Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Daily Schedule for a Cook in a Gentry Household

Daily Schedule for a Cook in a Gentry Household

by Pat Gibbs

How essential was a good cook to the smooth running of a household? Comments by two Williamsburg residents suggest they considered a good cook second only to a good wife. Thomas Jones reported “much disorder with our Servants” in his 1728 letter to his wife who was then visiting in England. Venus, in particular, had become “so incorigable in her bad Habits” that she would not “send in a dish of Meat fit to Set before any body” and Jones had resolved “to send her up to some of the Quartrs.”

At the death of his wife Elizabeth in mid-August 1787, George Wythe found that “necessary domestic duties occupied so much of his time… He was irritated and vexed by a thousand little occurances he had never forseen.” At this time he became even more dependent on Lydia Broadnax, the Wythe’s cook. In recognition of her faithful service, Wythe freed Lydia on August 20, 1787, two days after Elizabeth died, and testified Lydia was more than forth-five years old. Although free, Lydia continued as Wythe’s cook until his death.

We can assume that most black cooks, the vast majority of whom were female slaves, fell somewhere between incorrigible Venus and faithful Lydia. Generally the cook was the most skillful female slave and the one on whom the household was most dependent. She ranked at the top of the domestic hierarchy in well-to-do eighteenth-century Virginia urban households, which were usually staffed by several other black women who cleaned, gardened, laundered, helped care for the children, and did other chores their mistresses ordered them to do.

Preparing food over a hot fire was a hazardous occupation. Alertness was an essential characteristic of a good cook. The register that lists York County free blacks from the late eighteenth through the first quarter of the nineteenth century describes many women with burn scars on their faces, arms, hands, breasts, and legs. Sarah Williams was described as “a dark mulatto about 17 years of age 5 feet 5 Inches high a large scar on the left arm from a burn or scald & one over the right eye.” “Comfort (alias Comfort James),” was described as “a very black woman about 34 years of age 5 feet 1 ½ inches high has lost several teeth, very grey, she has a large scar on the breast occasioned (as she says) by her being frequently employed over the fire.”

Cooks worked long hours beginning before sunrise and extending into early evening, and their work was physically demanding. Lifting heavy iron pots and huge brass kettles was tiring, as was carrying wood into the kitchen (30 large pieces a day by conservative estimates), hauling countless buckets of water (wooden buckets used in the Historic Area weigh about 20 pounds when full), and bending over fires year-round (cooking experiments recorded temperatures over 170 degrees Fahrenheit on the hearth). Although the drudgery continued through the day, there were slack periods, such as after dinner, when cooks could slow their pace. However, watchful mistresses made certain their slaves, unless they were sick, were never idle.

The cook’s work, although often mundane and repetitive, had certain advantages. Cooks tasted foods being prepared and had first call on leftovers returned to the kitchen from the mistress’s table. They often slept in a room adjoining or above the kitchen. Because of their close relationship with their mistresses, cooks frequently received hand-me-down clothing and household effects. They usually accompanied their mistresses to market, which gave them opportunities to leave the property. The mistresses’ desire to try out new recipes occasionally gave cooks a break in their routine. An elderly Monticello slave named Isaac, interviewed in the 1840s, recalled this scene from his boyhood: “Mrs. Jefferson would come out there with a cookery book in her hand & read out of it to Isaac’s mother how to make cakes, tarts & so on.”

A skilled cook knew more than how to prepare a variety of foods using an assortment of equipment that became more varied as the century progressed. A sense of timing was essential. All parts of a meal had to be ready to send to the table when they were called for. She also needed the ability to make-do and master the art of disguise when the gravy burned, the cake fell, or the carefully garnished platter overturned.

When the master of the household or his dinner guests praised the meal, the mistress took credit but we can hope she complimented the cook at the earliest opportunity.

As you read through the schedule, assume that part of the time the cook was assisted by another slave woman and slave children who—although requiring varying attention depending on their ages—could stir a pot, watch the fire, turn the spit, or haul wood:

About 5:30 a.m., over an hour before most members of the household rise, the cook rekindles the fire, draws water, and puts the water kettle on to heat for family and general kitchen use. She feeds any chickens kept in the fattening pen and milks the cow if the family has one.

About 6:30-7:30 a.m. she kneads dough for the hot bread eaten by the family for breakfast and stirs the hominy pot that has slowly cooked overnight and will provide breakfast food for the other house slaves and their children. She also preheats the Dutch oven. During cold weather the family often breakfasts on milk hominy, prepared the previous evening and cooked slowly through the night.

About 7:30 a.m. she bakes the family’s bread in the Dutch oven, makes coffee or tea, sets out milk and butter, and slices ham to be taken into the house for the family’s breakfast.

About 8:00 a.m. she sends breakfast in to the family who generally eat in the dining room. Domestic slaves, except those serving breakfast, eat in the kitchen.

About 8:30 a.m. she cleans up the kitchen, puts away breakfast food, and washes pots and pans and dishes used by the slaves.

About 9 a.m. her mistress comes to the kitchen, gives orders for dinner, measures out ingredients, recites recipes if the cook is uncertain how to cook something, and instructs the cook on special orders for the day.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays Williamsburg mistresses and their cooks go to the market for fresh produce and meat.

About 9:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. the cook begins dinner preparations, attends to or supervises dairying chores, and possibly does some gardening.

During slack periods she may spin or knit, draw more water, and split kindling. Older slave children on the property assist with some of the chores.

Occasional duties include preserving food, making soap and starch (unless purchased), roasting coffee beans, making small beer, and helping with the laundering, sewing, and mending.

About 2 p.m. she has dinner prepared and ready to be taken into the dining room. The other domestic slaves eat in the kitchen.

About 2:30 - 7:30 p.m. she cleans up the kitchen, prepares dough or pastry, spends time working in the garden, spins, cards cotton or wool, knits, splits kindling, and completes activities begun in the morning.

About 7:30 p.m. she prepares supper.

About 8 p.m. she sends supper into the dining room for the family.

About 8:30 p.m. she cleans up the kitchen, mixes yeast dough for the next day’s breakfast bread for the family, and prepares a pot of hominy for the slaves to eat for breakfast. Later she banks the kitchen fire.

Only when her work is completed, does the cook have free time to spend with her family and friends. As a much needed member of the household staff, she rarely gets a regular day off each week. When she does, she often prepares some food ahead of time for others to serve.