Valentine’s Day in Colonial Virginia
Valentine’s Day in Colonial Virginia was a little different, but you could still see modern traditions reflected in how they celebrated. On February 14th young colonials would write romantic poetry and get together for parties and games that often included pretending to partner up.
The games began with young ladies of marriageable age writing their names on pieces of paper, which were then placed in a basket. The young men would take turns choosing a paper from the basket. Or the names of young men might be written on paper which was then rolled in clay and submerged in a vessel of water. Whichever name rose to the surface first would be the chosen Valentine of the lady who retrieved it.
The two would be partners for the remainder of the party. Often these pairings would last for just the evening, but sometimes the couple would keep company for the entire spring and summer season. And sometimes the Valentine’s Day pair would marry.
As for cards of love:
During the Colonial Period, there were no printed Valentine’s Day cards as we know them, but there are a few examples of hand-made valentines in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1768, the Virginia Gazette, published in Williamsburg, Virginia, featured a “lovers literary campaign,” in which were featured a special type of Valentine’s poetry that was all the rage at the time.
These were acrostic poems — poems where the first letter of each line spelled out a word or a message.
One such poem was penned by a young gentleman by the name of David Mead of Nansemond County for a Miss Sally Waters of Williamsburg and printed in the Gazette on February 18, 1768:
Mr. Mead’s valentine must have been to Miss Waters’ liking. Three months later, on May 19, the Virginia Gazette announced: “On Thursday last, David Mead, Esq., of Nansemond, was married to Miss Sally Waters, of this city, an agreeable young Lady.”
As for Chocolatiers and Chocolate in Colonial Virginia it has roots in Black History & Colonial Slavery:
It was so popular that it is estimated that approximately one-third of Virginia’s elite was consuming cocoa in some form or another. For the wealthy, this treat was sipped multiple times a week; for most people it was out of reach.
On plantations throughout the Colonies during the 18th century cocoa was making its way into the kitchens and onto the tables of the wealthiest families.
Chocolate was a favorite drink for George Washington at his home, Mount Vernon. Washington’s first recorded order for chocolate was for 20 pounds of it, which arrived from England in 1758. He continued to buy chocolate throughout his life, in quantities as small as one pound and as large as the 50 pounds purchased three months before his death in 1799. Chocolate was primarily consumed as a warm beverage in the 18th century, which is how the Washingtons frequently enjoyed it. Most often it was served with breakfast, similar to coffee or tea.
Hot chocolate was prepared by grating chocolate into boiling water, milk and water, or wine and water. Then spices and sugar were added. Next the drink was frothed and then served. The drink could be a bit heavy and oily; because of this, Martha Washington preferred a chocolate tea made by steeping cacao husks in boiling water. This made a thinner but delicious chocolate drink, which was easier on her stomach than the traditional recipe.
Drinking chocolate was usually thickened with ground nuts. Since the alkaline process hadn’t been invented, it was very bitter — the Aztec name chocolatl means bitter water) — so it was heavily sweetened. Vanilla wasn’t the only spice that was used.
One old recipe calls for a pound of anise, four ounces of pepper and an ounce each of cinnamon and nutmeg, to say nothing of smaller quantities of musk, ambergris and rosewater, to flavor six pounds of cocoa beans (plus six pounds of sugar, a pound of pistachios and a quarter-pound of almonds).
Drinking chocolate was often tinted with achiote(annatto) — the Mexican herb that makes cheddar cheese orange and margarine yellow — or other dyes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a cup of chocolate was likely to be ocher-colored or brick red.
Eighty-three miles from Mount Vernon in Westmoreland County is Stratford Hall, home of the Lee family, among them Philip Ludwell Lee, Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee and Robert Edward Lee. This was always a fashionable house and the Lees were known for their hospitality.
At this plantation was one of the first and finest chocolatiers in all the Colonies. He was an enslaved cook named Caesar. Born in 1732, Caesar was the chef at Stratford Hall and in his kitchen sat one of the few chocolate stones in Virginia.
Caesar was responsible for cooking multiple meals a day for the Lees and any free person who came to visit. He was talented, cooking elaborate and refined meals for Virginia’s gentry. He also learned the art of making chocolate. It is unknown where or how he learned this art. His predecessor, an indentured Englishman named Richard Mynatt who cooked for the Lees during the 1750s, may have learned chocolate-making from other cooks in Virginia and passed it on to Caesar. Or perhaps the Lees, with their obsession with culinary arts, took Caesar to watch the art at one of the coffeehouses in Williamsburg, or even at the governor’s palace.
Caesar disappeared from the records by the end of the 18th century. By the year 1800 Caesar’s son, Caesar Jr. was put up as collateral by Henry Lee for payment of his debts.
What about those dinners?
The Eighteenth-Century Virginia colony was stable and prosperous. Hospitality reigned, especially among the elite. In Williamsburg a woman’s place in society would rise and fall on her dinner parties. Everything had to be perfect. To attain perfection a talented and creative chef was needed.
The first Celebrity Chef in the American colonies was an enslaved man belonging to George Washington.
His name was Hercules Posey.
Posey was unique among his peers and his expertise as a cook was appreciated by the Washingtons, as he was given special privileges. It was estimated that he earned “from one to two hundred dollars a year” by selling the leftovers from the presidential kitchen. Because Posey was notable in his own time, there are more records of his life than of others like him – although this information is still incredibly sparse. Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, chose to immortalize the chef in a biographical sketch in his book Reflections and Private Memoirs of Washington. The towering persona of Hercules Posey is seen in a single description. Recalling his childhood in the presidential mansion, he wrote about Posey as “a culinary artiste” and “dandy” with “great muscular power” and a “master spirit” whose “underlings flew to his command” (among those underlings were paid white servants).
But while Posey experienced some freedoms, he wasn’t free like his brethren in Philadelphia’s Free Black community, which comprised nearly all of the 5% of the city’s residents of African descent. Most had gained liberty thanks to Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition Law that emancipated enslaved persons remaining in the Commonwealth for more than six months. However, Washington took great pains to subvert the Pennsylvania law and keep Posey and nine other enslaved Africans with him in Philadelphia in a condition of bondage. He did this by rotating Posey and the others out of the city into pro-slavery states like New Jersey across the Delaware River or back to Virginia, thereby continually resetting their time in the city.
The importance of Philadelphia and its rich opportunities for free African Americans – and for cooks in particular – was becoming clear to Washington by the end of his time there. And so, after spending the summer of 1796 at Mt Vernon, he returned to Philadelphia leaving Posey behind and believing he was planning to escape, thus cutting off his access to the city and its strong abolitionist network. But as George Washington Parke Custis wrote, Posey was an extraordinary man, and on 22 February 1797, he walked away from Mount Vernon, only to be seen once more, four years later in New York City.
As you celebrate Valentines Day 2023, think back to the 18th century and Colonial Virginia’s amazing African American Chefs. Their contributions to the culinary arts of this country are still enjoyed.