Food and Entertaining
Meals at Maymont
The work of the kitchen staff revolved around a rigid schedule with many deadlines. Breakfast was usually served at 8am. Typical fare included cereal, eggs, bread, waffles, bacon or fish, and coffee.
Dinner—as the midday meal was called through most of the nineteenth century—was the heaviest meal of the day. Toward the end of the century, men tended to remain in town during business hours. The noontime meal was then called lunch when a lighter fare was served.
The evening meal was called supper when light and for family only, or dinner on more formal occasions. According to high fashion, formal dinners with multiple courses were served á la russe—meaning that the butler, assisted by other staff, brought courses on individual dishes to each person seated at the table.
The cook produced meals on the large cast-iron range for seven to twelve people daily, and for hundreds on special occasions. A skilled cook had little need for cookbooks. She could add and mix ingredients by look, feel and taste. Her work required long hours on her feet. A 1911 study estimated that in meal preparation alone, the cook walked an equivalent of 250 miles a year.
The kitchen maid assisted the cook by preparing vegetables, meats, and fish, stoking the cookstove, and keeping the kitchen clean. If she did well, she might advance to another household as head cook.
The cook and her assistant no doubt benefited from the era’s new canned and packaged foods, but they still faced hours of preparation. Their daily tasks included plucking and dressing chickens, soaking hams, grinding coffee, grating spices, shelling beans and peas, baking, and churning butter.
Known Maymont cooks and kitchen maids:
Food for Maymont’s tables
A few cows, chickens, and a vegetable garden on the estate provided a steady supply of fresh milk, poultry, eggs and seasonal produce.
Richmond’s open-air markets offered goods sold in vendor stalls and farm wagons from surrounding counties. Oral history indicates that James Dooley—a “bargain shopper” who carried a straw basket on his arm—would purchase household provisions at the Old Market at Main and 17th Streets or at the Sixth Street Market.
Locally owned grocery stores included R. L. Christian & Co., which would accept telephone orders and deliver domestic and imported foods and delicacies directly to the Maymont kitchen. On occasion, staff would order baked goods from the Richmond Exchange for Women’s Work, ice cream from Cole’s Ice Cream, and olive oil and figs from New York importers.
The food for social teas was always light and dainty, no more than a bite or two, and nothing large or gooey. Small sandwiches on thin, crustless bread cut into tiny triangular, round and diamond shapes were served. Traditional sandwich fillings included bread and butter, cucumber, watercress, marmalade, lettuce and mayonnaise, minute slices of smoked salmon, ham, or tongue. A Victorian affectation was to roll the sandwich and tie with a thin colored ribbon. Other typical refreshments included rolled wafers and other small cookies (biscuits), pound cake served in a silver cake basket, cheese straws, salted pecans, blanched almonds, bonbons, and petit fours.
Mrs. Dooley’s great niece, Nancy Elder Brown, remembered that when she visited Maymont, the cook, Frances Walker, would prepare custard cakes with sugar on top to serve at teatime. Another oral history contributor, the daughter-in-law of Henry Baskervill, one of the Dooleys’ architects, recalled nasturtium sandwiches served for tea at Maymont.
Sample Dinner Menu
With little variation except for Little Neck Clams, raw oysters were the overwhelming choice for the first course on nineteenth-century menus. They were plentiful and ubiquitous. During the days before reliable refrigeration, it was generally the rule that oysters should only be consumed during the months with “r.” On many menus of the period, raw oysters are simply referred to as “Blue Points,” originally referring to Blue Point, Long Island, which came to mean any medium-sized Atlantic oyster eaten raw. Several oral histories on file at Maymont tell about barrels of oysters packed in ice kept in the cold rooms of Richmond homes during the Dooley era. So plentiful were oyster shells they were applied to many uses. The original road surfaces around Maymont were crushed oyster shells, and you can still see some here and there around the grounds. In recent years, the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay has dwindled severely due to pollution.
Turtle soup was another popular menu item in the Victorian era. The most popular turtle for use in 19th century American recipes was the diamond back terrapin. In the 1800s it became a high end specialty item, served in the very best restaurants. The diamondback terrapin was practically eaten to extinction, and today is a “species of special concern” in Virginia.
Fish at formal meals in the early 1800s was an opportunity for display of a very large whole fish decoratively dressed. After service a la russe came in to style, because food was carved on the sideboard or in the butler’s pantry, the custom of parading the fish around the room ceased.
While the modern meaning of entrée has shifted to mean the main course, in the late 19th century this was a course that showed off the chef’s skill with a special creation. Sweetbreads showed off the Victorian taste for entrails, “giblets,” and other parts, such as beef tongue and calf’s brains. Sweetbreads are calf thymus glands, considered a delicacy in earlier times. Sweetbreads in a cream sauce might be prepared as a filling for pastry (patty) shells or timbales (a delicate entrée like a mousse or soufflé baked in a ramekin mold).
An iced punch or a sherbet (sorbet) was an important course in a high status dinner intended to “clear the palate” before the game course. A popular selection was Roman Punch, made with rum and lemon juice, or Canton Sorbet, which was prepared with ginger and orange and lemon juice.
Game was considered a high status course in service a la russe. Canvasback duck was a very popular choice available November through March. By the end of the period, the game course was being eliminated. Though quail was hunted in the fall and winter, according to the 1896 Boston Cooking School Cookbook, they were packed in ice in large numbers for the Eastern markets through the early spring.
Salad, Vegetables, Fruit
In the years before frozen foods and high speed shipping, fresh fruits and vegetables were not so abundant at the American dinner table. Out of season vegetables and fruits were high status because of the expense of shipping or hot house production. Iceberg lettuce was introduced commercially in 1894 and was the first lettuce that could stand the stress of shipping from California where it could be grown year round. It became widely popular in the U.S. as the preferred salad green. Interestingly, the variety of celery available in the 19th century took a great deal of hand labor to raise and blanch. This version made frequent appearance at special dinners with its own special form of cut glass serving dish.