Mary Randolph was an American aristocrat, a descendant of Pocahontas, who despite links by blood and marriage to the first families of Virginia fell on hard times, opened a boardinghouse in Richmond, and later wrote a cookbook called “The Virginia House-Wife.”
Published in 1824, it was one of the earliest cookbooks written by an American for an American audience. It was popular from the start, enjoying multiple editions through the first half of the 19th century.
“Her influence was enormous,” says Nathalie Dupree, a Charleston, S.C.-based author and Southern food authority. Dupree wrote the introduction to a recently published facsimile of the 1828 edition by The American Antiquarian Cookbook Collection (Andrews McMeel, $24.99): “She was the first one to bring cachet to the Southern household. She was able to infuse everything with a kind of elegance.”
Born in 1762 at her grandfather’s plantation in Chesterfield County, Va., Mary Randolph counted among her cousins Thomas Jefferson; Mary Lee Fitzhugh, the wife of George Washington Parke Custis, who was the stepgrandson of George Washington; and David Meade Randolph, whom she married. David Randolph was appointed federal marshal for Virginia by President Washington, and the couple moved into a grand new house in Richmond called “Moldavia” – a combination of the names David and “Molly,” Mary’s nickname.
Life for the couple changed abruptly when Jefferson became president and booted David Randolph, a prominent Federalist, from his post. That, coupled with business failures, brought the family close to ruin. Mary Randolph went into action, opening a boardinghouse around 1808. About 10 years later, the Randolphs moved to Washington, where she wrote her cookbook.
Given this history, it’s probably not surprising that being a good manager mattered to Mary Randolph. The title page of her cookbook bears this motto: “Method is the soul of Management.” Later, in her preface, she writes that “the government of a family bears a Liliputian (sic) resemblance to the government of a nation” and that, basically, one shouldn’t spend more than you take in.
Practicality and common sense course through the book, which is clearly directed at beginners. Karen Hess, the late food historian, thought quite highly of Randolph and “The Virginia House-Wife” (variously “House-Wife” or “House-wife” or “House wife,” without a hyphen, in later editions), which she called the most influential American cookbook of the 19th century.
“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of her cookery is its eclecticism, which flowed from the fascinating interplay of strikingly different influences that manifested themselves from the very beginning,” Hess wrote in an introduction to a 1984 reprint of the book. “A certain eclecticism has continued to mark American cookery, but never again with such eclat.”
Randolph died in 1828 while working on a third edition of “The Virginia House-Wife.” She was buried on the hill below Arlington House, the grand Virginia mansion built by George Washington Parke Custis overlooking the Potomac River and the City of Washington. The estate would later pass to Randolph’s goddaughter, Mary Anna Custis, and her husband, Robert E. Lee.
Hers is the earliest known grave on the property, which was turned into Arlington National Cemetery during the Civil War.