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Image Virginia Food Ways: Origins of Southern Cooking

Also carried out from England was the material structure of this culture—that is, its methods of managing physical things. A case in point was its food ways. As early as the mid-seventeenth century, the dietary habits of the Virginians were distinctly different from those of New Englanders, particularly in what might be called the sociology of food. From the start, Virginia’s culinary customs were more highly stratified than in the Puritan colonies.

Prosperous planters kept the same food ways as did the gentry of southwestern England. Both of these elites consumed red meat in large quantity. Roast beef was so closely identified with English milords that in Italy and Spain it was called rosbif. Gentlemen of Virginia also had a taste for game, and particularly for animals of the chase. William Byrd paid others to supply his table with venison, blue-winged teal, pigeon and partridge. But even the succulent shellfish and waterfowl of the Chesapeake were not esteemed as highly as the roast beef of old England. Byrd complained of having to eat oysters and geese too often when away from his own table.

Rich planters also consumed large quantities of fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the year. Again, their favorites were very English. Byrd ate asparagus and strawberries every day when he could get them. But native American plants such as potatoes and tomatoes rarely appeared on the best colonial tables until they had become fashionable in the mother country. Culinary tastes of gentlefolk in Virginia remained English in all of these ways.1

Colonists of humble rank commonly ate a one-dish meal, which was called a “mess” in the old English sense of a “dish of food.”2 It often consisted of greens and salt meat, seasoned with wild herbs. Another staple was hominy or the corn porridge called mush in the south, served in a common bowl or cup. The diet of ordinary Virginians in the seventeenth century was similar to black “soul food” in the twentieth. With the addition of Indian corn it was much like the diet of farm workers in the south and west of England.3

Among both high-born and humble folk, eating was a more sensual experience in Virginia than in Massachusetts. There was nothing in the Chesapeake colonies to equal the relentless austerity of New England’s “canonical dish” of cold baked beans. Poor whites improved their simple food with high seasonings and delicate flavors. Slaves supplemented their basic rations of corn and salt fish with American and African foodstuffs that added spice and variety to their meals. Great planters carefully cultivated the only truehaute cuisine in British America before the nineteenth century. William Byrd took a special interest in imaginative and highly seasoned dishes. His diary recorded memorable meals of stewed swan, spiced udder and roast snipe.4 These elaborate dishes were similar to others recorded in cookery books of country houses throughout the south and west of England.5

If baked beans were the canonical dish of Massachusetts, a special favorite among middling and upper ranks in Virginia was the

“frigacy” or “fricassee.” One English recipe called for chicken, veal, or rabbit to be simmered in an open pan, with “a good handful of sweet herbs as of marjoram, a little thyme, savory or sprig of penny royal.” Sometimes a pint of claret was added, and a pint of oysters, and a dozen egg yolks. William Byrd often ordered a fricassee of chicken, veal or game for his dinner. Virginia cooks had broad repertory of these dishes. There were brown fricassees of beef or venison, white fricassees for “small fowls, rabbits, lamb, veal and other white meats,” and clear fricassees of calves’ feet or cod sounds.6

Byrd also enjoyed fried chicken, often cooked with bacon or ham—a dish different from fricassees, which tended to be simmered in the pan rather than fried. As early as the first decade of the eighteenth century, fried chicken had become a distinct regional favorite in Virginia. Later in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, some Virginia cookery books dismissed fried chicken as a vulgar dish. But that view was not shared by the Byrds and Carters, who tucked into their fried chicken with high enthusiasm.7

This style of Virginia cooking became the basis of a distinctive regional food way in America—highly seasoned, with much roasting, simmering and frying. It was very similar to the regional cuisine of southern and western England, where frying, simmering and sautéing in a skillet were methods of preparation called “Dorset fashion” or “Dorset cooked.”8

In the twentieth century, quantitative surveys of regional cooking in England have found that frying, roasting and grilling continue to be specially characteristic of the south and west of England, as baking is of East Anglia and boiling of the North. The same survey also reported that a taste for spicy food was more developed in the south and west than elsewhere in England. Merchants in the early twentieth century stocked more salty bacon, pungent cheese and peppery sausage in the south and west than elsewhere in Britain.9 In both southwestern England and the Chesapeake colonies, methods of cooking varied by social rank.

One study finds that virtually every household had kettles for boiling and pans for frying. But very poor families tended not to have roasting equipment such as spits, which were commonplace in households of higher rank. Most middling and upper families practiced a great variety of cooking methods. Boiling, stewing, frying, braising, grilling, broiling and roasting were all highly developed in Virginia.10

But another form of cooking tended to lag behind. Baking, which was central to New England cuisine, developed very slowly in the Chesapeake. One historian of cooking in Virginia writes that “a built-in brick oven for baking breads and cakes, apparently came late to Virginia kitchens; certainly most of the surviving ones date from the eighteenth century.” Outdoor ovens appeared at an early date, as did cast-iron Dutch ovens. A good deal of open baking was also done directly on the hearth. But baking in general had a less prominent place in Virginia cooking than in Massachusetts. Here again the differences between the Chesapeake and New England were similar to those between Wessex and East Anglia.11

Customs of eating, as well as cooking, also differed by region in British America. Virginians dined; New Englanders merely ate. “Dining was a fine art in Virginia,” writes historian Edmund Morgan. In households of even middling rank, meals were highly developed rituals. The major repast of the day was served at two or three o’clock in the afternoon, in a dining room that was one of the most important spaces in the house. Chesapeake epicure Frederick Stieff writes, “ … in all my Maryland meanderings, I have yet to see an unimportant dining room in an important Maryland manor.”12

Men and women in prosperous households were expected to primp for dinner—to dress their hair, to change their clothing and generally to make a pleasing appearance. The table and sideboard in a great house were set with a great display of silver, all engraved with the family arms. Even small farmers proudly put out a piece or two of plate, investing their hard-won tobacco profits not in agriculatural improvements, but in this form of consumption. Even very poor families in Virginia had tablecloths in their inventories, as did English families in Gloucestershire. In prosperous houses, an abundance of food was set upon the table, and Virginians cultivated the art of conversation in which all adults were expected to join. When Philip Fithian, the Princeton tutor at Nomini Hall, once neglected to appear for dinner, he was chastised by his employer for his churlishness. He wrote in his journal:

I took a whim in my head and would not go to dinner. My head was not dressed, and I was too lazy to change my clothes. Mrs. Carter, however, in the evening lashed me severely. I told her I was engaged in reading a pleasant novel, that I was not perfectly well. But she would not hear none [sic], and said I was rude, and censurable.13

This ritual of dining has persisted for three centuries in the country houses of England and the Chesapeake—even to our own time. A pleasant conversation was thought to be an indispensable part of a social existence. A gentleman of Virginia who somehow survived into the twentieth century put it this way:

Salt yo’ food, suh, with humor … season it with wit, and sprinkle it all over with the charm of good-fellowship, but never poison it with the cares of life. It is an insult to yo’ digestion, besides bein’ suh, a mark of bad breedin’.14

Southern food ways were also special in another way. Feasting was an important part of the culture of Virginia—more so than in Massachusetts. The people of New England did a good deal of heavy eating and drinking from time to time, particularly after the death of a neighbor or townsman. But feasts in Virginia happened very frequently—at weddings and christenings, at Christmas and Easter, the return of a family member or the visit of an interesting stranger—and they were very much more festive.

A Virginia feast could be staged on short notice, or no notice at all. A French traveler in the seventeenth century was present at one impromptu occasion in the year 1686, when twenty mounted cavaliers suddenly descended on William Fitzhugh’s plantation, and a feast was instantly improvised for them: “We rode twenty strong to Colonel Fichous [Fitzhugh’s],” he wrote, “but he has such a large establishment that he did not mind. We were all of us provided with beds, one for two men. He treated us royally, there was good wine and all kinds of beverages, so that there was a great deal of carousing. He had sent for three fiddlers, a jester and a tight-rope dancer, an acrobat who tumbled around, and they gave us all the entertainment one could wish.”15

These feasts occurred among both rich and poor—sometimes rich and poor together. A funeral feast would bring together everyone in the neighborhood. “Planters drank to the memory of the poorest man,” Gloria Main writes, “when his estate could foot the bill.”16 Slaves were allowed special feast days after Easter and Christmas. Easter Monday was a day of wild celebration in black communities, a custom that continued for two centuries, even into the Chesapeake childhood of this historian. These customs of feasting had long been traditional in the south and west of England, even among families of modest means. On harvest homes and holy days, the usual fare of bread, soup, lard and garden greens yielded to “boiled beef, bacon, puddings, apple pie, hot cakes and ale” even in laborers’ cottages.17

All of these various customs of feasting, dining and cooking were fully established in Virginia by the late seventeenth century. They became the basis of inherited food ways which still flourished in the Chesapeake during this historian’s youth, and set that region apart from other cultures in British America.

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