history lesson, williamsburg cookbook

History 101: Colonial Virginia

This little blog has always been something of an experiment; heck, it’s even in the name! And like the way my students pepper me with questions when I haven’t taught a lesson clearly enough, for some time now this space has been nagging me (in my own mind) for more clarity. I jump from cookbook to cookbook depending on my mood, with no logical connection between either (Little House to colonial Williamsburg…), and with very little sense of how the cookbook reflects the history of the time. So to set things straight in my mind, I’m going to lay out a brief history of the time periods I’ve looked at so far. Hopefully this will lend the blog a little more organization. And I do hope you’ll enjoy it as well, dear readers.

First up: colonial Virginia.

Time Period

the cookbook in question

The Williamsburg Art of Cookery takes its recipes from cookbooks published/written between 1732 and 1922. These later books were compilations themselves, meant to represent “Housekeeping in old Virginia.” That makes our job–figuring out when most of these recipes were created–a little tougher.

Since the book we’re using was created by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I think we can safely assume that most of its recipes date from between 1699 and 1780, the years when Williamsburg served as the capital of colonial Virginia. These are also the years (roughly) represented by the current Colonial Williamsburg living history site.

So, to be clear, we’re talking about pre-independence America here. Virginians are still supposed to be loyal to the British king, and while the Revolutionary War might have begun (1775) and the Declaration of Independence issued (in 1776), America won’t officially become its own country until 1783.

Colonial Virginia

engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590, of Virginia Indian chief

Virginia was the first North American colony founded by Europeans, in 1607. Its early history is one of failures and, in my opinion, utter ridiculousness. Most of the first settlers in Virginia were gentlemen expecting to mine for gold.  They nearly starved their first few winters in the New World, since few of them knew how to farm, and it was only the kindness of the Native Americans (including Pocahontas’ tribe, the Powhatans) that carried them through. After a while John Rolfe (yes, the one who married Pocahontas) introduced tobacco, and that cash crop turned Virginia into a thriving colony.

For a while most Virginians were young bachelors hoping to make a buck or two on the tobacco trade. Then women started to arrive in 1619, along with indentured servants and African slaves to work the tobacco fields. The colony began to expand, especially after it was made a royal colony in 1624 (governed by the king of England). Finally, African slavery became entrenched in Virginia and the other southern colonies around 1700.

How It All Relates to Cooking

By the mid-18th century, Virginian society was pretty hierarchical, because of its status as a royal colony and its reliance on a cash crop. Here’s how it broke down:

  • Royal Governor (the big kahuna)
  • Wealthy Planters (who were also political)
  • Small Farmers (rather poor)
  • Landless Whites (very poor)
  • Indentured Servants (who worked out apprenticeships)
  • Slaves (owned by the wealthy or small farmers)

“The Good House-wife” of the 18th century

The Williamsburg Art of Cookery is billed as the “Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion.” The author goes on to describe the wonders of old Virginian hospitality, even to utter strangers. Apparently this book is full of recipes that an “accomplished gentlewoman” would have served to visiting dignitaries, family members, etc.

In other words: this is not a cookbook for the small farmers, the landless whites, the indentured servants, or the slaves. It represents what the governor or wealthy planters would have eaten–only they would have wives known as “gentlewomen.”

My uncle recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, and he told us about his visit to a small 18th-century farm where people ate an extremely limited diet, often 1-2 types of food per day. So as I’m cooking all these recipes, it’s helpful to keep in mind who exactly would have been eating this food, because this cookbook certainly doesn’t represent all of colonial Virginia.

I hope this was helpful for you, friends! Do you have other questions about old Virginia? Or cooking in general? Or what on earth an indentured servant was?

Works Consulted: The American Pageant, 13th edition. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Photos: 1. Author. 2. History of Virginia. 3. “Women and Education in Eighteenth-Century Virginia.”

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