Dining with the Washingtons

LEIGH WRIGHT (this article was published in October 2012)


A portrait of Martha Washington, via Wikimedia Commons


My love for Mount Vernon began after spending an afternoon there while visiting my sister in nearby Washington D.C.  I am a fanatical history buff (the type who collects every fake piece of Confederate money, takes pictures with her dad next to National Park signs, and has played “pirates” since I first saw Peter Pan and began delving deep in maritime lore), so when I visited Mount Vernon my body almost reached sensory overload. Being 15 or 16 at the time, many could think I would concern myself with how to sneak off from family activities and use my new cell phone, but instead I got lost in the colors, sights, and smells of an estate house which had held some of the most influential people associated with our country’s founding.  Oh, if walls could talk.

The self-sustaining livestock, distillery, fishing, and expansive gardens, greenhouses, and fields where food was grown for the estate and for selling were the most appealing aspects to me.  It literally took all of Washington’s domestic army of workers and slaves to make sure the estate kept running at a level suitable for a man of his stature and ambition. However, with the tectonic shift of our country from being completely English influenced to gaining independence with new allies (the French), the Washingtons were simultaneously given the chance to help create a new description of American lifestyle.

Granted, the Washingtons were in the top three percent of wealthy families in America at the time, which gives us an ability to witness the full array of culinary and hospitable possibilities during the 18th century.  The kitchen and house of Mount Vernon and in New York and Philadelphia ran on the work of butlers, housekeepers, cooks, field hands, nannies, and waiters dressed in the Washingtons’ livery.  Although both George and Martha Washington were born into moderately successful English colonial families, they would blend the escape from the Old World, new American aristocracy, and the beginning of Southern traditions.  Slaves were kept in quarters near the main house and would rise every morning to have breakfast on the table by 7AM.  A typical day for the Washingtons would include breakfast, looking after the fields, smokehouse, fishing, cleaning, guests and diplomatic efforts by George Washington.  Lady Washington had help from her granddaughter Nelly Custis and others as she carefully kept track of what happened in the house.

Mount Vernon near Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by Ad Meskens, via Wikimedia Commons

Martha Washington was not only the first but possibly the most influential American housewife and hostess.  Beginning in 1759, after marrying George Washington, she took up her duties in the smokehouse, housekeeping, but most importantly, the kitchen.  In an era cataloged in history books as one of wartime, America’s creation, and time of immense change in the world, Martha Washington organized and conducted elegant and detailed dinners for heads of state, family, friends, and even lonely traveling strangers.

Martha Washington was the epitome of American self-sufficiency and work ethic and Mount Vernon was a great example of a self-sustained estate.  It was through the kitchen however that the land and its owners were glorified.  Even before the Revolutionary War, Washington took great pride in providing the best in hospitality and held everyone on his estate accountable for his or her duties.   With the Cinncinatus figure he became after the war Mount Vernon was never dull or quiet, but constantly put to the attention of accepting heads of state, diplomats, former war veterans and the like on top of tending to strangers traveling or hoping to catch a glimpse of the iconic national hero.  With the arrival of guests of importance, the best from the garden, livestock, smokehouse, and river were placed upon the table.

Martha Washington started out in her duties as housewife and hostess with a culinary manuscript originating from the Custis family.  It reportedly began being written in the 17th century.  Martha Washington, when married to her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, inherited the Custis’s Booke of Cookery. Supposedly, it was created or put into print by Daniel Custis’s grandmother in the 17th century and passed through the women of the Custis family until it reached Martha Washington in 1750.  Although Lady Washington would end up not using its outdated recipes and techniques she passed it down to her granddaughter Nelly Custis (1799) and then onto her great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, a.k.a. Mrs. Robert E. Lee). The recipes were accumulated through the 1600s-1800s but were rarely used in comparison to The Compleat Housewife and The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy.

Nelly Custis Lewis, via gherkinstomatoes.com

Recipes define eras, cultures, and households. Before the Revolutionary War, cookbooks such as The Experienced English House-Keeper and The Lady’s Companion were used in almost every class’s kitchens. Anyone who could afford books, or could read, would have had these two books along with The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy and The Compleat Housewife. Culinary manuscripts passed down through generations were typically available in the highest of social classes. Elizabeth Raffald and others overturned the belief that 18th centurywomen should only look over the household duties without contributing to printed cookbooks. Raffald was one of the first women to use her name and image on her cookbook The Experienced English House-Keeper (1769). Her recipes created a foundation for women to read texts that really resembled the ability of culinary creation in an English household. Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia Housewife (1824), even used her “To Make an Onion Sauce” verbatim years after Raffald’s book was published.

The Washingtons, especially Martha, found seafood to be their favorite meal. “To Dress Crab”, a mixture of crap meat, breadcrumbs, white wine, and egg yolks, was one of the favorites and Hannah Glasse’s book recommended it to be served on a plate. A major difference in cookbooks of colonial era and modern books is the use of cream, eggs, and fat.  Before most chemical foods were produced these were the major flavor enhancers besides herbs and spices (much like today), but in our society where low-calorie is more highly regarded than sustainable or earth-conscious meals making recipes from the Washington’s time is quite different.  Cakes were even denser than the ones we know and love today due to the absence of baking powder and baking soda.  Mrs. Washington’s recipe, “To Make a Great Cake”, that was so popular her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis, wrote it out to give to family.  (Next month we will see how the evolution of the oven has also shaped our baking abilities).  Her “great cake” contained candied fruit and Madeira—General Washington’s favorite beverage.

The Art of Cookery and The Compleat Housewife were the most commonly used at Mount Vernon, but recipes varied from book to book, but all of them emphasized the importance of getting vegetables and fruit from the closest field to the table “in the shortest time able.” Glasse’s book had over 70 recipes just on vegetables.  She mentioned to “not overcook” them, as vegetables such as asparagus can become wilted and flavorless.  Greens, she said, should “have a little crispness” as well.  The most important information these cookbooks held was advice and methods for preserving, drying, salting, pickling, and sugaring.  (I will cover the evolution of preservation technology next month). Since trading and transportation was very limited, homes, especially larger ones like Mount Vernon, made sure to save and preserve enough nutritious food items for the long winter months. When vegetables were in season and still fresh, popular dishes such as Salamongundy were served at mealtime. I like to think of it as Nicoise with chicken. This was a type of salad that could be made smaller for a side dish or larger for a healthy main meal. A typical Salamongundy contained a full chicken dissected, romaine, anchovies, eggs, parsley, and white onions.

The biggest pride for any Virginia woman during Martha Washington’s time was ham and bacon. Pigs were raised, killed, and cured on premise for family and guests alike. General Washington even sent a ham to Marquis de Lafayette at the request of from Mrs. Washington. Family recipes and techniques for food such as this have influenced current cookbook composition. It is astounding that this, along with medicines, tonics, cakes, casseroles, and preserving, can help define a household in present time, but builds the cultural definition of the region that it reflects.

I write because I love to read and research how and why our lifestyles—especially in the culinary realm—shift and evolve. Life at America’s beginning, shown through the words and diets of our First Family, gives great insight into the creation and transformation of life throughout the United States, but also the South specifically.  I have yet to mention the elderly slave Martha Washington kept merely to make mint tonic for digestion, or the event in which a ham was stolen right from the kitchen by General Washington’s prized hounds, or even that General Washington’s favorite breakfast was hoecakes.  There is so much history, tradition, and cultural difference in the South that, when you scratch the surface, you discover the intellectual abyss beneath.

There is so much to say about this story and many more that one could write a book, and actually someone did: Dining with the Washingtons: Historic recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon.  And I highly recommend this book.



One thought on “Dining with the Washingtons

  1. Wonderful tribute to an important aspect of history often overlooked. I was particularly interested with the mention of sustainable several times in your article. How much we might learn by looking back – intriquing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s