Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 3 Summer 2002

Culinary Heroines & Heroes

Mary Randolph: A Role Model for Women of the 1800s

By Jean Robbins. Ph.D., Retired Registered Dietitian and former chair
of the Culinary History Collection Advisory Board
(edited by Caryl Gray)

Editor's note: During 2001, Jean Robbins spoke to the Fortnightly Club of Roanoke, Virginia; the Virginia Dietetic Association (Spring 2201 meeting); and the Virginia Association of Family and Consumer Science (Fall 2001 meeting) on the topic of Mary Randolph and her contributions to the culinary history of Virginia. This article is a product of the research for the presentations.

There is great interest today in culinary history, which has sent historians into the dusty archives of historical societies and museums. Old recipes and cookbook collections are suddenly popular. As these collections are reviewed, the story of major events in American history, such as war, depression, prohibition, the changing role of women, the westward expansion, immigration, food laws, charitable and welfare policies, education, and labor come to life. (1) Cookbooks have become a method to study our culinary roots. These books furnish us with cultural artifacts (food trends which can become future social histories) and sources of information about individuals and cultural groups. There is a case for cookbooks as sources for studies in sociology and anthropology of American cookery. (2,3)

Thus I have chosen to tell the story of a notable lady of the 19th century and to share her influences on American culinary practices. This lady, Mary Randolph (1762-1828), was the author of America's first regional cookbook, the Virginia Housewife (1824). Her book became an indispensable companion to Virginia cooks for almost a century. Mary Randolph and her husband, David, were members of the "Randolphs of Virginia", a prominent family with connections to many of America's early leaders (Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and Robert E. Lee). History has shown that even famous families such as the Randolphs have triumphs, misfortunes, and scandal. Jonathan Daniels wrote that often instability occurred with close intermarriages, which was promoted among the colonial families. In spite of the family's lapses and scandals, the Randolphs will always be know as "America's Foremost Family". (4)

There is an unusual story about Mrs. Randolph, so I will begin her story with her gravesite at Arlington House, formerly known as the Custis Mansion and currently the site of Arlington National Cemetery. By 1929 her name was forgotten as noted by Washington journalist, Margaret Husted, in the Washington Star. The article stated that workers for the War Department, which administered Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House, became curious about the grave of "Mrs. Mary Randolph". The grave, which is located one hundred feet north of the Custis mansion, was noticed as renovation to the house began. No one working on the project knew who she was or why she had been buried there. Her gravestone stated that she was born on August 9, 1762, at Ampthill (near Richmond, VA) and she died on January 23, 1828 in Washington City. After the story was published, Mrs. Randolph's descendants identified the mysterious lady. She was the cousin of George Washington Parke Custis and the godmother of his daughter, Mary Randolph Custis, who married Robert E. Lee. (5) Mary Randolph was the first person ever buried on the grounds of what would become Arlington National Cemetery. Her tombstone inscription reads: "Her intrinsic worth needs no eulogium. The deceased was a victim to maternal love and duty. As a tribute of filial gratitude this monument is dedicated to her exhaulted virtue by her youngest son". Her youngest son, Burwell Randolph, had suffered a crippling fall while in the Navy. He declared that she had sacrificed her life in the care of his. (5,6)

Mary was born at Ampthill, the plantation of her maternal grandparents in Chesterfield County, and now the site of the Dupont Company. (The house was dismantled and moved to Richmond in 1929.) Mary Randolph was a member of the Virginia elite, with roots extending back to the colony’s formative years. As the eldest of thirteen children of Thomas Mann and Ann Cary Randolph of Tuckahoe in Goochland County, she grew up surrounded with all the wealth and comforts enjoyed by families in the plantation homes. A tutor provided formal education for Mary and her siblings. (4)

Along with her formal education, Mary Randolph was trained in proper household management practices, a quality expected of upper-class women of the time. Women were expected to supervise large manor houses with supporting buildings and numerous servants. "Mary Randolph: A Chesterfield County role model for women of the 19th century" (7), states that women were relegated to secondary positions within the family hierarchy, but in truth they were the mainspring that kept the household running. Women of this period had numerous responsibilities for the household supported by a formable knowledge of food preservation and preparation and elegant entertaining. This knowledge was important throughout Mary Randolph's adult life.

Mary wed David Meade Randolph of Presque Isle, Chesterfield County (a first cousin once removed) in December 1780. He was known as an outstanding farmer and noted inventor. He served as a captain in the Revolutionary War and was later appointed as a United States Marshal (a federal court official) for Virginia by President Washington. It is believed that Mr. Randolph's cousin, Thomas Jefferson, endorsed the appointment. The couple produced eight children and four survived to adulthood: Richard, William Beverly, David Meade and Burwell Starke.

Much of the land that made up the 750 acre plantation was swampy and therefore a health hazard. The family left the Presque Isle plantation to live in Richmond.(8,9) They built a brick home at Fifth and Main Streets in Richmond. The home, named "Moldavia", became the center of Federalist society. Along with the Marshalls, the Wickhams, the Chevallies and other prominent Richmond families, the Randolphs established a model for fashionable social life. With Mary's knowledge of food and entertaining, invitations to dine in the Randolph home were coveted. Mary's skills as a hostess and cook were well known in the Richmond area. In fact, her reputation was so widespread that during the slave insurrection near Richmond in 1800, the leader "General" Gabriel announced that he would spare her life so that she could become his cook. (8)

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson removed David Randolph, an outspoken Federalist, from office as a United States Marshall. Although the two men were cousins, they were on opposite sides politically and kinship proved less important than party ties. Losing the court position in combination with other business reversals, contributed to the decline of Randolph's fortune. His removal from office coincided with a ruinous fall in tobacco prices and a resulting recession in 1800-1802.(8) David and Mary found that they had to make severe cutbacks in their household, which had not been an economical one. The Randolphs offered sundry lots and tenements in Richmond for sale. They listed Moldavia for sale between 1802 and 1805 and moved into a rented house. There are two conflicting stories on who purchased the house. According to Margaret Husted (5), John Allan, foster father of Edgar Allan Poe purchased Moldavia, however Sterling Anderson (8) reported that Joseph Gallego, the owner of Gallego Flour Mills, purchased the home.

Mary Randolph took an unorthodox step for an upper-class woman so that her family could continue to enjoy their accustomed standard of living. In March 1808, she advertised in the Richmond Virginia Gazette that she was opening a boarding house for ladies and gentlemen. Martha Jefferson Randolph, Mary's sister-in-law, was not optimistic about the outcome of this new venture. Martha wrote her father "'Sister Randolph'--whose house servants had been saved, at least temporarily, through a prior mortgage--had "opened a boarding house in Richmond, but... has not a single boarder yet.'". Martha believed 'the ruin of the family is still extending itself daily.'" Despite these doubts, Mary achieved success in her enterprise. Dubbed "the Queen", she attracted, " as many subjects as her domain could accommodate. There were few more festive boards... wit, humor and good fellowship prevailed, but excess rarely". (8)

It is interesting to note that all the cookery at that time was done in kitchens that had changed little over the centuries. (10) In Virginia, the kitchen was typically a separate building for reasons of safety, summer heat and the smells from the kitchen. The heart of the kitchen was a large fireplace where meat was roasted and cauldrons of water and broth simmered most of the day. Swinging cranes and various devices made to control temperature and the cooking processes were used. The Dutch oven and the chafing dish were found in most kitchens. The brick oven used for baking was located next to the fireplace. A salamander was used to move baked products around in the oven and it could also be heated and held over food for browning. Karen Hess (10) stated that Mrs. Randolph was a fine practitioner who knew her way about the kitchen but the actual cooking and toil fell to the servants. (11,12,13)

In the same year that Mary opened her boarding house, David became an agent for Henry Heth in the operation of the Black Heth Coal Mines near Midlothian. David traveled to England and Wales to study their mining operations and to improve those in the Black Heth Mines. Always interested in turning a profit, David received patents in 1815 for his improvements in shipbuilding and candle making and in 1821 for improvements in drawing liquor. For his relative, George Washington Parke Curtis, he invented a special compound to waterproof Arlington, the Custis mansion. Mrs. Randolph is said to have invented an icebox, however someone else saw it and patented it in his own name. (8)

By 1819, the couple, in advancing years, gave up their business enterprises and moved to Washington, D. C. to live with their son, William Beverley Randolph. At this residence, Mary decided to compile her culinary knowledge and her cookbook was published in 1824. In her preface to The Virginia Housewife, Mrs. Randolph points out the lack of clear-cut instructions in the cookbooks of that time. "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 everything in the culinary line, to proper weights and measures." She also offered three rules for running a household: "Let everything be done at the proper time, keep everything in its proper place, and put everything to its proper use." (10) At the beginning of his article, "'Queen Molly' and the Virginia Housewife" Sterling Anderson quoted Mrs. Randolph with this statement: "The government of a family bears a Lilliputian resemblance to the government of a nation. The contents of the Treasury must be know, and great care taken to keep the expenditures from being equal to the receipts." Mrs. Randolph's philosophy is illustrated in additional quotes from Anderson's article: "The prosperity and happiness of a family depend greatly on the order and the regularity established in it. Management is an art that may be acquired by every woman of good sense and tolerable memory."(8)

Mrs. Randolph's cookbook was written especially for Virginia cooks. Mrs. Husted reported that during the colonial period wealthy families imported cookbooks from England, but these books ignored the special requirements of the New World. Mrs. Randolph's book proves that regional food preferences were well established by the first quarter of the 19th century. She included recipes for dishes that have remained southern favorites, such as "toasting ham"; baking, roasting or broiling of shad, boiling turnip tops "with bacon in the Virginia style"; sweet potato pudding; cornmeal bread; batter cakes; and batter bread. Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist, had a copy of the manuscript collection of recipes of Martha Jefferson Randolph and the collection contained over fifty recipes from Mary Randolph's cookbook. (5) Husted also stated The Virginia Housewife was surprisingly modern. Absent were the elaborate dishes of the 18th century cookbooks and the overwhelming array of foods featured on English bills of fare. Mrs. Randolph believed that the quality of prepared food, not its great variety, was important. She wrote that: "Profusion is not elegance". (5) Recipes for breads and hot cakes occupy a large section of Mary Randolph's book. She provides recipes for battercakes containing small hominy, cornmeal, butter, eggs and milk, which were baked on a griddle or in "woffle irons". A popular recipe was the one for Apoquiniminc Cakes or beaten biscuits. (10)

Mrs. Randolph also promoted the charm of gathering and preparing garden-fresh vegetables. It was not on her recommendation that a later generation of southern cooks followed the ruinous practice of cooking vegetable endlessly. She stressed repeatedly that vegetables must be cooked only to the point of being tender. Mrs. Randolph advocated the common practice of using herbs, spices and wines in cooking. Her recipe for apple fritters calls for slices of apple marinated in a combination of brandy, white wine, sugar cinnamon, and lemon rind. (10)

Cookbooks, with few exceptions, are addressed to housewives in comfortable circumstances. The poor, with lean larders, have little use for recipes that assume a plentiful supply of ingredients. The Virginia Housewife was intended for those who enjoyed the bounty of plantation life. Mrs. Randolph did have an eye for economy, for example, she offered several ways of using bread in simple family desserts such as bread pudding and bread fritters. In her article, Margaret Husted stated that in spite of Mary Randolph's hostility to Thomas Jefferson for ousting her husband from office, she was not reluctant to accept vanilla beans and macaroni products, which were unknown in Virginia until Jefferson introduced them. Recipes for ice cream were also included in her book. (5) Mrs. Randolph concluded her cookbook with various domestic hints such as how to make starch, soap, and blacking. She also included directions for cleaning knives, forks and silver utensils. The recipe for an early room deodorizer, vinegar of the four thieves, was also included in the cookbook.

In Virginia, Mary Randolph's cookbook has become synonymous with fine cuisine. Karen Hess, a culinary historian, wrote that the most influential American cookbook of the 19th century was this book. The Virginia Housewife was not only acclaimed in Virginia, but many of the recipes have been copied in cookbooks published all over the United States. Mrs. Randolph died in 1829(12) before the full extent of her triumph was apparent. After her death, her cookbook was published in six editions over the next three decades. Her son, William Beverly Randolph, copyrighted the cookbook in 1828. Her recipes showed simplicity of concept; they were clearly expressed; and they were full of perceptive observations. (10)

Jan Carlton (12) commented that Mary Randolph combined knowledge of English cooking with native Indian food influences. She reflected her knowledge by combining the use of regional meats and vegetables with overall cooking techniques and social grace. Further, she introduces into her recipes the use of African food ingredients, a knowledge gained from servants. When Ms Hess reviewed the Virginia Housewife, she remarked that nothing in the history of early American cookbooks quite prepares us for the sumptuous cuisine presented. Mrs. Randolph brought her personal flair to everything she did, but her reputation as Virginia's best cook and the early success of her work indicates that her cookery was solidly based in Virginia tradition. Already there was a sophisticated cuisine, a harmonious interweaving of several food cultures added to the fine cooking of the 17th and 18th centuries. Now there seemed to be an authentic American cuisine. (10)


  1. Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cook Book. (1975) [DesMoines], Meredith, Corp.
  2. Todhunter, E. Neige. (1992). Seven Centuries of Cookbooks: Treasures and Pleasures. Nutrition Today, 27(1), 6-12.
  3. Carlin, Joseph M. (1998). "Reading about Food and Culinary History." Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 13 (3) 11-19.
  4. Daniels, Jonathan. (1972). The Randolphs of Virginia. Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Co., Inc.
  5. Husted, Margaret. (1980). "Mary Randolph’s the Virginia Housewife: America’s First Regional Cookbook." Virginia Cavalcade, 30, 77-87.
  6. Mary Randolph's Grave. Retrieved July 22, 2002 from
  7. Chesterfield Connections: Historic Chesterfield. Mary Randolph: a Chesterfield County Role Model for Women of the 19th Century. Retrieved July 22, 2002 from accessed 7/23//2002
  8. Anderson, Sterling P., Jr. (1971). ""Queen Molly" and The Virginia Housewife." Virginia Cavalcade, 20(4) 29-35.
  9. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Series 1. General Correspondence, 1651 &endash; 1827, Thomas Jefferson to David Meade Randolph (October 6, 1791).
  10. Randolph, Mary. (1984). The Virginia Housewife, with historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess. (Facsimile of the first edition, 1824, along with additional material from editions of 1825 and 1828, thus presenting a complete text.) Columbia, University of South Carolina Press.
  11. Crump, Nancy Carter. (1986). Hearthside Cooking. McLean, VA, EMP Publications, Inc.
  12. Carlton, Jan. (1990). More Richmond Receipts: Past and Present. Norfolk, VA, J & B Editions.

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