Time for the June installment of our monthly series in which we post a recipe from The Virginia House-wife, a recipe book published in 1824 by Mary Randolph, kinswoman to Thomas Jefferson. Leni Sorensen, our African American Research Historian and a culinary historian of national repute, has once again made this month's dish and here we include her notes and pictures.
The original recipe from Mary Randolph:
The most beautiful cherries to preserve are the carnation, and common light red, with short stems; select the finest that are not too ripe; take an equal weight with the cherries of double refined sugar, make it into a syrup, and preserve them without stoning and with the stems on: if they be done carefully, and the “Directions for preserving” closely attended to, the stems will not come off, and they will be so transparent that the stones may be seen. (Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824; facsimile of first edition, Historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess, University of South Carolina Press, 1984, p. 196)
MR’s “Directions for preserving” takes up two full pages but it is in her final directions that we see the difference between her time and ours; she had no way to dependably seal her jars or to can the results. She solved the problem in the following way: “Delicate preserves should be kept in small glasses or pots that will not hold more than one or two pounds, for the admission of air injures them; put letter paper wet with brandy on the preserves, and cover the tops with many folds of soft paper that will tie round closely; keep them in a dry place and expose them occasionally to the sun to check fermentation; fruit for preserving should be in full perfection, but not too ripe.” (pg. 192) Even with a pound of sugar for a pound of fruit she had to be worried about fermentation.
I get to include with this recipe a wonderful example of how we culinary historians get to know what we know; we often learn from other scholars, especially archeologists. Mary Randolph published her book in 1824 but she was drawing on her many years of experience as a hostess in elite dining venues and as the supervisor of large kitchen establishments. Can we make the assumption that Ursula Granger, the enslaved cook at Monticello during Martha Wayles Jefferson’s residence here, possessed the same skills? In this case we can.
“These excavations were conducted in 1981 by Dr. William Kelso and his field crew. The cache of bottles was found at a depth of about 19 feet, resting on the floor of the original dry well. The dry well itself was likely used as a dry food storage area while TJ and Martha lived in the South Pavilion (the dry well was constructed in the winter of 1770-1771) and was abandoned and filled c.1780. A total of 6 bottles were found, several with corks still in place, and primarily contained cherries, although some cranberries and possible grapes were also found. Chemical analysis did not find any alcohol remains in the bottles.” (courtesy of the Monticello Archaeology Department)
Here is one of the bottles all cleaned up and the cherries found in it 30 years ago – making the cherries easily 200 years old! I really got the shivers taking the picture!
For the recipe I have chosen MR did not use brandy in the fruit itself but only as part of the sealing layers. In other recipes she does use brandy as a major ingredient for preserving apricots, peaches, cherries, and Magnum Bonum plums.
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902