Thanksgiving Traditions in Virginia 200 years ago

Originally published as:

Slow Food – before Thanksgiving – 200 years ago – 1813 – food traditions in Virginia

In Virginia of the Jeffersonian Era as the dark days of late fall and early winter closed in people would begin to harvest fall vegetables and meats for the table.  The wealthiest families already ate a rich and varied menu the year round, while the middling planters and small farmers seem to have followed suit when at all possible but with no particular date or named holiday in mind come the fall.  Thus there was no official day of thanksgiving.  However a special menu might be scheduled when the wild game became plentiful – water fowl, venison, or quail, wild turkeys, grouse, ptarmigans, or partridge.  Or a feast within the slave quarter could mark the end of the corn harvest with the shucking of the ears and storage in the barn.  The beginning of the butchering season promised the annual bounty of hams and smoked meats along with the protein rich offals commonly prepared as souse, and other kinds of pickled pig parts.  Mincemeat of pork feet, or venison, or beef was a popular way for the prosperous to combine the meat harvest with imported luxuries such as spices and spirits.

For plantation masters, middling planters, and small farmers the late fall meant reaping the financial profits from a good harvest.  For the enslaved it meant some ease from the long hot days of summer labor and certainly slaves made every effort to gather foods in the fall from their gardens and poultry yards to supplement the standard rations (most usually 1 peck of cornmeal and 2-3 lb. of salt pork a week for a full adult laborer).  Fall offered an additional food supply to put away for the winter months.

Depending on where one lived the fall harvest could include peanuts, corn, beef, wild turkey, pork, pumpkins, apples, persimmon, sweet potato, white potato, fall greens (mustard, turnip, cressy salad), oysters; and an astounding variety of orchard fruits, especially apples.  Crops such as parsnips and carrot could remain in the ground to be harvested throughout the winter; while cabbages were pulled whole to be stored in cold cellars along with potatoes and beets.  In such a large state there was considerable regional variety – in those days Virginia ranged from the balmy Tidewater to the mountains of Appalachia ending all the way in the western woodlands bordered by the Ohio River.

Mary Randolph, author of the most famous cookbook of the era, did not mention a particular harvest festival but her vegetables and meats would have always been local and seasonal.  She and her enslaved cooks understood how to present a menu that represented the best of any season.  And of course, religious tradition taught all people to be grateful for the foods they raised and hunted.


Parsnips are sweet, with an earthy fragrance and a flavor somewhere between a sweet potato and a carrot! – Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1826, pg. 124


Are to be cooked just in the same manner as carrots; they require more or less time, according to their size, therefore match them in size, and you must try them by thrusting a fork into them as they are in the water; when this goes easily through, they are done enough; boil them from an hour to two hours, according to their size and freshness.  Parsnips are sometimes sent up mashed in the same way as turnips, and some cooks quarter before they boil them

Note: in this recipe Randolph differs from her usual vegetable cookery style and recommends a very long time to boil her parsnips.  Since parsnips were a winter vegetable that could be held in the ground well after the first snows and even dug all winter through till spring perhaps she was used to very mature and large parsnips.

We, however, are fortunate to be able to get nice sized fresh parsnips in most markets.  A sauté in a bit of water will tenderize the slices in 20 minutes or less whether cut long or round.  Her advice to use a fork to test the cooking parsnips is spot on.  Once the parsnips are tender I drizzle butter and honey on them in the pan and continue gently stirring till the edges of the pieces are beginning to brown slightly.  Do not walk away from the pan at this step for the honey will burn easily.  I think Randolph would approve of my variation.




Mincemeat is a dessert many of us assume we hate because we’ve only been exposed to the 20th century commercial meatless brand, but mincemeat was one of the most popular pies of the entire 19th century!  This recipe comes from the Shirley Plantation Collection, compiled in the late nineteenth century but reflecting a culinary tradition with roots reaching back into eighteenth century Virginia.   The recipe below is from food historian Nancy Carter Crump’s Hearthside Cooking: Early American Southern Cuisine Updated for Today’s Hearth and Cookstove (2nd Edition, UNC Press, 2009, p. 226).  This adaptation is for the modern cook and I share it with her kind permission.   I hope you will enjoy making it and serving it to your family and guests in pies or tarts.

Mrs. W.H.F. Lee’s Mincemeat Pie Filling

Makes enough mincemeat for 6-8 pies

6 cups cooked, chopped beef heart (approximately 1 ¼ pounds)

6 cups peeled, cored, and chopped tart apples

6 cups finely chopped beef suet

apple cider

4 cups raisins

2 cups currents

1 teaspoon cloves (or more to taste)

2 teaspoons nutmeg (or more to taste)

1 teaspoon allspice (or more to taste)

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

1 cup sugar (or more to taste)

4 cups red wine

2 cups brandy

Common Pie Crust (page 221)

1. Combine beef heart, apples, and suet in a large pot.  Cover with cider.

2. Combine raisins, currents, spices, salt, pepper, and sugar.  Add to beef mixture, stirring well.

3. Combine wine and brandy.  Pour over beef mixture and blend thoroughly.  Cover and cook mixture over low heat 2 to 3 hours, stirring often.

4. While hot, pack cooked mincemeat into hot sterile jars and set aside to age at least one month before using.  Use mincemeat to fill prepared pie crust.

5. If baking on the hearth, follow directions on page 196.

6. If baking in a conventional oven bake pie in preheated 425 ͦoven 40-50 minutes.


Creamed Cabbage

This version of creamed cabbage is among my favorites to serve come fall; rich and satisfying as a side dish. – Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, pg. 105

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. 

NOTE: The milk Randolph calls for would have been much more like our modern half and half.  Randolph’s book has four recipes for cabbage.  It was a vegetable that could be harvested and stored for winter use and from the records of the Thomas Jefferson family food purchases cabbage must have been a favorite at the table at Monticello.  The whole head stored well and could be counted on to be unspoiled in the middle of the winter.  Today cabbage will last for many weeks in the fridge.

Cabbage is so easy to grow that it has continued to be a garden favorite.  Seedlings are for sale in the earliest spring and again come fall.  Cabbages come in many shapes; round headed, cone headed, and deeply crinkled Savoy varieties.  Even Nappa Cabbage (actually a form of Chinese cabbage) can be prepared as are other cabbages, A La Creme, or as sauerkraut, or stuffed as rolls in a rich tomato sauce.  Yum!