In Which Leni Journeys Through the Seasons with The Virginia House-wife: January

Over the next while I am going to continue to explore my fascination with the Mary Randolph’s cookbook.  When we read her recipes we get a glimpse into the skills and daily cooking styles practiced by African American cooks/chefs in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Mary expected her cooks, many, if not all, enslaved, to know and understand the workings of an elite household kitchen.  Given the reputation of Randolph’s table it is a certainty that she could serve her guests with the confidence that the cooks had done a fine job.

The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph, 1838
Cabbage A-La-Creme

Take two good heads of cabbage, cut out the stalks, boil it tender with a little salt in the water, have ready one large spoonful of butter and a small one of flour rubbed into it, half a pint of milk, with pepper and salt, make it hot, put the cabbage in after pressing out the water, and stew it till quite tender.

The milk Randolph calls for would have been much more like our modern half and half. The flour and butter mixture was the basis for making a thickened sauce. The result is a meltingly delicious cabbage dish.

cabbage sliced
cabbage in boiling salted water
cabbage draining
flour and butter
flour and butter mixed
flour and butter and milk cooking
cabbage well cooked in sauce
ready to serve

Randolph’s book has four recipes for cabbage and I have chosen the simplest cabbage dish here. For a really fancy presentation Randolph tells how to prepare a Cabbage Pudding which is a whole cabbage, boiled till the leaves are loose allowing a stuffing of seasoned chopped meat to be packed into the cored-out interior, the leaves wrapped round again. It was called a pudding because the whole stuffed cabbage was tied tightly into a cloth, lowered into simmering water and cooked till done. When drained and plattered the whole cabbage kept its shape and was served in beautiful slices!

cabbage seedlings in cold frame

Cabbage has always been a vegetable that could be harvested and stored for winter use and must have been a favorite at plantation tables throughout Virginia. Certainly one would have seen cabbage growing in gardens in slave quarters, the homes of poor whites and middling families. After harvesting heads through late spring and the summer the remaining plants reach full maturity in the fall. The large heads could be pulled, root and all, and stored upside down in a pile under straw or even dirt to last through much of the winter. Because it is a bi-annual many a garden must have had shabby cabbages hunkering down in a corner waiting to send up flowers and seed the next summer. See below for saving your own cabbage seed.

Cabbage Family – Brassica oleracea: Includes broccoli, brussels sprout, cauliflower, cabbage and kale.
PLANT: All vegetables and varieties in this large species will cross with each other. Separate different varieties at least 1000 feet for satisfactory results or at least 1 mile for purity. Caging with introduced pollinators or alternate day caging is also recommended in small gardens. Plants to be left for seed production should be mulched in the fall or carefully dug, trimmed and stored for the winter in humid area with temperatures between 35-40° F. Flowering plants can reach 4′ in height and need at least 2′ spacing for good seed production.
FLOWER: Members of the B. oleracea species, with the exception of a few early -season broccolis and cauliflowers, require vernalization (cold, winter-like temperatures for several weeks) before flowering occurs. Flowers are perfect, most of which cannot be self-pollinated. Necessary cross-pollination is performed by bees. The stigma becomes receptive before the flower opens, and pollen is shed hours after the flower opens.
INBREEDING DEPRESSION: Plant at least 6 different plants to protect vigor and ensure a reasonable amount of genetic diversity.
SELECTION TRAITS: Plant characteristics: t all, D; side buds, D. Plant color: purple, green, magenta. Leaf shape: wide, entire, smooth, hairy.
HARVEST: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi heads grown for seed should not be trimmed for consumption. Brussels sprouts, collards and kale can be lightly trimmed for eating without affecting quality seed production. If small amounts of seeds are wanted, allow individual pods to dry to a light brown color before picking and opening by hand. Lower pods dry first followed by those progressively higher on the plant. For larger amounts of seeds pull entire plant after a majority of pods have dried. Green pods rarely produce viable seeds even if allowed to dry after the plant is pulled.
PROCESS: Smash unopened pods in cloth bag with mallet or by walking on them. Chaff can be winnowed.