A Pickle from the Past

April 21, 2015

I want to share one last recipe from Virginia Cookery, one that reads almost like poetry.  It’s from the personal family cookbook of Robert Bland Lee – who was the first Virginian representative to the US Congress (and also the uncle of Robert E. Lee).  His wife Elizabeth Collins, a Quaker born near Philadelphia, wrote these recipes in her own hand. I'm wondering how she felt about owning slaves.

The Lees were planters who lived in Fairfax County on Sully Plantation; the plantation's website says they had 29 slaves.  The head cook, Thorton, was a slave, which might explain the vast amount of work that went into this recipe.  ("Race ginger"  incidentally, had nothing to do with slavery; it was another word for ginger root.  I'm not sure how it differed from white ginger.  And I'm extremely curious about the amount of garlic in the recipe; unusual for that time.)

Without further ado: 

Yellow Pickle

“Put 6 quarts of best cider vinegar in a stone jar.  Put in it 4 oz. of mustard seed pounded fine, 4 oz. coriander seed, bruised, 6 oz. of race ginger Soaked in salt and water 24 hours, then pealed and sliced and put in the sun to dry, the white ginger, 2 oz. preferable, bruised, 5 oz. of garlic, 1/2 oz. of mace pounded, 1/2 oz. of nutmeg pounded. Have a wooden stopper for the jar to fit tight, tie a cloth over it and put it in the sun for six weeks shaking it every day. 

In the meantime prepare the vegetables. Put cabbage in salt and water after quartering it until it turns yellow.  Then scald it in the last brine until a little tender, sprinkle salt over it and lay it in the hot sun in the morning the inside down.  Before night open the leaves and sprinkle salt through them turning them up on the dish.  Let them remain out that night in the dew. In two days if the sun is hot they will be quite white, and dry enough in two more to put away until winter for the soaking pot. Prepare radish pods, beans, young corn, melons, peppers etc. in the same way. Radish pods will become white and dry in one night and day.  Nothing should be dryer than to keep until the soaking pot is ready. – E. Lee” 

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  • Ruth, I love the poetry of these old recipes. You might enjoy looking up my book, The Homeplace History, and Receipt Book: History, Folklore, and Recipes from Life on an Upper Southern Farm a Decade before the Civil War. This book was written with The Homeplace, a living history museum (proceeds help benefit educational programs). Many of those old receipts were such poems to me that I set the lines as such. You can see a good preview on Amazon.com.
    I enjoy your recipes and reflections!

  • judy north says:

    Ruth, I just made your Millet muffins. They are crunchy and delicious. I love your postings
    and have been following you and trying so many of the suggestions you’ve tendered since Tender at
    the Bone and all through your tenure at Gourmet magazine. Mohammed’s Bistia, The Lobster boil article by (can’t remember his name).
    The Bourbon Toothpicks, the dried persimmons from that wonderful nursery.
    Thank you so much for your generous enthusiasm, and staying power.

  • judy north says:

    David Foster Wallace I just remembered.