J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

“Two or Three Women, for Cooks”

So if Adam Foutz wasn’t cooking all those robins for Gen. George Washington’s Cambridge household in the spring of 1776, who was?

The records of steward Timothy Austin mention a cook named Edward Hunt. On 19 July 1775, Austin wrote down the cost of going to Medford to fetch him and, most likely, his wife to work at the house Washington had just moved into.

Over the next few weeks, Austin gave Hunt payments of between one and three shillings every few days: eight payments in August and one in early September. But on 19 September, the steward “paid him in full for his Service in the Kitchen to the 14th. Instant,” and also “paid his Wife.” So the couple’s work was apparently over.

There are a couple of small mysteries associated with that employment. First is that Edward Hunt was already on site in late July when Gen. Washington gave money “To a French Cook.” Is that how Washington identified Hunt? Were two cooks vying for the same job? Was the Frenchman (not mentioned as such in Austin’s records) brought in for a special dinner? Did Washington dine out that day?

The second mystery is that Austin wrote down two payments to Mrs. (Elizabeth) Hunt in the spring of 1776 for “washing the food Linnen” and “washing the Servts. Cloaths.” If that was Edward Hunt’s wife, she might have come back to headquarters to earn some money.

But back to the robins. Since Edward Hunt was long gone by the time Austin started buying robins by the dozen, someone else must have cooked those birds. It looks like Washington’s kitchen staff for most of his stay in Cambridge consisted of women. Indeed, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had initially resolved to recommend to the general a steward and “two or three women, for cooks.”

Unlike Hunt, the women didn’t receive cash payments every few days, so they barely show up in the household accounts. The ones still at work in the spring of 1776 were most likely some of the following:

  • Austin’s daughter Mary, thirty years old and unmarried.
  • Austin’s second wife, Lydia, who also still had three minor children.
  • Dinah (no last name stated, and thus almost certainly an African-American), who started work around the beginning of August.
  • Elizabeth Chapman, a seventeen-year-old who arrived in October.
The Austins and Chapman had all been living in Charlestown before the Battle of Bunker Hill destroyed most of the houses there. The Chapman family found refuge with another family in Malden, and Elizabeth probably jumped at the chance for work that came with room and board and payment at the end of her tenure.

Since there’s no way to be sure what these women’s arrangements were, it’s impossible to compare their compensation to what Austin had paid Edward Hunt in the fall. But I’m fairly certain they got paid less.

(Photo above taken by kroo2u at the Yorktown Victory Center, available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


Mr Punch said...

Is a "French cook" necessarily of French nationality, or could it refer to style of cooking? French laundries, e.g., were not always run by French people.

None of these Charlestown people seem to fit the bill in either case, though.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Washington’s “French Cook” could have been a cook who worked in the French style, particularly one from outside the British Empire. (In other words, Adam Foutz wasn’t a terrible guess.) I couldn’t find any more information about Edward Hunt and his cooking methods, alas.