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Culinary historian describes the human costs of serving meals to early Virginia elites

February 7, 2020
Leni Sorensen speaking at a podium in front of a backdrop of historical documents.

On Saturday, March 26, in 1796, Martha Dangerfield Bland Blodget hosted a dinner of “boil’d beef, fry’d fish, boil’d fowl, spinage & eggs, potatoes, fry’d hom-oney; [and] pudden” at her plantation, Cawsons, which was located near Petersburg, just east of where the Appomattox River joins the James.

Such an elaborate dinner — recounted in Blodget’s diary, later published as “Excerpts from the Diary of an Old Virginia Lady, 1795-96” — would have been a regular occurrence at elite Virginia plantations and were only possible because of the labors of enslaved African-Americans.

“The land and the house, the furniture and slaves at Cawsons were all investments made years earlier by Martha and her first husband when he was living and, before that, by his extended family still living on several local plantations, going back to the beginnings of the American colony in the 17th century,” said culinary historian Leni Sorensen, Ph.D., who spoke Wednesday at Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences.

“Men of high political power and position in the colonies and the Revolution invested considerable energy to the development of profitable plantations that supported the lifestyle equal that of the European gentry,” Sorensen said. “The economy created by fields of tobacco raised by African slaves had by the late 18th century given the sons and daughters of these men an elaborate stage set upon which to act out their elite status.”

Sorensen’s talk, “It Takes a World to Make a Meal: The Human Costs of Feeding Virginia’s Elites,” was one of a number of events being held at Virginia Commonwealth University throughout Black History Month.

The event, organized by Tompkins-McCaw Library, explored the meals — and the enslaved people who performed the labor, cooking and serving — at Blodget’s plantation as a way to illustrate the eating traditions of late 18th-century Virginia and to highlight the lives of the enslaved people who, at all levels of production, made them possible.

“Working under Martha’s careful scrutiny, [they] grew, harvested, prepared and presented the daily meals at Cawsons,” Sorensen said. “Martha makes mention of specific interactions with 25 African-Americans by name and listed only the names of 15 others.”

The event was held in conjunction with the traveling National Library of Medicine exhibit, “Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America,” on display at Tompkins-McCaw Library until Feb. 15.

Sorensen, an expert in 18th- and 19th-century cooking methods used by Virginia housewives and slaves, including those who cooked for Thomas Jefferson, has published two collections of reinterpreted recipes from an 1824 cookbook, Through the Seasons: A Garden of Recipes from The Virginia House-Wife and Through the Seasons: A Baker’s Dozen of Breads and Sweets from The Virginia House-Wife.

In her talk Wednesday, Sorensen described each dish served at that 1796 dinner at Blodget’s plantation, listing the likely ingredients, the complex web of commerce that was required and the enslaved labor involved in all steps of preparation and service.

“Boiled beef, a plain name for what would have been more of a French style … braised beef,” Sorensen said. “The beef likely came from the farm at Cawsons. The cattle were raised there, we know, from a later [diary] entry in which Martha expresses her conviction that her slaves had stolen and eaten one of her stock.”

“[Also in the recipe were] cloves, black pepper, mace, bay leaf, oranges and the red and white wines that dressed the dish. All had to come via the international Atlantic market,” she said. “Even the homemade walnut ketchup, used to enrich the flavor, called for imported allspice, cloves, black pepper and mace.”

In the kitchen, the meal would have been prepared by an enslaved cook, supported by a team of enslaved kitchen workers.

“Cooks who had the skill and expertise to work day after day producing the kinds of meals served at Cawsons were an expensive item, much sought after and bragged about,” Sorensen said. “Despite their enslavement, they had to possess the ability to run a tight kitchen, to teach, and to order scullions, apprentices and other house [and] yard servants in their duties, to remember many recipes and to follow the mistress’ directions accurately.

“The cook in the elite household had to understand how and where each dish was to be placed on the dining table, how to dress each dish properly with the appropriate sauce or other decorations. They certainly understood that upon their skills rested the reputation of the mistress and her housekeeping skills,” she said. “Well through the antebellum period, cooks were highly prized commodities. Masters and mistresses exchanged letters about the availability and cost of purchasing good cooks.”

It is not known if the cook at Cawsons was literate, Sorensen said, noting that a plantation’s mistress would likely read recipes aloud while the cook worked, particularly for new or complicated dishes. Blodget’s diary does not name the enslaved cook, though there was an enslaved man named Cook at Cawsons.

“Good cooks, of course, kept their own internal cookbook, a head full of recipes and techniques. Whether Martha’s cooks could read, or learned to read but kept such skills to themselves, is an open question,” she said. “We do know that French-trained chef James Hemings [at Monticello] was literate, for in a beautifully legible hand, he wrote out a one-page inventory of the utensils in the Jefferson kitchen in 1796.”

In the dining room, service would have been overseen by an enslaved butler, Sorensen said.

“Almost as important as the cook in the efficient running of any elite household was the butler or houseman,” she said. “A butler's discretion and trustworthiness was invaluable to the smooth running of the establishment. He opened the doors to greet guests. He led them to the proper place in the house according to their status, which of course he had to be well aware. Often [he would] serve at table and supervise the proper setting of the table by the other house servants.”

Through the labor of enslaved people, the elaborate meal preparation and service would likely have been replicated each day, unless Blodget dined away from home.

“Martha needed the work of, at least, a butler, a waiter, the waiting boy, the cook, at least two scullions, sometimes an older woman and sometimes a younger person in the kitchen, and a gardener who knew the routine of the house and the layout of the gardens and where things were, in order to have this steady rhythm of meals that could be served every day,” she said. “And we don't know how these duties overlapped, how many jobs each person might have.”

Beyond the daily labor of enslaved people in the house, meals such as the one Sorensen described would have only been possible from enslaved labor going back years.

“The interplay of humans and material goods necessary to produce Martha's March meal began in some cases many years before,” she said. “The development of the land, the building of the outbuildings and the house. The buying of African-born slaves and the births of the young laborers and their training were events that had taken place over several decades.”

This article was written by Brian McNeill of University Public Affairs.

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