Culture  /  Retrieval

Southern Hospitality? The Abstracted Labor of the Whole Pig Roast

Barbecue is a cornerstone of American cuisine, containing all of the contradictions of the country itself.

Like many ambitious home cooks, I have a culinary bucket list that I’ve been slowly chipping away at for years. That list contains everything from gourmet dishes from across the world to some that represent critical moments in the development of American cuisine. I’m particularly interested in exploring dishes from the kitchens of preindustrial America: Amelia Simmons’s pumpkin pudding, Lydia Child’s “curry fowl,” and especially Mary Randolph’s recipe for whole roast pig in her 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife

Randolph’s pig roast seems intrinsically American because of the contradictions it contains. It is visually spectacular, tied to specific social etiquettes and political aims, and requires a multitude of contributors. Yet the deeper one reads into Randolph’s recipe, the more it becomes an example of the erasure of labor, especially the labor of enslaved actors, in the service of the illusion of one household’s singular largess and influence. As exemplified by Randolph’s recipe, the turning of the spit by invisible hands reveals the central premise of the American culinary myth: the idea of abundance from nowhere.

Randolph was a Virginia lady of the highest order, part of the class of elite women that she called “proverbially good managers,” able to enumerate every detail involved in the preparation of a meal. Randolph enjoyed all the comforts that came with her membership in one of Virginia’s most political and economically elite families, which included her distant cousin Thomas Jefferson. But Randolph’s status quickly changed when Jefferson was elected president and her husband, a member of the Federalist Party and a vocal critic of Jefferson, was removed from his appointment as US marshal of Virginia in March 1801. To maintain her family’s standard of living, Randolph converted her talent for entertaining into a profitable boardinghouse business, and the acclaim for her meals led to the publication of The Virginia Housewife. Jefferson responded with enthusiasm to Randolph’s book, calling it a “valuable little volume” on “how to employ to our greatest gratification the means we may possess, great or small.” Randolph’s book documents the everyday and elite foods of southern cuisine, a guide to other Americans on dishes that showcased the largess of a household and the skill of its mistress and the staff she directed. She included a recipe for a true southern pig roast for this exact reason. Such a feast was prepared by enslaved people but managed by someone like Randolph—and treated as proof of the hostess’s social, political, and economic influence, as well as her technical ability as a keeper of the house.