Richard Bland Lee and his family, the original owners of Sully Historic Site, left behind more than a place for tours of history. They left us some practical tips we can use – like recipes.
They’re practical tips if you have a little patience.
Having enjoyed canning and the reading of historic recipes since childhood, I decided to try making Mrs. Lee’s Yellow Pickle. I was intrigued by this spicy cabbage dish found in, to use the 18th century term, her receipt book. Just reading the ingredient list left an impression of the early 19th century — exotic locations of spices from China, India, Greece, and the spice islands of Indonesia; the global market economy that was in place; and the vast world-wide trade routes.
Reading through the recipe proved to be a “pickle” itself. Spice quantities in ounces? On the web I searched for modern day equivalents. I put the pickle in a glass jug and diligently followed the directions, leaving it outside for six weeks and shaking it every day. Family helped do the pickle shake dance daily, and the neighbors didn’t know what to make of my exploits. Prepping the cabbage and letting it dry outside was another mystery. What seemed like tons of cabbage gradually turned into dried out leaves of paper that fit into a lunch bag. Then there was the ambiguous “put [the cabbage] away until wanted for the soaking pot.” That was troublesome. What in the world was a soaking pot? How long would the cabbage need to be in the pot until ready for consumption? Would the cabbage be safe to eat after leaving everything outside all of this time?
Calls and emails to food historians were fruitless until I contacted Leni Sorenson at Monticello, the historic home of former president Thomas Jefferson, and turned to antique cookbooks. They led me to the next steps. I found that soaking pots were earthenware containers with tight fitting lids. As I did not have those on hand, I used some containers at home with tight lids, placed the cabbage in them, and poured the recipe’s yellow pickling concoction over the top. I never discovered how long to let the mixture rest, so I placed everything in the refrigerator to let the ingredients meld for about a month. Next, I tackled the safety issue. I tried the yellow pickle as a side with pork chops. What a surprise! The pickle was spicy, on the order of kimchee, and had a fantastic punch.
The next time you visit Sully or any historic site, stop at the dining room and consider the vast array of textures and foods that were on the Lee family dining room table. Think of the exotic places represented through food. My journey with the Yellow Pickle was quite an adventure, bringing me closer to the early 19th century world of the Lees.
Mrs. Lee’s Recipe as written in her receipt book:
Yellow Pickle– Put 6 quarts of best cider vinegar in a stone jar. Put in it 4 oz. mustard seed pounded fine, 4 oz of coriander seed, the white ginger 2 oz preferable bruised- bruised 6 oz of race ginger soaked in salt and water 24 hours, then pealed and sliced and put in the sun to dry, 5 oz of garlic, 1/2 oz of mace pounded, 1/2 oz of nutmeg pounded. Have a wooden stopper for the jar to fit tight, tie a cloth over it and put it in the sun for six weeks shaking it every day. In the mean while prepare the vegetables. Put Cabbage in salt and water after quartering it until it turns yellow. Then scald it in the last brine until a little tender, sprinkle salt over it and lay it in the hot sun in the morning the inside down- before night open the leaves and sprinkle salt through them turning them up on the dish, let them remain out that night in the dew- in two days if the sun is hot they will be quite white, and dry enough in two more to put away until wanted for the soaking pot—Prepare radish pods, Beans, Young corn, melons, Peppers &c in the same way. Radish pods will become white and dry in one night—and day Nothing should be dryer than to keep until the soaking pot is ready— E Lee
Sully Historic Site was the 1794 home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress.
Author Noreen C. McCann is the Visitor Services Manager at Sully.