear badges and bars. I read the World Book religiously, and if you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I mostly read about collecting colorful postage stamps or how to identify spiders, but I really read about uniforms and insignia and warplanes and ships. I joined first the Cub Scouts then the Boy Scouts, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have told you it was about camping, tying knots, survival in the woods, outdoors fun. I remember now that it was about uniforms, ranks, assemblies, salutes, codes, pledges, merit badges, sashes, hazing, hierarchy, and order: preparation for war.

My mother let my hair grow until I was about three years old. When I got my first haircut she put those locks in a cigar box, and she still has them somewhere. Like Samson I lost my power so that I could wear the style of Power. Somewhere there is a photograph of me with a huge head of blue-black curly locks and a sailor suit. I always thought that combination worked fine, but the Navy wouldn’t have appreciated it. I have another photograph of myself at age four, in 1949, with very short hair. My hair stayed short until the autumn of 1964. Nearly every week of childhood included a trip to the barbershop. By the time I was a teenager I came to enjoy those haircuts. Italian barbers would wield straight razors and pretend to be sculpting something unique from your hair, but everyone always looked the same as everyone else when they got out of that barber’s chair. It was fun being talked to like a man by other men cutting your hair or awaiting their turn. Being asked about baseball or politics or which branch of the service I was going to go into. It was attention being paid to you as an individual as the barber deftly carved your head and your identity to be like everyone else’s. My barbers were the Feruzzo brothers.  One of them bought a new Corvette, ran it into a telephone pole. Nobody was hurt, but it made great barbershop conversation. Don’t remember his first name, but he did the best razor cuts.

I dropped out of college at the end of my first year after that first summer I owed the Navy in San Diego, learning the arts of war: how to kill submarines, buying beer out of a machine in the Bachelor Officers Quarters. The fall of  ‘64 I spent back in Pittsburgh hanging out on the campuses of Pitt and Carnegie Tech with the writers, poets, artists, and musicians. I gravitated toward the Bohemian aesthetes. I wrote dense and sophomoric poetry and played Renaissance music and folk music and let my hair grow until it rolled over my ears slightly and brushed the top of my turtlenecks. By the following year my hair had begun to regain its locks of curls, and I had grown a beard and mustache. This was unheard of. I was seen as some sort of anarchist, un-American, foreign-influenced, clearly dangerous. People would stop me in the street and ask if I were a beatnik or a Seventh Day Adventist. Or they’d just throw rocks and say “Get a haircut!” and call me a “sissy.” But then I got drafted. The big deal when you get drafted is the haircut. They line you up and the barbers tease you. They put an electric razor on your head and, without finesse or further discussion, they shave you to peach fuzz. No wonder the barbers of my adolescence thought they were sculpting individual masterpieces with each razor cut.

My high school teachers—at least the male high school teachers—all wore crewcuts and all were veterans and reservists. The first day of a class was always about the same. A crew-cut math teacher or civics teacher or history teacher would come into the room. He would announce that he was a marine or a soldier of some kind and he had fought in Korea or the Philippines, or Iwo Jima, and if anyone wanted to mess with him, now was the time to do it. Now, the first day of class was the time to decide if anyone had the balls to screw with the buzz-cut veteran macho-men teachers. And they would emphasize the point by slamming a book on their desk, or pitching a piece of chalk at some poor coalminer’s kid with long hair and a black leather jacket whose only thoughts were of his Indian motorcycle. Then, when the point had been made that they were tough men you didn’t want to mess with, they’d smile and tell a slightly off-color joke, and everyone would giggle nervously and decide this teacher was okay after all. They would be human and okay to get along with just so long as nobody mouthed off. Just so long as we all sat in our seats, in rows and columns and ranks and files, with our backs straight and our eyes straight ahead, and nobody chewing gum. To really make the point, though, two or three of these ex-marine teachers would occasionally grab one or two of the tough-guy hoods with leather jackets out by the bus stop at the end of the first day of classes. They would drag him behind the school building and cut his hair with dull scissors. You could wear the haircut of a warrior or you could suffer the consequences of living in a world of easily offended warriors.

This is the world I was born into. This is the world that the retro-punk youth of the 80s and 90s developed some fantastic nostalgia for. But what if a bunch of older guys were to rip their nose plugs out and shave their heads and make them stand up straight and beat snare drums in a marching band, wearing orange uniforms with epaulets, and bruise their legs and listen to sour notes barely sounding like Taps on a frozen November 11th, year after year after year? What then? Would that be cool? Or what if they tried to sleep, night after night, their rest robbed by fears they cannot identify, anxieties nobody understands? What if their legs were blown skyward by a Bouncing Betty, their balls with them? What if they had visions of carrying piles of body bags that leaked dark ooze? What if they spent an entire year in mud up to their ears with lead pelting their helmets, dismembering their friends, reducing their poetry to idiocy? What if their uncles came home from war and drank themselves into oblivion and died alone thirty years later?

This was the world I was born into. No retro-chic fashions, old movies and music can make it sensible. It was a world built on war, ready for war. It is a world, thank Heaven, that has nearly disappeared. But I see it trying to return. I see its potential rebirth in those who weren’t there before, and who think it’s cool. I see it in punker violence and warmongering young studs who yearn to kick some tail, any tail. I see it in those who have begun to find some hint of romance in the Vietnam experience, and who, because they are young, think that the sixties were silly, or who think that hippies drive pickups and listen to Led Zeppelin. Or who think that my generation was all about rock-and-roll music or getting high or free love.

That is not what my generation is about. It is about war: the love of war, the hatred of war, the myths of war, the cowardice and heroism and unthinkable pain of war. We are not “peaceniks.” We are the war babies.

Postscript: Note that this was written after the Gulf War but well before the beginning of the later and current hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Was I being prescient, or are we simply fated to have another war somewhere every ten or twenty years?  A good friend points out: “Before 1941 we had a ration of four and a half years of Peace for every year of War.  Since 1941 the ratio is less than one year of Peace for every year of War, and children under the age of 10 have never known Peace.”