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
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
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,
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.