Books from the Mitchells Colonial Sweets and Spirits At the Table in Colonial America Revolutionary Recipes Colonial Christmas Cooking Colonial Spices and Herbs Colonial Foodways The Good Land: Native American and Early Colonial Food Refreshments Now and Then: Colonial, Victorian, and Contemporary Sweets Soul on Rice: African Influences on American Cooking Suited to a Tea

Colonial Food in Colonial Williamsburg

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 1990.


Syllabub and Virginia ham at the Wythe House kitchen.

Ask anyone who has been there. Williamsburg is history, having become almost synonymous with its biggest industry, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. No visitor can forget the sights, sounds, and smells of the restored/reconstructed city which once hosted Virginia’s colonial capitol. Here colonial architecture provides the setting for carriages and costumes, tradesmen and taverns, fifes and foods.

Colonial Williamsburg is Virginia’s flagship living history museum. One of the primary reasons for this preeminence, in a land buzzing with living history museums and working pioneer farms, is Williamsburg’s creative interpretation of colonial foodways. In turn, the success of the creative food programs in Colonial Williamsburg can be largely attributed to Rosemary Brandau, manager of historic food programs, and her staff, who diligently research 18th-century cookbooks, household inventories, diaries, etc., to discover how early Virginians prepared, preserved, and served food. To exhibit what they learn, Brandau and her four-member historic food programs team utilize the 18th-century demonstration kitchens. The restored taverns which serve meals to visitors also reflect research by Brandau and others in the Historic Trades Department.

On-the-job training

Rosemary Brandau, manager of historic food programs for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Brandau, a native of Georgia and former Atlanta schoolteacher, has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for seven years. She majored in home economics in college, specializing in textiles and clothing. One summer’s work at Colonial Williamsburg “was my first experience in the museum world,” she relates. “I couldn’t believe people got paid for doing it, it was such fun.” Before long Brandau moved to Tidewater Virginia and derived the benefits of on-the-job learning and training at Colonial Williamsburg. “I don’t know of any [college] where you can go to study culinary history and techniques,” the food historian remarked. Brandau’s responsibilities run the gamut from conducting hog butchering demonstrations to arranging correct dining table settings at the Governor’s Palace. Six days a week Brandau and her staff cook foods in the functioning kitchen restorations. (To find out what foods are being prepared at the Governor’s Palace kitchen and the Wythe House kitchen, a tourist can check the Visitors Companion newspaper.)

No sampling allowed

Due to health department regulations, the old-fashioned foods cooked in view of the public cannot be sampled by the spectators, and some of the appetizing-looking foods set out are actually especially-made synthetic foods. However, much of the food is quite real. “One of the most curious things that we do — we always get ‘oohs’ and ‘oh-no’s’ — is preparing rabbits and poultry with their heads and feet still attached,” observes Brandau. “Not only do we cook it that way, it would have been served that way.”

Elaine Shirley (livestock husbandry specialist for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) and Nora (Red Devon).

When asked about the Foundation’s contribution to historic food research, Brandau states, “We have an advantage here in that we have the resources — art galleries, research historians, architectural historians, the [museum] collections, curators, landscape gardeners.…[The gardeners] do all that work in the gardens [growing herbs and vegetables], and we get to reap the benefits in the kitchens.” In addition to the provision of plants by the gardeners, a cooperative Red Devon cow named Nora aids the historic kitchens by producing creamy fresh milk.


Over the fire and out on the hearth

In the kitchen of the Governor’s Palace.

The Wythe House kitchen has a typical large fireplace. The cooking is done over the fire and out on the hearth, as was characteristic of the 1750’s–1770’s, the time period which is interpreted at Williamsburg. In order to better understand colonial cooking Brandau spent the summer of 1989 at Adingham Summer School in England studying old British kitchens. Says she, “[You will see] lots of puddings here. The British love their puddings of all kinds.…That’s an example of the British influence.” But Williamsburg, it turns out, was not simply British culture transported to a new setting. “In Virginia cuisine you have [several] ethnic groups influencing the food: British people, slaves of African heritage, and Native Americans,” explains Brandau. “The French influence is also evident at the Governor’s Palace. It was fashionable to have French male cooks or at least a cook trained in French cooking.”

Brandau would seem to have her hands full with her many duties, but she also manages to serve as chairman and to coordinate the Foodways Forum; to plan special events like an annual September barbecue for military reenactors, and December foodways tours of the town by interpreters. She also oversees the development of a product line of pickles and preserved fruits, prepared according to 18th-century recipes. These items are for sale at M. Dubois’ Grocery Store and the Craft House in Colonial Williamsburg. Future plans include developing for sale a selection of reproduction cookware, a kitchen scale, and an early ice cream maker.

Ongoing research

Chef Ed Swann and “James Shields” (Don Warden) inspect the Shields Tavern herb garden.


Chefs Manfred Roehr and Ed Swann at the Shields Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.

“One exciting thing about working here, in this field, is that research is always going on,” Brandau declares. A perfect outlet for testing and developing 18th-century recipes which the general public can consume is the kitchen of Chef Ed Swann at Colonial Williamsburg’s Shields Tavern. Willingly Chef Swann works with researchers in turning 18th-century food concepts into 20th-century menu choices.

Shields Tavern is the “youngest” tavern in the restored town, having been opened in 1988. An underground six-million-dollar kitchen is the stage for preparation of such educational items as the Shields Sample appetizer plate. According to Ed Swann, the executive working chef at Shields, the contents of the plate vary. “Every six months I take off a couple of items…and…put on a couple of new ones…” Certain foods likely to be presented include carrot puffs, chicken fricassee, Virginia ham, Indian Meal Pudding, pickled red cabbage, and onion soup. Even though these foods sound fairly familiar, the seasonings tend to be different from those in 20th-century cooking. Colonists liked nutmeg, they especially enjoyed a sweet taste, and salt and pepper were de-emphasized. The carrot puffs, pickled cabbage, and Indian Meal Pudding on the appetizer plate all taste sweet.

The Shields menu also features fresh and regional foods such as crayfish soup, spit-roasted meats, and greengage plum ice cream.

Another food of yore is Syllabub. This dessert/drink tastes like fermented lemon chess pie. It has a thick portion which rises to the top of the glass. This section is eaten with a spoon, then the diner drinks the remaining wine mixture.

Chef Swann enjoys experimenting and presenting new dishes. “[This way I] stay motivated,” claims the Williamsburg-born man, who recently served a group of 85 visiting senators a meal of crabmeat-corn chowder, filet mignon, and cranberry-apple pie. “Rosemary [Brandau] shows me an [18th-century] recipe and then I present it in a way that we can sell in the 20th century,” Swann states.

Manfred E. Roehr is the manager of Shields Tavern, a certified executive chef, and a 19-year employee of Colonial Williamsburg. He supervises the smooth operation of the busy tavern, a job once performed by James Shields, who owned the establishment in the 1740’s. The reconstruction and furnishings (including the blue and auburn Delft dinnerware decorated with fish images) depict the tavern in Shields’ day. Among the taverns open to the public, including King’s Arms, Chowning’s, and Christiana Campbell’s, Shields now serves the most historically accurate 18th-century foods.

If one of the seven early British governors, or Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson, were to amble down Duke of Gloucester Street from the palace to partake of some hearty tavern fare, a meal prepared by Chef Swann would probably seem pleasingly familiar, but if the 1700’s gentleman were to glimpse the marvel of a subterranean kitchen agleam with stainless steel and state-of-the-art equipment he might experience future shock. To see a flock of browning chickens automatically revolving on rows of spits in a glass-doored oven is most astonishing.


More Colonial Williamsburg Food History in Photos

It’s standing room only for visitors at the Governor’s Palace kitchen, where “the Governor’s lunch is being prepared.”

Table settings are in place for lunch at the Governor’s Palace.

Rosemary Brandau explains that this chicken-coop-like structure at the Wythe House served as temporary storage for fresh milk.

The Wythe House kitchen is one of two kitchens (the other is at the Governor’s Palace) where costumed interpreters demonstrate 18th-century cooking and baking for visitors. (Photo provided by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

Dining at Shields Tavern gives Colonial Williamsburg visitors a taste of tavern life in the mid-18th century. In colonial times, the upstairs rooms with dormer windows (such as shown here) would have been used for lodging. Today they contain informal dining tables and chairs, interspersed with rope beds, chests of drawers, and blanket chests. (Photo provided by Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

The motto “Jollity, the Offspring of Wisdom and Good Living,” found displayed above the mantel in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, provides insight into the food, drink, and entertainment attitudes of Virginia’s founding fathers.


Notes