Dining With the Washingtons

Dining With the Washingtons edited by Stephen A. McLeod, University of North Carolina Press 2011, $35.00 cloth, 234 pages

Wooden tooth by wooden tooth, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is dismantling the image of George Washington as a toga-clad statue and turning him into a living, breathing, and yes, eating man.

They’ve rebuilt his distillery and reinvigorated it with apple brandy made from heirloom apples. At the property’s south grove midden they’ve excavated fragments of ceramic and glass bowls and vessels, and with this book, historians explore what the Washingtons and their slaves ate, what the property produced and how it was run, as well as the social and economic life all this generated.

From the first page, on hospitality at Mt. Vernon, a visitor describes Washington as an “amiable man,” “beloved for his domestic virtues.” It’s hard to imagine, but guest Robert Hunter recalled, “The General with a few glasses of champagne got quite merry, and being with his intimate friends laughed and talked a great deal.”

Historian Mary V. Thompson points out that the Washingtons were tireless socializers. In 1768, they hosted 82 dinner parties over 291 days. But they made distinctions between “social friends” and those who came to pay their respects—though as Washington wrote about them, “would not the word curiosity answer as well.”

Chapters address hospitality, everyday dining, table style, gardens and orchards, distilling, while culinary vignettes allow a detailed look at foodways—the tools and recipes to make ice cream at Mt. Vernon, the tradition of tea on the piazza, with views of the Potomac, and Martha Washington’s cookbooks, which included a family volume with recipes dating back to the sixteenth century.

The recipes in the book’s second half are for dishes as they would have been served at Mt. Vernon. They have been updated by CHoW member and past speaker—Nancy Carter Crump and styled by Lisa Cherkasky (also a CHoW member and past speaker).

Few things are more telling of daily life and personality than the foods we eat. Both Martha and the General were early risers, a most common breakfast was hoecakes, that the General would eat with honey and butter, along with hot tea. He would then ride out on the estate, likely carrying the “sandwitch box” that was found among his personal possessions.

Martha would oversee her staff and supervise the kitchen, larder, dairy, smokehouse, kitchen garden, and dining room to achieve “regularity and domestic economy.” She was responsible for feeding the estate’s many guests and records show simple dishes served to important people, like Lafayette’s Gingerbread, as well as elegant imports—Lucca olives, Rhenish wine, and Spanish pimentos—that marked Washington as a gentleman and gracious host.

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read, cook, eat, repeat
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