While exploring the Governor’s Palace courtyard, Chy and I smelled the aroma of freshly roasted chicken, perfumed herbs, and something sweet. We came across the Governor’s Palace Kitchen, where two apprentices were hard at work cooking by a traditional hearth engulfed with flames and cinders. The Governor’s Palace Kitchen is separate building from the house where interpreters “prepare authentic colonial dishes, using the equipment and recipes that fueled the colonists” (Colonial Williamsburg, 2022).
Chy and I were greeted by apprentices Abby and Dom, who already had a table of goods we could view. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to taste anything because the cooking methods used don’t align with present day food preparation standards, but we could enjoy the smells for as long as we wished. Honestly, I would have risked food poisoning to have a taste of history 😜. After actually working in the food industry, I wasn’t worried about getting sick at all!
Where the Recipes Come From
The recipes used come from antique cookbooks such as The Complete Housewife (1727) by Eliza Smith and The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) by Hannah Glasse.
Some recipes might also be found in The Williamsburg Art of Cookery (1938) by Helen Duprey Bullock. Her book is a compilation of recipes from the region. Some of the recipes are adaptations from Glasse and Smith’s books, and others are collected from other sources such as local families and culinary establishments.
I happen to own Glasse’s book as a 2015 republication and an original 1938 copy of Bullock’s book.
The Complete Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion
The Complete Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion (although first published in England in 1727), was the first cookbook to be printed and published in the original Thirteen Colonies in 1742. It was published right in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith was a cook herself and was known to be critical of cookbooks written by men in the industry because they were apt to hide their methods. This resulted in inaccurate instructions, preventing success in the kitchen.
Her response to this was to create a no-nonsense cookbook designed for women. Their roles were much more important than they were given credit for since they “functioned as chef, doctor, pharmacist, exterminator, chemist, laundress, and all-around handy-woman” (Mitchell, 2015). This was particularly true of smaller homes where families could not afford slaves.
Even if the woman of a house was wealthy and had slaves to attend the household needs, she still had to “be knowledgeable about practices to keep the home functioning” (Mitchell, 2015).
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy
Hannah Glasse’s book is hilariously filled with subtle insults toward her audience, but she did not write it for fancily trained chefs. She admits herself, “I do not pretend to teach professed Cooks, my design being to instruct the ignorant and unlearned…, and that in so full and plain a manner, that the most ignorant Person, who can but read, will know how to do Cookery well” (Glasse, 2015).
The Williamsburg Art of Cookery
The Williamsburg Art of Cookery was printed for Colonial Williamsburg in 1938. It marked the beginning of American culinary history as an official study.
The Cooks Behind the Scenes
At the Governor’s Palace Kitchen, Abby and Dom explained that in actual history, they would not have been a white chef’s apprentice due to the gender and racial roles of the 18th-century. Instead, kitchens were typically run by enslaved Africans. They would work to feed the residents of the palace, then sleep in the loft above the kitchens. The combined heat of the hearth and the summer forced the enslaved to sleep outside rather than in the loft to stay cool.
Although there is romanticism in imagining a comfortable colonial wife baking pies by the hearth, the stark reality was that cooking was typically done by slaves for the comfort and pleasure of a wealthy house. It was backbreaking labor. “Black cooks were bound to the fire, 24 hours a day…. Up every day before dawn, they baked the bread for the mornings, cooked soups for the afternoons, and created divine feasts for the evenings. They roasted meats, made jellies, cooked puddings, and crafted desserts, preparing several meals a day for the white family” (Deetz, 2018).
In wealthier homes, it was expected that slaves cooked at a skillset equivalent to the culinary masters today. With such skills, enslaved cooks would be granted unique privileges, and could use their status to leverage better treatment, status, and mobility (Crimmins, 2015).
Truly skilled cooks such as George Washington’s cook Hercules could freely walk around and dress extravagantly (Crimmins, 2015). In addition to Hercules, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook James Hemings (brother to Sally Hemings and half-brother to Martha Jefferson) was sent to Paris to learn French cuisine, and would eventually master his craft preparing food suitable for royalty (Crimmins, 2015). Hemings used his earnings while in France to also learn to write and speak the French language.
Jefferson would soon regret his decision to take Hemings to France because Hemings was legally free there. Hemings used this as leverage to negotiate terms with Jefferson so that he would agree to return to Virginia as a slave. I’m disappointed Hemings would make such a deal, but all I can imagine is that he did not want to be divided from his family. He did, after all, have a massive family back in the states. He would eventually gain is freedom after training his brother Peter Hemings in culinary arts.
Reckoning with History
“It’s not easy uncovering the histories of enslaved cooks, who left few records of their own and whose stories often appear in the historical record as asides…,” however it is necessary in order to heal (Deetz, 2018). I agree with Deetz that it is okay to love our country while also being critical of it. Acknowledging the past can help us “find some peace along the way” (Deetz, 2018)
Personally, I do hold a sense of pride for my ancestors as someone who did cook and bake professionally. Forgetting or not acknowledging my enslaved ancestors and their hard work will never do them service. The truth is that their crafts were detrimental to the survival, nourishment, and culture of America.
Below are some of the incredible meals we witnessed being made:
Finding and Reading the Recipes
Old cookbooks are written with very little instructional detail because it was assumed that most people at that time understood the basics of cooking. When we read the recipes today, they seem to lack ingredients because it would have been obvious to the cook of the past to use salt, pepper, and other seasonings. The palates of people from the past were also different, so some recipes have questionable amounts of spices and alcohol.
Luckily for us, if you’re curious about trying historically influenced recipes, translations and modern interpretations are available on the Colonial Williamsburg Foodways site. New recipes are rotated regularly, so check online often to see what’s available. Full cookbooks and pamphlets are also available for sale at the museum.
Please Visit Abby and Dom at the Governor’s Palace Kitchen!
Abby and Dom were both knowledgeable and hilarious! Chy and I commended them for working so hard in the summer heat (we visited in August). We highly encourage anyone to come see them cook! It made us appreciate how easy it is to cook today!
Colonial Williamsburg, 2022. Colonial Williamsburg. Retrieved from https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org
Crimmins, P, (2015). Understanding a slave’s role in the Colonial kitchen. WHYY PBS. Retrieved from https://whyy.org/articles/understanding-a-slaves-essential-role-in-the-colonial-kitchen/
Deetz, K. F., (2018). How Enslaved Chefs Helped Shape American Cuisine. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-enslaved-chefs-helped-shape-american-cuisine-180969697/
Glasse, H, (2015). The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy: The Revolutionary 1805 Classic. Dover Publications, INC.
Mitchell, Christine M. “Book Review: The Handy Homemaker, Eighteenth-Century Style” (PDF). JASNA News (Spring 2010). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 26 March 2015.
Monticello, (2022). The Culinary Legacy of James Hemings. Retrieved from https://www.monticello.org/press/monticello-magazine/summer-2019/the-culinary-legacy-of-james-hemings/#:~:text=That%20same%20year%2C%20his%20sister,negotiating%20terms%20and%20special%20privileges.
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