The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook

When I was in elementary school, we would drive 800 miles to Colonial Williamsburg for spring break every year. I fell in love with the 18th-century costumes, architecture, ornate silverwork, and Baroque music. We dined at several of Colonial Williamsburg’s taverns: Shields, King’s Arms, and Christiana Campbell’s.

My mom has a first-edition copy of The Williamsburg Cookbook: Traditional and Contemporary Recipes from the 1970s, which I would pore over for hours, soaking up the line art and gross-sounding recipes (turtle soup! calf’s head!). The only recipe she ever made regularly was the Bourbon Balls (although she had also tried the cream of peanut soup and the chicken and dumplings).

So when I saw that there was a new edition, “The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook,” I was interested to see how the book stacked up against its predecessor. The first (and most obvious) difference is the color photos, both of finished dishes and of Colonial Williamsburg itself (the original Colonial Williamsburg cookbook was sorely lacking in photographs, and was illustrated with line art).

The book opens with a brief discussion of colonial dining habits and “Tavern of Colonial Williamsburg Today” (circa 2001) before launching into appetizers, many of which prominently feature Virginia ham (melon balls, biscuits) and seafood (smoked trout, crabmeat, shrimp). Similarly, “Soups” also owes a debt to seafood, including chowders, crayfish soup, crab soup, and oyster bisque, with the occasional peanut, bean, or pea soup. The Kings Arms Tavern Cream of Peanut Soup was also featured in the original cookbook and in a flyer handed out in Colonial Williamsburg; it was one of my family’s favorites during our visits to Williamsburg, and the home version tastes every bit as good as the original. The texture is almost like a thick gravy, made by softening vegetables in stock, then straining the mixture and mixing in smooth peanut butter and cream over low heat.

In fact, many of the recipes in the Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook are taken verbatim from the first edition, right down to the sidebars. Many of the dishes are identical: King’s Arms Tavern chicken pot pie, Chowning’s Tavern Brunswick stew, Sally Lunn bread, and tenderloin of beef stuffed with oysters, for example. Others have been updated for the better: the bourbon balls now call for melted chocolate in place of cocoa, and have doubled the bourbon (the original called for a scant ¼ cup). The Shields Tavern carrot pudding spiced with cardamom has swapped cardamom for the original nutmeg, ditched the cream sherry and halved the sugar.

The most striking addition to this new version is the number of vegetarian-friendly vegetable and egg dishes, including grilled polenta, carrots glazed with two gingers, bean and corn succotash, mushrooms in cream sauce, and spinach pie. Southern staples such as grits and pickled watermelon rind also make appearances. The most noticeable absence is the lack of any nutritional information about the included recipes; no statistics on calories, fat, sugar or sodium are to be found. Like their forebears, these recipes are quite generous with butter, cream and shortening at times. Also, some of the ingredients may not be readily available in your area (fresh rabbit, scuppernong wine, chutney, cardamom, arrowroot).

Overall, this is a worthy souvenir for those who have dined at one of Colonial Williamsburg’s taverns, or for those who enjoy collecting cookbooks. The beautiful photography adds to the experience, although not all photographs are labeled. The historical notes make for interesting reading, and the recipes themselves are fairly straightforward and easy to follow. However, if you already own the original “The Williamsburg Cookbook,” be aware that many of the recipes here are direct copies, with few if any tweaks or adjustments.

(I daresay Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane would approve 😉

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