As with many foods in 18th-century Virginia, pears were found mainly in the exclusive gardens of gentry homes because of the difficulty in growing them.
“Pears grow well from seeds, but don’t produce good trees,” said Eve Otmar, journeyman supervisor at the Colonial Garden and Farm. “They had to be grafted, which requires a specific skill that not everyone possessed.”
The facts that Tidewater Virginia’s climate was generally too hot to grow English pears and that the fruit was prone to blight added to the frustrations.
So the list of the elite who had pears growing in their orchards isn’t surprising.
George Washington was familiar with pears. In a March 15, 1795, letter to his overseer at Mount Vernon, Washington included a postscript that he was sending him “a small paper bundle of Pair graffs of an extraordinary fine kind wch [I] desire the Gardener to be particular attentive to.”
Thomas Jefferson grew the Seckel pear in his Monticello orchard, saying the fruit “exceeded anything I have tasted since I left France & equalled any pear I had seen there.”
In his diary, William Byrd noted numerous times during July 1710, “I said my prayers and ate milk and pears for breakfast.”
St. George Tucker planted orchards at Matoax, the Chesterfield County, Virginia, plantation where he lived after marrying Frances Bland Randolph, and in Williamsburg, where he returned after her death. His writings indicate that pears were planted at both properties.
Frank Clark, the master of Historic Foodways, noted the varieties of pears today are quite different from the pears available in the 18th century. "Few, if any, varieties from the colonial period survive today," he said.
In her recipes for stewing pears, Hannah Glasse uses “a pennyworth of cochineal” to create a rich red color. “Cochineal is the shell of a beetle, which contains a natural dye called carmine,” Clark explained. “It’s perfectly healthy and still used today.”
Don’t worry: The adapted version of the recipe shared here calls for red wine.