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Fabled Hospitality, Old Southern Style

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Virginia hospitality is legendary. An early traveler, Charles Augustus Murray, stayed at a Virginia plantation “four or five days; and if the wishes of the friendly and excellent host … had been alone to be consulted I might have remained there as many weeks.” An essential element of hospitality was then, and is now, food. During the early part of the 19th century a Northern student visiting the Carter mansion in Tidewater Virginia sat down at the Shirley dining table at 3 p. m. He described the dinner:

“Mrs. Carter ladles soup at one end of the table, while her husband carves a saddle of mutton at the other. Black boys hand around dishes of ham, beef, turkey, duck, eggs and greens, sweet potatoes, and hominy. After a round of champagne the upper cloth is removed, and upon the damask beneath plum pudding, tarts, ice cream, and brandied peaches are served. When you have eaten this, off goes the second table cloth, and then upon the bare mahogany table is set two or three bottles of wine — Madeira, port, and a sweet wine for the ladies ….”

In pre-Civil War days Frederick Law Olmsted enjoyed the meals he was served at two less grand Virginia homes. At one he dined on “fried fowl, and fried bacon and eggs, and cold ham; there were preserved peaches, and preserved quinces and grapes; there was hot wheaten biscuit, and hot short cake and hot corn cake, and hot griddle cakes, soaked in butter; there was coffee, and there was milk, sour or sweet, whichever I preferred to drink.” At the other residence he delighted in relays of hot corn bread “of an excellence quite new to me” and “but one vegetable … sweet potato, roasted in ashes, and this, I thought, was the best sweet potato also that I ever had eaten; but there were four preparations of swine's flesh, besides fried fowls, fried eggs, cold roast turkey, and o'possum, cooked, I know not how, but it somehow resembled baked suckling pig. The only beverages on the table were milk and whiskey.”

To prepare some fabled Virginia recipes, follow these instructions:

Martha Jefferson's Old Virginia Cocktail

Mix one cup of grape juice, one cup of water, one half cup of orange juice, one fourth cup of lemon juice, with one cup of cider. Stir and pour over crushed ice. Serves six.

Fried Chicken, Cream Gravy, and Mush

The mush should be made, but not fried, before frying the chicken. Put the boiling water and 1/2 teaspoon salt on the fire, and while boiling sift in a scant cupful of corn meal, beating all the time to avoid lumping. Cook until the consistency of porridge and set aside to cool. When cool, add the yolk of egg; beat well and set aside until needed.

Disjoint the chickens carefully, seeing that the drumstick is separated from the upper joint. Sprinkle with salt and put in a bowl, under a towel, for at least half an hour. Drain well and dredge each piece in flour. Put lard in a heavy iron skillet, and when very hot put the chicken in, one piece at a time. The hot lard should stand half an inch in the skillet. Lower the heat so that the chicken does not fry too rapidly, and brown slowly on each side. Drain on a piece of brown paper and set aside to keep hot until mush and gravy are ready.

In the same fat in which you have fried the chicken, and in the same frying-pan, drop the mush, a spoonful at a time, so that it forms round cakes about 3/4 inch thick and the circumference of a water glass. Fry each cake a golden brown on each side, and arrange in a border on a platter, in the middle of which you have put the chicken.

Still in the same frying-pan put a tablespoon of butter, sift in half a tablespoon of flour; when well mixed with butter and remaining grease and bits left from mush, add the thin cream, a little salt, and a little black pepper. Let thicken an instant, and then pour into sauceboat and serve with the fried chicken.

String Beans with Mustard Dressing

  • 1 lb. string beans
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • Salt
  • String the beans carefully; wash in cold water, and cook in boiling salt water 1 hour. In another saucepan bring the milk to a boil; pour it on the yolk, beaten up with the mustard, and let thicken on the stove for a moment, stirring all the time. Drain the beans; pour over them the milk sauce; add vinegar and salt and let it boil up once or twice. The sauce will be slightly curdled, which is as it should be.

    Virginia Hot Loaf

    Boil the potato, and when done, mash it through a sieve. Bring the milk to a boil; add mashed potato, lard, sugar, and salt, and when the mixture has reached blood heat add the yeast, which has been dissolved in a little of the water in which the potato was boiled. Sift in enough flour to make a soft, but workable dough; knead well, and set in a large bowl covered with a towel, to rise overnight in a warm place. In the morning turn the dough onto a floured board; knead for 2 or 3 minutes; form into a round loaf and put in a well-greased lard-bucket. Let rise 2 hours, and bake in moderate oven until a fine golden crust is formed.

    This loaf is served hot for breakfast in old-fashioned Virginia homes. It is sliced and buttered for each guest by the host. By following the above directions a hot loaf may be made anywhere, but it is doubtful if hosts who butter their guests' bread are to be found outside Virginia.

    To top off a traditional Virginia dinner, or to enjoy as a snack, prepare one of George Washington's favorite foods, gingerbread.

    Gingerbread (a Virginia Revolutionary recipe)

    Cream together the butter and brown sugar, and when very light add molasses, warm milk, spices, and well-beaten eggs. Mix well, and add, alternately, flour and black coffee and juice and grated rind of orange. Dissolve soda in a tablespoon of warm water, and stir it in last of all. Bake in moderate oven in a loaf or in a shallow biscuit-pan.