By B.L. Trahos
Co-Founder of the Gunston Hall Hearth Cooking Program
On December25, 1739, William Byrd wrote in his diary that “I ate boiled Turkey and oysters.” On January 7, 1740, he “…walked till dinner when I ate cold boiled beef….drew Twelfth Cake, gave the people cake and cider.” On December 25, 1740, he notes that he had roast turkey for dinner and on January 7, 1741; he ate roast goose but makes no mention of a cake.
Phillip Fithian noted on his first Christmas Day at Nomini Hall in 1773 that he “was waked this morning by guns fired all around the house…Before I was Drest, the fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk…our dinner was no otherwise than common, yet as elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever set down to.” On December 29 of that same year he wrote “we had a large Pye cut today to signify the conclusion of the Holidays”.
While in Alexandria on Christmas Day 1774, Nicholas Cresswell observed “Christmas Day But Little observed here.” And on January 7, 1775, “Last night I went to a Ball. It seems this is one of their annual Balls supported in the following Manner: a large Rich Cake is provided and cut into small pieces and handed round to the company….A cold supper, punch, wines, coffee and chocolate, but no Tea. This is a forbidden herb.”
If you have visited Mount Vernon during past holiday seasons, you may remember seeing a Christmas Yorkshire Pye and a Great Cake displayed either in the dining room or the kitchen. You may even have been given a copy of Washington family receipts (recipes) for these dishes. The Washington archives indicated that they were a part of the Christmas and/or Twelfth Night tradition at Mount Vernon. Certainly the quotations noted above would seem to support the possibility that Christmas Pies and Rich (or Great) cakes were a part of the season, at least among the landed gentry, in Virginia.
So the question arises, was Mr. Mason’s table similarly set? Would he have had a Christmas Pye in the center with a joint of meat or fowl at each end and corners of either fresh or preserved vegetable and/or fruits? The truth is… we do not know. There is no record surviving. Certainly he had the wealth to supply anything he wanted on his table. Eighteenth century receipt books available in Virginia and known to be in the libraries of wealthy Virginia gentlemen, not only gave receipts for syllabubs, puddings, pies, rich cakes, seed cakes, beef, pork, fish and fowl, but also gave the hostess diagrams indicating how to set her table for each course.
A Yorkshire Christmas-Pye
First make a good Standing Crust, let the Wall and Bottom be very thick, bone a Turkey, a Goose, a Fowl, a Partridge, and a Pigeon, season them all very well, take an Ounce of Mace, half an Ounce of Nutmegs, a quarter of an Ounce of Cloves, half an Ounce of black Pepper, all beat fine together, two large Spoonfuls of Salt, mix them together. Open the Fowls, all down the Back, and bone them; first the Pigeon, the partridge, cover them; then the Fowl, then the Goose, and then the Turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the Crust, so as it will look only like a whole Turkey; then have a Hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to Pieces, that is jointed; season it , and lay it as close as you can on one Side; on the other Side Woodcock, more Game, and what Sort of wild Fowl you can get. Season them well and lay them close; put at least four Pounds of B utter into the Pye, then lay on your Lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a hot Oven, and take at least four Hours.
This Pye will take a Bushel of Flour; in this Chapter, you will see how to make it. These Pies are often sent to London in a Box as Presents; therefore the Walls must be well built.
To make a Rich Cake
Take four Pound of Flower well dried and sifted, seven Pound of Currants washed and rubb’d, six Pound of best fresh Butter, two pound of Jordon Almonds blanched, and beaten with Orange Flower water and Sack till they are fine, then take four Pound of Eggs, put half the whites away, three pound of double refin’d Sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter an ounce of Mace, the same of Cloves, and Cinnamon, three large nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little Ginger, half a Pint of Sack, half a Pint of right French Brandy, Sweetmeats to your liking, they must be Orange, Lemon, and Citron. Work your Butter to a Cream with your Hands before any of your Ingredients are in, then put in your Sugar, mix it well together; let your eggs be well beat, and strained’d thro a Sieve, work in your Almonds first, then put in your Eggs, beat them all together till they look white and thick, then put in your sack and Brandy and Spices, and shake your Flour in by Degrees, and when your Oven is ready, put in your Currants and Sweetmeats as you put it in your hoop; it will take four Hours baking in a quick Oven, you must keep it beaten with your hand all the While you are mixing of it, and when your Currants are well washed and clean’d let them be kept before the Fire, so that they may be warm into your Cake. This Quantity will bake best in two Hoops. The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747) H. Glasse