History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Acknowledging, and Slighting, “The Virginia Housewife”

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I’ve had The Virginia Housewife on my mind recently.  The other day, in a tribute to Penelope Casas, I wrote a little about the Spanish recipes in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, one of the best-selling cookbooks of the 1800s.

Born in 1762 to a Virginia gentry family, Mary Randolph won fame as a hostess, in a society that prized hospitality, for the excellent food her kitchen produced.  When the family’s fortune turned, Mrs. Randolph’s experience as a hostess stood her in good stead and she ran a successful boarding house, known for its fine fare, in Richmond.  Later, she moved to Washington, DC, and in 1824 published The Virginia Housewife – a book that would later be celebrated as the first truly American cookbook.

Mrs. Randolph’s cookbook had cachet.  Going through nineteen editions before the Civil War, it influenced generations of American cooks.  Other cookbook writers recognized its importance too.  Sarah Rutledge, author of the 1847 The Carolina Housewife cited it.  So too did Malinda Russell.

A pastry chef, like I once was, Malinda Russell authored the first known African American cookbook, published in 1866.  In it, she tells us a little about herself.  At the end of her short autobiography and introduction, she tells us “I cook after the plan of the ‘Virginia Housewife.’”  Mary Randolph’s book – filled with such a variety of recipes and such detailed instructions – was useful to her, her comment says.  It says too that Mrs. Russell (like Eliza Goodfellow, a noted pastry chef perhaps a generation or so older than Malinda Russell) understood marketing.  The Virginia Housewife meant something to people.  Mrs. Russell, I suspect, acknowledged the famous cookbook in part to sell her own A Domestic Cookbook.

What really captured my attention, though, was what Mrs. Russell didn’t say.  She did not acknowledge Mary Randolph by name.  The two women had much in common.  They were cooks and authors.  They had faced setbacks.  And they both had disabled sons to care for.  Even if Malinda Russell had known how much she and Mary Randolph shared in common (and presumably she didn’t), Mrs. Randolph came from the world that used the force of law to circumscribe Mrs. Russell’s freedom and opportunities.

“I cook after the plan of the “Virginia Housewife,” Mrs. Russell wrote.  But before that, more prominently, she told us, “I learned my trade of FANNY STEWARD, a colored cook, of Virginia.”  We don’t know who Fanny Steward was.  But Mrs. Russell did.  Steward was another skilled African American woman and she gave her resolute pupil a chance to challenge her unequal status by teaching her a craft.  Thanks to Steward’s tutelage, Mrs. Russell was able to seek independence through her own business and to write a cookbook in which she could tell the world her story.  Fanny Steward merited being acknowledged in print and by name.

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