Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 3 Summer 2002

Hertzler Culinary History Prize Paper

Elite America: 18th and 19th Century Cooking Practices

by David Mouser

For century's kings and queens held social gatherings and dinners parties of extravagant proportions. Naturally, since the colonies were under British control, and many colonists were originally born in Britain, the inhabitants knew of such gatherings. Even as the colonies became more established and rooted in their own ways, stories of royal galas continued to permeate the colonial shores. Eventually, as the colonies progressed and became an independent nation, a certain type of aristocracy formed of its own in the New World. Even though America was a democracy, a hierarchy still developed amongst the population. In most cases, the elite became enshrined through family connections either by business or marriage. In turn, by the time of American independence there were numerous families in the colonies that were synonymous amongst the public--the Adam's, Washington's, Carter's, Lee's, etc., but to name a few. In their own right, the American elite started to mirror their European counterparts. Elite families started to amass large quantities of land and host their friends and neighbors to large dinner parties. There were instances of this in Massachusetts, Georgia, and all points in-between. However, at the same time there was a distinct division amongst the elite; all of whom were on a level far above commoners. Harriet Horry was one such individual amongst the elite--yet there were still those who transcended those of their own class to a level of their own--the likes of John Adam's, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. In a sense, they were the best of the best.

At one end of elite life lay Harriet Pinckney Horry. The majority of cases during this time period found that the place of the woman to be in the kitchen. Mind you, Horry's place was not the equivalent of modern stereotypes of women in the kitchen that have carried over from the 1950s. Rather, a woman's duty was to manage the kitchen by overseeing the work done by the slaves. She may have cooked had she chosen to, but it was not her responsibility to do so. Instead, modern day stereotypes were reserved for black women who came to populate many of the kitchens in the south. (1) The proverbial "mammy" was the person who was actually in charge of the housework. It was mammy "who often ran the household, interceded with... parents..., [and] nursed..."(2) The role of the mammy emerged because of the large size of plantations and understaffing. Most plantations had a hierarchical system of power as, "authority descended downward from the master, to the overseer, to the slave driver."(3) In turn, "constant surveillance of slaves... was one of the most onerous of overseer's duties."(4) George Washington himself even expected one of his overseers to "remain constantly" on the plantation unless otherwise directed. However, since the majority of plantations were very large, the task of checking the whole plantation frequently made it difficult for the overseer to look over the house itself. Plus, the belief that a woman's place was believed to have been in the home contributed to the mammy being in charge of the household work, as well as the plantation mistress overseeing the slaves within the home while the overseers spent more time outside. Catherine Clinton reiterates this by stating that "Women administered food production, purchase, and distribution," and "although the overseer might have given some assistance in the barnyard, the critical food-production spheres were clearly those of 'women's work'." (5)

Not all homes during the period could have the same type and/or amount of labor or the same types of cooking ingredients available. It was in fact Horry's marital status that enabled her to start her cookbook and to have the lavish dishes that she would serve at her home. Harriet was initially married to Daniel Horry. Daniel Horry was already of an established South Carolina family, enriched with wealth and land in the form of rice plantations. Daniel Horry's family had been wealthy enough for him to claim several rice plantations to his name. Daniel Horry was also wealthy enough to have a summer home in Charles Town South Carolina.(6)

In due course, Harriet Horry would find herself alone after the death of her husband in 1785.(7) Now a widow, Horry took it upon herself, with the assistance of her mother, to take over full management of the plantations. This action by Horry was most certainly uncommon for her time and place &endash; even more so because she was a woman. As Catherine Clinton points out,

A Second marriage was not uncommon for widow or widower, especially one in reduced circumstances... while she might be fully capable of running the faming of the plantation, she could not publicly execute plantation affairs without a man's assistance; no woman could transact business without a male surrogate for court and legal proceedings.(8)

Despite these institutional stereotypes and patriarchal restrictions, Horry chose to take over her former husbands property and transactions. Probably the only reason that Horry was able to accomplish this was because of her background. In 1748, Horry was born a Pinckney by birth. She was the daughter of Charles Pinckney, an "attorney, prominent political leader, and... briefly the chief justice of South Carolina."(9) Even though her father and husband were dead, Horry most certainly looked to her two Uncles to help her transact her legal business. After all, the Pinckney name had become prominent in South Carolina.

The wealth of Daniel Horry allowed Harriet to have her kitchen and receipts. Being of a wealthy family, Horry had at her disposal more culinary resources than many residents did in her day. For instance, many of the recipes that Horry had "called for lavish use of butter, milk, and cream;" all showing the abundance of wealth with the Horry's since the average person could not afford such ingredients, let alone keep such ingredients longer than a day or two at best. Most common people did not have the privilege of frequently using such ingredients. According to writings by Reverend Deverux Jarratt, the food of the commoner was, "altogether the produced from the farm, or plantation, except a little sugar, which was rarely used..." there was also " use of tea or coffee for breakfast, or at any other time." Jarratt points out himself that he did not "know a single family that made use of [tea or coffee]." Another quotation from Jarratt reveals that, "Meat, bread and milk [were] the ordinary food of all [his] acquaintance..." Furthermore, he, "...supposed the richer sort might make use of those and other luxuries," but Jarratt insisted that he had no such access. (10)

In most instances recipes that called for lavish ingredients were indicative of English practices of cooking.(11) However, most of the dishes at the Horry table were "simple everyday dishes." &endash; at least according to Horry herself.(12) More likely than not, Horry was classifying these dishes according to the social circles in which she traveled. If one simply looks at some of the receipts found in Horry cookbook, it will soon become apparent that her dishes were not everyday, nor were they simple. First, some excerpts from main courses:

To Ragout a Breast of Veal

Take a large Breast of Veal, more than half roast it, cut it into four pieces and have ready much strong gravy as will cover it. Put it into your stew pan, season it high with Pepper, Clovers, Mace, and Nutmeg, a little Chalot, Lemon Peal, mushrooms, Oysters fried and stew'd; Sweet Breads skin'd and Pull'd in little pieces, and when it is done enough fry your largest Oysters with Crispt Bacon and forced Meat Balls and put them in. But for a white ragoe take the same ingredients only boil the Breast of Veal in half Milk and water; with a bunch of sweet herbs, a little Lemon Peel, Mace, and whole Pepper; when it is enough wash with the Yolks, and a little Butter and put it into your Stew Pan, just long enough to make it look Yellow and thicken your sauced with the Yolks of Eggs, and a piece of Butter rolw'd up in flow'r with three Spoonfulls of Cream thickned up to-gether.

To Caveach Mackrel

Cut Your Mackrel into round pieces and wipe them dry divide one into five or six pieces, to six Mackrel you may take one Ounce of Beaten pepper, three large Nutmegs, a little mace and a handfull of salt and spice and make two or three holes in each piece and put the Seasoning into the holes, rub the pieces over with the Spices, and fry them Brown in Oil and let them stand till they are cold, then put them into your Vinegar cold and cover them with oil. They will keep well cover'd a great while and are delicious. The Vinegar should be boil'd with a little Spice, a good deal of horse radish and mustard see, and let stand to be cold before you put the fish in.

Simply by looking at these receipts one can see that they did not require everyday items. Spices were certainly highly sought after and expensive, even in the 1770s. Spices, added to cured meats such as bacon, along with oysters and veal, are still amongst the higher priced meats. Additionally, unlike Jarrett, Horry used at her disposal, and often times to taste, butter, cream, and eggs in her recipes for dinner dishes; which is not even factoring in dishes intended for dessert:

Irish Butter

Take an Ounce and half of Isinglass, put half a pint of Spring Water, let it simmer till 'tis dissolved, then put in a pint and a quarter of Water and a quarter of a pint of Mountain Wine, then Juice of one Lemon and the peal of half a one pared thing, a very little saffron and sugar to your tast, let all boil together a quarter of an hour strain it in a dish through Muslin and cut it out in what form you please.

To Make Snow Cream

A quarter of a pound of roasted Apple a quarter of a pound of fine Sugar beaten and sifted, then Juice of two lemons and the whites of six Eggs; Beat these all together in the manner you do Floating Island. put some grated Lemon Peel, orange flower Water, and fine Sugar into half a Pint of Cream, let it stand some time, then strain it into your dish, and put some froth gentle upon it.

Cocoa Nut Puffs

Take a Coca Nut and dry it well before the fire, then grate it and add to it a good spoonfull of Butter, sugar to your tast, six Eggs with half the whites and 2 spoonfulls of rose water. Mix them all together and they must be well beat before they are put in the oven.

Like some of the main courses, all of the dessert items call for large amounts of sugar &endash; often times in large proportions. None of Horry's receipts call for exact measurements when it comes to sugar. If a common person were actually able to have sugar, then they most certainly would have made it a point to conserve their sugar as long as they could by only putting in the minimum amount necessary. Also, cocoa nuts were a foreign item from the Caribbean, which would have made it necessary to have them requested at a high price.

While many of the dishes served by Horry were English in origin, at the same time many of the dishes were "wholly or largely of American origin." To the people of the time, such "American" dishes included cured hams, biscuits, as well as various fruits preserved with alcohol--which itself was a main part of daily meals for families such as the Horry's. The Horry's, on daily occasions, being of the South Carolina elite, had rum mixed with water, or brandy.(13) Also, if you look through the ingredients for Irish Butter you will notice that Horry calls for Spring Water and not regular water. Because of the subsequent risk of infections from the contaminated water supplies, more often than not, poorer whites and slaves were the ones subjected to drinking regular water.

At the other end of the elite, lay the likes of Thomas Jefferson. While both Jefferson and Horry represented the elite of the South, Jefferson exerted an aura of Old World style and class. As a result, Jefferson was almost in a league of his own. Jefferson certainly was not born as a commoner. One of his first memories included being surrounded by slaves as a child. When Jefferson was a child, his father was probably living at a level near that of Daniel Horry, if not slightly below. However, Jefferson would not remain at such a level for long. Jefferson's first introduction to the Old World was as a young adult studying at William and Mary. Jefferson fell into the company of the governor, where he was frequently invited to dine and have lavish meals, the likes of which he had surely never seen. Dumas Malone comes to the same conclusion by saying that during "his student days, when [Jeffeson] dined and performed in amateur musicals at the Palace, he undoubtedly found more elegance there than he had ever before observed."(14) Jefferson was also strongly influenced by his peers and their dwellings. There was a strong French influence at places such as Mount Vernon, Westover, Hermitage, and Drayton Hall.

Jefferson's stay in France, however, was his actual induction to the Old World and its ways. Jefferson came to appreciate many things while in France &endash; top amongst the list was his affinity for wine. For example, while the Horry family chose to consume rum mixed with water, Jefferson had the diligence to learn how to make his own wine. He would surely have given up his reputation as a politician sooner than add water to his wine. Even upon departing France, Jefferson took his newfound love of wines with him. After being recalled to America to assume the post of Secretary of State, Jefferson ordered French wines to be served with dinners for purposes of state. During his stay in France, Jefferson made it a point to not only sample the cuisine of the major French cities, but he made numerous trips to the countryside to sample local cooking. However, probably the most important influence upon Jefferson's dining was the aristocracy. After attending his first audience with King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Overall, Jefferson "was not impressed by [such] ceremonies and he never admired the queen," but such events show that Jefferson was "an official of established standing." Henceforth, Jefferson was "entitled to attend the King's levee every Tuesday and dine with the whole diplomatic corps afterward." Jefferson attended such functions, but was never over whelmed by the experience as opposed to others amongst him.

All of the grandeur of France certainly had a lasting impression upon Jefferson. Probably the most lasting visual affects that show France's influence upon Jefferson is his home in Charlottesville &endash; Monticello. By the time Jefferson had actually completed work on Monticello, the house as well as his person stood on a par by themselves. (15)

Monticello was not Jefferson's only lasting impression of France. Whether it was for simple admiration, or for the lasting ability to consume such foods, Jefferson had numerous items shipped back to America. He had grapes from France imported into his vineyard at Monticello. Not only did Jefferson have a vineyard at Monticello, but he also had an extensive collection of gardens. Strewn amongst Jefferson's crops at Monticello were carrots, peas, lettuce, apples, cherries, plums, and peaches &endash; these were but a few of the more common vegetables and fruits grown throughout the colony.(16) However, Jefferson also grew more exotic foods that were less common to Virginia. Furthermore, Jefferson had European products, including, "hares, rabbits, pheasants, partridges... cork and oak trees," shipped back to America as part of his continuing appreciation of Europe.

Even while residing amongst the culinary elite of France, Jefferson still had a spot for foods of American nature &endash; yet, not exclusively American. Breakfast meals at Monticello were often composed of "half-Virginia half-French" entrees. This mixture consisted of "braised partridges, Capitolade of fowl on toast, eggs, bacon, fried apples, cold meats, tansy pudding, hot breads and battercakes." (17) The breakfasts served under Jefferson should indicate that he was unlike many of his counterparts of the day. He was born in America, brought up on American cuisine, and yet still retained a palate for American cuisine even after he came to appreciate the delicacies of Europe that were introduced to him by Governor Fauquier, as well as his stay in France. (18)

The dichotomy of late Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth Century culinary tastes and practices amongst the elite should indicate that America was indeed a unique place to live at the time. Society was divided on terms of who held power. However, it is quite evident that even among the elite, there was a clear separation when it came to tastes of the palate. Food may be a simple every day necessity, but it also says a lot about people &endash; especially turn of the century American, where certain foods were coveted for their rarity. Harriet Horry was a woman who was happy to be alive. She had lived through a war, and seen the death of her husband. She had a stable home and family in South Carolina, which she managed to provide for after the death of her husband. Even amongst the planter elite of South Carolina she was a woman who indulged in European as well as American food and took stock in her family. Thomas Jefferson on the other hand was a man of the world. He had a fine taste for good wines, and foods of various cultures. Jefferson's taste for foods is actually in accordance with his architectural desires. Jefferson was never happy with Monticello and was continually redrafting the plans and making modifications. Similarly, Jefferson was continually traveling throughout the country and around the world forever changing his palate and becoming accustomed to different and new dishes. In the end, Jefferson would return to what appears to have been his true home &endash; his garden at Monticello where he had a little something preserved from every place that he had visited.


  1. Horry, Harriot, A Colonial Plantation Cookbook, ed. Richard Hooker (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), p6.
  2. Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Pp. 266.
  3. Blassingame, p. 238.
  4. Blassingame, p. 273.
  5. Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Pp. 7.
  6. Horry, p. 5.
  7. Horry, p. 7.
  8. Clinton, p. 78.
  9. Horry, p. 3.
  10. Escott, Paul D. and David R. Goldfield. Major Problems in the History of the American South. Volume I: The Old South. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990. Pp. 91.
  11. Horry, p. 27.
  12. Horry, p. 29.
  13. Horry, p. 17.
  14. Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time, Vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948. P. 75.
  15. Fishwick, Marshall, "Southern Cooking - Thomas Jefferson," in The American Heritage Cookbook, ed. American Heritage (American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1964), 123.
  16. Fishwick, p. 137.
  17. Fishwick, p. 139.
  18. Fishwick, p. 136.

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