Book Review: Harbury’s Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty

Leave a comment

August 29, 2012 by magpiemenina

The book in question:

Katharine E. Harbury, Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Why I read this book:

I am currently interning in a historic foodways program, where I am learning eighteenth century cooking methods and historic interpretation skills. My supervisor recommended Harbury’s text as a good means of acquiring background information about the time and place we are interpreting. I found it to be quite useful to that end. It has proved a nice complement to another book I just finished (for which a book review will follow in short order), Kathleen M. Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. The latter has also fleshed out some aspects of Harbury’s work that I had found in need of further elaboration.


Harbury writes a thorough account of elite women’s cooking during the colonial era in Virginia, focusing on the cookbooks of three women – Anonymous (1700), Jane Randolph, and Mary Randolph – who form the eponymous dynasty.

The first part of the book discusses the social situation in colonial Virginia for the upper crust and the roles of women, especially as those roles coincided with those ideally prescribed by Gervaise Markham in the seventeenth century in his book, The English Hus-wife. She painstakingly notes the transition to Georgian thought in the eighteenth century, with its new emphasis on grandeur and division of labor and space. Jane Randolph and her husband, for example, moved from their modest hall-based home (a style characteristic of most early Virginia homes) into a grand house with a dining room, converting the original house into a detached kitchen.

While serving or enslaved women did most of the actual cooking, the mistress of the house might take her book of receipts (or someone else’s published cookbook) to read and direct them in their labors. The success of the food, its presentation, and the variety of dishes served at a meal, as well as the fashionableness of these factors (the rage for French dishes such as ragouts, for example), directly reflected on the woman’s gentility and on her husband’s reputation and status. To this end, wealthy men often became aggressive overseers and criticizers of their wives’ work, as Harbury’s frequent citations of Samuel Pepys and William Byrd demonstrate. In Virginia, celebrating the prosperity and plentitude of the New World became the fashion, with diverse dishes and a variety of meats greatly desired. In the Old World, the rarity of the dish had made the impression.

The second half of the book discusses individual food groups and the manner in which they were prepared.


Harbury excellently conveys a great deal of information in very short chapters and builds continuously upon earlier information in a way that makes the information stick. Her discussion of changes in the manner in which seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial elites acted social status, as well as the changes in mindset and worldview are quite interesting.

Unfortunately, discussing the impact on non-elite women falls outside the scope of the book. Similarly, she devotes little time to the fact that servants did almost all of the cooking under the direction of the mistress of the house, other than to observe that they did so, and that the serving women may have spoiled dishes to revenge their beatings from masters for other poor dishes. She also could have devoted more time to the discussion of merging cuisines from Africa, the West Indies, and the Virginia Indians. Finally, she does not discuss professional cooks (male), such as those hired by Virginia’s governors. How was status played by women in those households? Was having a male cook the ultimate status?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of fun new posts by email.

Join 57 other followers


%d bloggers like this: