Long before Julia Child, James Beard or Anthony Bourdain, Mary Randolph helped define American cuisine.
A Virginia-born member of a plantation-owning and slave-holding family, Randolph had prominent connections. For instance, according to Michigan State University’s Feeding America blog, her brother was married to Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. But though Randolph’s life was largely like those of many other young women from plantation-owning familes—privately educated for wifehood, married at 18, having eight children in her lifetime—one of her interests had an outsize impact on broader American society. Randolph’s knowledge of how to party led her to write the first cookbook published in America.
After a change in fortunes, Randolph found herself running a popular boarding house that was known, as her plantation home had been previously, for its entertaining and cooking. Perhaps capitalizing on this, she wrote The Virginia Housewife Or, Methodical Cook. It was first published in 1825, just four years before Randolph’s death.
It contains a lot of practical advice–more than the English cookbooks that were available, according to Feeding America–as well as a broad range of recipes that use grown-in-Virginia ingredients. “Not surprisingly, the book’s regional emphasis made it especially popular in the South,” writes the blog. Letitia Burwell, author of A Girl’s Life in Virginia Before the War, commented that every Virginia housewife (and presumably many slaves as well) “knew how to compound all the various dishes in Mrs. Randolph’s cookery book.”
Among the many other recipes this volume contains is what is widely thought to be the first American recipe for fried chicken: Randolph advises cooks to cut the birds up “as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt” before immersing them into boiling lard and frying until they reach “a light brown.”
Fried chicken has gone a lot of places since the 1800s, says Julia Moskin for The New York Times, but her recipe has “never been substantially improved upon.” That said, there are countless ways to make fried chicken and countless opinions about whose chicken is the best, so it would be wise not to be too much of a purist when talking to fried chicken aficionados.
Though Randolph was the first American to write down and publish a recipe for fried chicken, writes Bill Addison (former Dallas Morning News critic) for Atlanta Magazine, “Southern fried chicken’s murky origins stretch back much further. Certainly, we owe a debt to enslaved kitchen workers who perfected the dish—a fusion of cooking techniques from West Africans and perhaps Scottish settlers, who preferred frying their proteins rather than baking or boiling them as the English did.”
Later in fried chicken’s history black women entrepreneurs in Gordonsville, Virginia, turned the city into the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” By the time of the Civil War, she writes, the town had become a major stop on two different rail lines, but the trains that stopped there didn’t have dining cars.
“Local African-American women found a business opportunity in hungry passengers,” she writes. “The women would cook up fried chicken, biscuits, pies and other tasty goods and sell them from the train platform, passing the food over to passengers through the open windows.”