Preserving the Past: Is Martha Washington’s Recipe Book Relevant to the Modern Cook?


Muscadine Grape Growing at Mt. Vernon; watercolor; artist: C. Boya

In the 1700s, America was the New World and it was abundant and wild and full of possibility. The first explorers, adventures, immigrants, and slaves brought European and African plants and cooking methods to Colonial America and they combined them with local produce to create something quite unique. As America went from a British colony to revolution to a new nation, women like Martha Dandridge Custis Washington left detailed records of their lives in letters, diaries, and recipe books. Though she is best know as George Washington’s wife, Martha Washington had previously been widowed with two children who survived into young adulthood.  Her late first husband left her a large inheritance and plantation.  She chose to marry the young Colonel Washington in 1759 and it  fell to her also to manage their plantation at Mount Vernon while Washington was away.
A window into the culinary culture of our nation’s past, one of her recipe books could also serve as an example for Americans today. Reading Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, transcribed by Karen Hess, we can imagine the daily rituals and meals that made up a great part of life. The recipes range from the elaborate meat dishes to basic broths, from candy-making to home health remedies, and they include all the various methods of preserving fruits, vegetables, fish, and even  flowers. Women who ran plantations as big as Mount Vernon were a combination manager, farmer,  doctor, and hostess. This is the type of  cookbook that combined recipes TO KEEPE THE TEETH CLEAN & WHITE & TO  FASTEN THEM with recipes on how TO MAKE AN EXCELLENT PERFUME or ones that describe how TO BARRELL OYSTERS Yt THEY SHALL LAST 6 MONETHS.

It is no wonder the cookbook was a family heirloom bearing marks, stains, and burns from constant use. Hess describes American cookery of that time as a “tapestry of extraordinarily complex design, reflecting our rich and varied ethnic origins (including the unique American Indian and African contributions), our New World produce, and our frontier history. Still the warp of our cooking is English.”  In the cookbook that was passed down to Martha Washington in 1749, there are the characteristics of the 16th and 17th century English cooking that, according to Hess, must have seemed old-fashioned to Martha. It is a style of English cookery that used copious amounts of almonds, almond pastes and milks, rose water, sugar, and spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and mace in both sweet and savory dishes. In the the Colonial Virginia of Martha Washington, these older English cooking methods and recipes were adapted to the new world produce such as turkey, tomatoes, and pumpkin. According to Hess, what also defines Martha Washington’s Virginia cooking is the feeling of a  “privileged master class, wealthy enough to make prodigal use of imported almonds, oranges, and wines.” Hess goes on to describe it as a cuisine for those “who evidently cared for the good life and had the leisure to enjoy it – a cuisine predicated on having a large staff of servants.” The collections of stately silver and china table settings on display at Mount Vernon also attest to this lifestyle of leisure and hospitality.
Today in our refrigerated, modern kitchens it may be hard to appreciate the importance of food preservation. But it was a crucial part of domestic management. More than half of cookbook’s recipes are on varied pickling and preserving and drying methods for fruits and vegetables. And it could be these time tested methods that kept the cookbook, passed down from generation to generation, relevant even in Martha Washington’s day.  So do these collections of recipes have relevance in our modern kitchens which lack the large staffs of servants in kitchens of the past? Can these practices still prove useful? I believe these ways to preserve food ( pickling, drying, salting) are useful in our kitchens today.
Quinces, apples, cherries, peas, turnips, strawberries, grapes, asparagus, cucumbers, and mushrooms appear in the cookbook along with pickling recipes for cucumbers, lettuce stalks, purslane, and asparagus. The idea of eating more vegetables and less meat is not a new idea. In fact fruits and vegetables were an important part of our ancestors’ diets. Thomas Jefferson, another Virginian that spent his retirement from political office as a gentleman farmer at his plantation, Monticello, wrote, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for vegetable which constitute my principle diet.”
Karen Hess transcribed and annotated with clear and helpful insight the language of the original manuscript, but it is fascinating to read the original language. Titles like TO KEEP CHERRIES Yt YOU MAY HAUE THEM FOR TARTS AT CHRISTMAS WITHOUT PRESERUEING remind me of the myth of George Washington’s love for cherry pie. Other titles highlight the importance of preservation methods: TO PRESERUE GRAPES, CANDY GREEN APRICOCK CHIPS, TO DRY PLUMS, TO PICKLE GREEN  SPARRAGUS. The index includes the same methods with long list of many different fruits and vegetables that can be substituted. In the pickling recipe that follows, the spelling and speech may evoke the past but the simplicity of the recipe and the way asparagus is bundled and sold is familiar.

Let yr water be boyling, then bundle up yr sparragus as it is when it is sould; hould ye roots in your hands & dip in ye green ends whilts ye water boyls. Soe doe by every bundle you have, & when yr sparragus is cold, put it into a glass with verges* & salt, & it will keep all ye year.

*Verges a.k.a. Verjuice, made by pressing unripe grapes, was a popular ingredient  with a sharp acid taste, a bit like using lemon or vinegar today.
Eating preserved fruits and vegetables does not  always have to be bad. Today we may have an abundance of choice in pre-prepared produce (canned, frozen, dried)and some choices are better than others.  But there is satisfaction  in doing it yourself. With the help of a good recipe book, the rituals of preserving fruits and vegetables can be a fun family activity. Eating your own homemade jam or pickled asparagus will be the reward for the extra work. It is an old method that is worth reviving.


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