The Colonial Kitchen Garden Then and Now

The gardens of Historic Williamsburg Virginia.

Time, nostalgia, and then necessity. In that order. Those were the key factors that determined how gardens in America were grown in the mid-1700s. By that point, the pilgrims had long landed, settlers were four generations into life in the New World, and creating an independent society was on everyone’s minds.

An 18th century painting of New Milford, CT.

Despite the idea of pastoral food plots, of self-sufficiency, of larders full of carefully tended, joyfully grown vegetables, the reality, surprisingly was that many working-class 18th-century families did not have time to waste cultivating the land into mounds of gorgeous gardens.

Even though garden pests were much fewer in those days than they are today, gardening was still a risky endeavor in the mid-18th century. One bug or one beetle or one dry spell could wipe out an entire season or two of manual labor. Time lost during a century when almost everything was handmade and hand-touched could result in cataclysmic results not only for individuals but also for families, communities, and even the burgeoning nation.

In the centuries before Miracle-Gro and sprinkler systems and lawn mowers, before electric clippers and garden hoses, soil amendments, and genetically modified seeds that were practically guaranteed to grow, gardening was a risky business. And not all were willing to gamble. Since the colonial mindset valued efficiencies and effectiveness, one’s time was much better spent building a building, or a family, or the constitution instead of raising food gardens that may or may not result in something edible. And that really wasn’t the point of gardening back then anyway.

Painting by Edward Hicks titled the Home of David Twining, 1787

The mid-18th century diet, most accurately studied by researchers at Colonial Williamsburg, was almost entirely made up of animal proteins. Surprisingly, just 10% of the foods they consumed came from vegetables. When colonists abandoned the idea of growing their own food because of time, space, or temerity, they turned to local farms to purchase what little plant roughage they consumed.

The vegetable gardens at Moniticello.
Photo of the gardens at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Billy Hathorn

Those farms, with the ability, the space, the manpower, and the elite lifestyle to afford a garden in all its splendors and failures were generally ones of upper-class wealth. For this affluent sector, gardening was a matter of refinement and intellectual interest. They could absorb the costs of failed planting endeavors or reap the financial rewards of a fruitful season either way. They also had access to education for leisurely study and experimentation, something not often afforded to the working class.

One of the best examples of early American gardening on a large-scale level is Thomas Jefferson’s Virginian home, Monticello. With an avid interest in horticulture, 5,000 acres to play with and a net worth equal to $284 million dollars today, Jefferson was able to explore the world of gardening from all angles. He made copious amounts of notes and drawings regarding what, where, why and how his gardens were growing…

While it’s fascinating to go through Thomas Jefferson’s notes in order to understand his thought process, methodology, and relationship to innovations we take for granted today, one of the facts that I found most fascinating while researching colonial gardens is not something that can be linked to a specific concept or a system or even a person. It’s much more individualistic. What I learned is that stylistically, all gardens in America from the very beginning were driven by and inspired by nostalgia. And many people’s nostalgia at that.

Painting of forget-me-nots with goblet by Leon Bonvin, 1863

As new settlers immigrated from other countries and other continents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought with them memories of their parent’s garden, their grandparent’s garden, and perhaps even their own garden that they left behind. A desire to replicate this specific sense of familiarity meant that gardens were not created in America but in fact, recreated, from replicas of what these settlers once knew before in their home countries. Memories of ancestral orchards, ancient hedgerows, favorite flowers, fruiting vines, and heritage foods all acted as springboards for the first wave of garden preferences when it came to shapes, designs, content, color palettes, and layouts for gardeners in the New World. Those longings for other familiar places and spaces were what founded the very ideas of what a garden should and could look like here in America.

Since maintaining a garden was both a status symbol and a sign of wealth, gardens of the 18th century came in two basic styles… cottage gardens and farm gardens. Cottage gardens were small patches of land grown specifically for vegetables, herbs, and flowers with a purpose. Ornamental flowers were not often grown in these petite patches as they were considered frivolous time wasters.

Farm gardens, on the other hand, were the ones cultivated on bigger stretches of land adorned with numerous outbuildings, an ample number of workers, and dedicated areas for kitchen work, pleasure gardening, dairy operations, and large-scale croplands. Organized, efficient, and tidy, farm gardens leaned towards formal decorative designs inspired by European gardening techniques and aesthetics. Most often they were dotted with topiary tree, ornamental flowers, exotic plants, manicured bushes, and lined with brick or crushed sea shell pathways. Attractive garden structures in all shapes and sizes added the finishing touch to ensure picturesque vantage points. Even in the new days of the New World, history bloomed in the garden from other centuries, other places, other pasts. And from those two garden styles forward we never really varied in what we decided constituted an American garden.

The colonial garden that is beginning to emerge in the front and back yard of our 1750s-era house is one of both history and purpose. In an effort to be as self-sustainable as possible we are growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs for cooking, and flowers for fun. While we are not following the formality of hedged colonial gardens, but instead opting for a more cottage garden approach, I am intent on only growing heirloom varieties for an old-fashioned aesthetic and a pretty dose of historic storytelling from the ground up. Here are a few ways we are incorporating history from three centuries into the garden of our 272-year old house…

Heirloom Seeds

With the exception of one newly invented pepper plant developed by the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, and two flats of marigolds and nasturtiums purchased from our local nursery, in this year’s garden, we are growing everything from seed, using only heirloom varietals of fruit, flowers, and vegetables.

Okra, brandywine tomatoes and bush beans growing up and out!

We were a bit late in seed starting since we didn’t move into our house until April, but so far we have tomatoes, zucchini, peas, beans, carrots, herbs, okra and lettuce growing up in the garden. As of today, the showiest plantings so far are the nasturtiums from the local nursery…

Nasturtiums made a regular appearance in American colonial gardens too by way of seeds carried from England and Holland. Prized then and still now, they were eaten like salad greens… leaves stalks, flowers, and all thanks to their sweet but peppery taste. If you like arugula mixed in with your lettuce, you’ll like nasturtiums too. They also happen to be fantastic pest repellants for squash bugs, aphids, beetles and our daily invader – the pesky slug.

Raised Beds

Colonial gardens in the 18th century were laid out in symmetrical grid styles using raised beds and walkways of crushed seashells in between. Based on the layout of our yard, the lush tree canopy, and the pattern of the sun throughout the day, we also are doing raised beds but not in the same traditional colonial grid format since we have fewer pockets of consistent, direct sunlight throughout the day. Instead, we have built one long raised garden bed that measures 25′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet (width) x 2.5″ feet (height) in the front yard using rocks gathered from around the property. The rockery aesthetic matches the stone walkway and steps of the front porch.

Newly built and just before we filled it in with all the dirt and compost materials.
Flowers, seedlings and seeds get planted this week, but this is a little sneak peek as to where more nasturiums will be headed.
The tree canopy changes color throughout the day and makes the prettiest shadows in the yard. Two sugar maples live in the front yard. We cant wait to tap this fall for our own maple syrup.

In the backyard, just off the porch, we built a smaller raised bed out of wood that measures 10′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet by 3′ feet (height). Instead of using just plain untreated boards, my husband experimented wth the Yakisugi method and charred the wood with a propane torch. Yakisugi is an ancient Japanese art form that naturally preserves the wood and gives it a pretty, dark walnut-hued finish.

To add a little softness to the rectangular shape, we built another curved rock wall garden bed on one end where the okra, zinnias, coreopsis, Brussels sprouts, and marigolds are happily growing away.

Rock walls have been a part of the natural historic landscape of New England since the 1800s, and were used as land dividers and fencing following the split rail style fencing that was popular during colonial days. In Connecticut in the 1700s, most of the landscape was covered in trees so everything in that century was made out of wood since it was the most abundant building material. We haven’t yet decided on what kind of fencing we will add to the front yard. It’s a big decision with many possibilities ranging between a picket fence, a rock wall, a split rail fence, or a series of decorative shrubs and grasses.

The greenhouse is only six weeks old but already it’s got quite the little personality.

The Greenhouse

The first greenhouses were built in Europe and the UK in the 1600s, so they’ve been an important garden feature for quite some time. Our greenhouse was found locally on craigslist, just a couple of weeks after we moved in. Still in its original box, it just needed one day of assembly and then it was ready to start growing things.

First day!

So far we are off to a good start. This has been the birthplace of our tomatoes, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, parsley, dill, lettuces, French marigolds, and okra.

It’s also the permanent new home of our three-year-old Southern papaya tree, Pappy, who did not love our move to the Northeast as much as we did and responded to the 9-degree temperatures experienced during our temporary stay in Pennsylvania this past winter by promptly losing all his leaves. Every day from November to April, no matter how much coddling I gave him, Pappy threatened to shrivel up and call it quits. Luckily, the warmth of the greenhouse has him happy once again and back on the road to recovery.

Pappy! Two new leaves grown, a million more to go!

It’s our plan to keep the greenhouse in constant use all year long. With the help of a heater and some neighboring cold frames, I look forward to growing kale, chard, cabbages, and other cool-weather vegetables there this winter.

Rain Barrel

To complete the start of our self-sufficiency model we added a colonial-style rainwater collection barrel to the side of the garage. So far we’ve pumped an entire barrel full of water into the garden as well as accidentally grown a vat of sulfur-smelling bacteria. As it turns out, there’s an art (and a science!) to storing rainwater in a barrel, and there is still so much for us to learn. In an upcoming post, I’ll share the system my husband custom-built to pump the water from the barrel to the garden, which I hope might be helpful for anyone else learning the ropes of the rain barrel watering system.

Future plans for the garden include bee boxes, landscaped garden beds, lighting, and a fire pit, but for now, this is the start of our new yet old colonial-inspired garden. More photos will come as the garden grows up!

In the meantime, while the kitchen is under renovation and we wait for the vegetables to flower and fruit, the grill has been a beehive of action and adventure as we discover and explore some vintage recipes meant for the barbecue days of summer. One of my favorites so far is this grilled potato recipe from 1955. Coming next to the blog, this recipe will add an extra delicious dose of fancy food to your summer soirees. Can’t wait to share it!

Cheers to summer foods, sentimental gardening, and horticultural history! Hope this season is your most beautiful one yet.

Corn Pudding and A Virtual Visit – Colonial Williamsburg Style!

The groaning board. It sounds like a little bit of a fairy tale word, doesn’t it? Like some sort of subject the Brothers Grimm would have written about? Or maybe something along the lines of an object come to life – Disney style – just like Lumiere, the candelabra, and Sultan, the footstool in Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps at one point in time, tucked inside a book of Mother Goose rhymes there was a sing-song story about a grumpy kid and a clever drawing to match titled simply The Groaning Board.

Illustration by Blanche Fisher Wright from The Real Mother Goose circa 1916

Fanciful speculation aside, the groaning board is no flight of fancy. It’s a real term dating back to the medieval ages that describes a table (or in some cases a board balanced between sawhorses) that was filled to capacity with foods about to be consumed. The groaning part is in reference to the table itself and the noise it might make under the weight of all that hefty pewter and ironstone dishware that was popular in the 1600s and 1700s. Today, we’d think of this type of food presentation more like a buffet, where diners are given an array of delectable options all at once and encouraged to help themselves.

The timeless appeal of a table full of food;) Photo by Luisa Brimble.

Even though centuries have passed, and the way we describe such a style of eating has changed, both situations would be accurate in defining overall sentiment. Whether it is modern-day, colonial times, or medieval traditions, a table full of a bevy of dishes has always represented abundance, decadence, and a carefree spirit of unbridled eating. Cheers to that!

Throughout colonial times, special groaning board dinners were a tradition enjoyed every year during the holiday season. After all the hard work of harvesting had been completed, a groaning board dinner satisfied hearty appetites and celebrated a much-needed break in the yearly schedule.

Acting as a blank slate and a muse, the essential component of preparing any groaning board dinner is a big, empty table.

One of the few remaining places in America where groaning board dinners are still a part of the regular vernacular is in the historic Virginian city of Williamsburg. Each year a traditional groaning board dinner is still hosted in one of the hospitality venues within the historic district known as Colonial Williamsburg.

Giving visitors from all over the world a chance to experience a colonial feast of plentiful proportions just as their ancestors may have enjoyed centuries ago, is just one way the living history museum helps connect people to the past through food.

The start of a feast – groaning board style. Photo by Taylor Biggs Lewis Jr.

Fried chicken, prime rib, filet of fish, oyster soup, cherry trifle, Sally Lunn cake and an assortment of vegetables, puddings and casseroles were typical feasting fare when it came to groaning board menus. And Williamsburg never disappointed in that department. 

Shields Taven. Photo courtesy of colonialwilliamsburg.org

A foodie town from the start in 1699, hospitality has always been a big part of this small town’s spirit. Some would even say it is the birthplace. In 1705, an Act Concerning the Entertainment of Strangers was in effect throughout the colony that extended courtesy, kindness, and hospitality to all visitors and travelers. This act was created in order to discourage greed and malicious intent from growing within the colony and to protect the colonists themselves from being taken advantage of by outside entities.

Back then, there was no kinder way to offer a warm welcome than to spoil a stranger with a hot meal, a comfortable place to rest, or a restorative beverage. This obliging, open-door concept and willingness to trust the goodness of people before suspecting the worst created a playground for food enthusiasts determined to offer others a gracious dining experience.

As Williamsburg grew and became an elegant epi-center for politics and progressive ideas, the colonists were very proud of the city they created and were anxious to show it off. It was reported by the mid-1700s that visitors were fought over and fawned over by Virginians from all corners of the city. Pleasantries and invitations were extended around every bend, a continual sense of hospitality floated in the air, and a convivial atmosphere especially surrounding food and the act of eating was present at each and every meal. “And this is the constant life they lead and to this fare every comer is welcome,” wrote a visitor to Virginia in 1746.

The St. George Tucker House circa 1718.

With an eye always focused on the spirit of those founding years, restaurant owners, tavern managers, and innkeepers throughout the past three centuries have strived to present and recreate a collection of authentic meals that represent America’s culinary roots.  The first cookbook surrounding the cuisine of Colonial Williamsburg was Helen Bullock’s The Art of Williamsburg Cookery, published in 1938.

Helen Bullock’s Williamsburg Art of Cookery, first published in 1938. It was reprinted many times over the course of the 20th century with a variety of covers from plain brown to colorful patterns like this one. The contents have always remained the same including Helen’s choice to write the entire book in Colonial vernacular.

Since then, the staff of Colonial Williamsburg has continued to encourage home cooks to try their hand at making conventional colonial fare with a variety of publications, tutorials and a growing online recipe archive.

The Williamsburg Cookbook – 1981 edition

Because many of the foods featured in the Williamsburg cookbooks are traditional staples, especially in the southern United States (recipes include pot roasts, pies, stews, gumbos, stuffings, puddings, bread, casseroles, and more) they have traveled time flawlessly. Appealing to generation after generation of cooks and eaters, these long-lived regional dishes have become beloved mainstays in the hearts and homes of food aficionados around the country.

Dishes like this roast duck with fruit stuffing still grace holiday menus today. This photo is from the 1981 edition of The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Such is the case with one of our blog readers, Roberta, who recently mentioned a favorite recipe from a 1970s era Williamsburg cookbook that her family has made (and loved!) for decades. ”The Williamsburg Cookbook belonged to my mother and then was passed on to my sister, who frequently makes the corn pudding recipe during the holidays and for parties. It was a hit, the first time my mom made it in the 1970s and continues to be a party-pleaser to this day,” Roberta shared. This is exactly the kind of heirloom recipe that we love to feature here in the Vintage Kitchen – one that is trusted, adored, and anticipated year after year after year. So it is my pleasure in this post to present Roberta’s family’s treasured corn pudding recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook, first published in 1971. It is definitely groaning board approved not necessarily in weight but because you’ll want to make a big dish of it and then share it with all your friends and family.

There are many different ways to make corn pudding. Some recipes call for more sugar, less eggs, more milk, less cream, or the inclusion of flour or cornstarch as a thickening agent. Some recipes call for creamed corn instead of fresh, sour cream instead of milk, creamed cheese to make it extra velvety or baking soda to make it extra fluffy. But all recipes contain the same basic ingredients of corn, eggs, milk, butter and sugar. And all produce a similar custard-style pudding in the end.

Helen’s 1937-1938 recipe!

This late 20th-century recipe is a slight modification from the original Virginia family recipe that was first printed in Helen’s cookbook circa 1938. The difference between the two is just an exchange of flour to bread crumbs but all the other ingredients remain the same.

So simple to make, it requires just a handful of pantry ingredients and is a little on the lighter side in comparison to other corn pudding recipes thanks to the use of light cream instead of heavy cream and just a smidge of sugar instead of several. Bake it in a casserole dish and easily tote it along to your next party, potluck, or buffet-style dinner, as Roberta’s family is apt to do, and we guarantee your dinner mates will love it too.

Corn Pudding (serves 6)

3 eggs

2 cups whole kernel corn (If using frozen corn, allow to thaw before incorporating with other ingredients)

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup dry bread crumbs ( I used panko-style bread crumbs.)

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 cups milk

1/2 cup light cream * (see note below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 1 1/2 qt. casserole dish. Beat the eggs until they are light and fluffy. Stir in the corn, sugar, salt, bread crumbs and butter.

Add the milk and cream (*Note: If you can’t find light cream at your grocery store, you can make it yourself using whole milk and heavy cream in a 1/3 milk to 2/3 heavy cream ratio. Always use milk to substitute. Do not mix heavy cream with water, as it will break down the fats and make your pudding runny).

Pour corn mixture into the prepared casserole and place dish in a pan of boiling water.

Bake for 50-60 minutes or until custard is set. Serve hot.

With a flavor like sweet cornbread and a consistency like fluffy scrambled eggs, it is no wonder this pudding/custard/casserole is one of Roberta’s favorites. Savory and delicate, it is comforting like macaroni and cheese, light and airy in texture like a souffle, and thanks to the whole corn kernels satisfyingly substantial without being heavy.

(Special note: For all those efficient holiday cooks out there , it is not recommended that you make this dish hours or even a day ahead of time with the intention of popping it into the oven just an hour before serving. The bread crumbs will soak up most of the liquid in that case and the finished effect will be much more firm than pudding consistency. The beauty of this recipe is its soft, pillowy composition so we recommend that you make it fresh right before you bake it).

Intended as a side dish, it is a perfect accompaniment to Thanksgiving turkey, roast chicken, or baked ham making it a dependable holiday favorite. Or serve it alongside roasted vegetables, carrot fritters, or stuffed squash for a meatless meal that is full of fall color. Adventurous cooks might also try adding chopped jalapeno for a little spice, bacon for a bit of smokey flavor, or a sprinkle of fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, or sage for a bit of color. But really, this historic dish needs no special enhancements to make it any more delicious than it already is. There is a reason why this pudding has been a Williamsburg favorite for almost a century. We bet it will be a favorite for centuries more to come too.

Cheers to Roberta for recommending this wonderful new favorite and cheers to Williamsburg for not only paving the road of hospitality but also continuing to cultivate the good and gracious and delicious traditions of our ancestors!

For further fun, and an engaging historical experience, visit Colonial Williamsburg without ever leaving your kitchen by taking one of their beautiful virtual house tours and discover an array of unique sights and stories that made the first colony in America a place called home.

The Governor’s Palace is one of the historic houses available to tour virtually. One of the unique aspects of this tour imparticular is that visitors arrive by nightfall to the sounds of clip-cloppy horses hooves and torches illuminating the walkway. Don’t miss it – it’s quite spectacular!

Read more about the Williamsburg Cookbook in the shop here. Explore similar American historical villages and their recipes here. And bake the day away with two other 18th century recipes featured on the blog… election cake and Sally Lunn cake.

If you have any favorite family recipes that you’d like to share please send us a message for a possible feature on the blog. We can’t wait to hear all about the dishes that make your holiday table groan with delight!

Photo courtesy of colonialwilliamsburg.org