February Feasts: Tonight We're Going to Party Like It's 1799
The Washington Post, 13 February 2002
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Steve McCracken for The Washington Post
In one year alone he and his wife hosted more than 677 guests, and he referred to his home as a "well-resorted tavern." George Washington once wrote "I can truly say I had rather be at home at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the seat of the government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe." But in fact, when he was at Mount Vernon, he was seldom attended by only a friend or two.
For George Washington (1732-1799) and his wife, Martha, eating was never a purely private affair. They grew up in a social milieu in Tidewater Virginia, where hospitality was part of life -- where the stranger who came for the day was welcomed as was the relative who came for the month.
But as much as he and Mrs. Washington entertained, detailed records exist of only four meals they served.
One of them was on Feb. 4, 1799, two years after Washington had stepped down as president and only a few weeks before Washington's last birthday (he died Dec. 14 of that same year). Joshua Brookes, a young Englishman visiting the United States, kept a journal in which he recorded everything he saw, heard and ate.
If that day was typical, Washington would have gotten up before sunrise and done paperwork until joining his wife at 7 for his usual breakfast, described by his step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis, as hoecakes (made of cornmeal) swimming in butter and honey, all accompanied by three cups of tea without cream. The corn cakes were cooked either on hoes in front of the fire or on griddles, also called hoes.
He then would have ridden around his farms and returned for the main meal of the day -- a midday dinner. When Brookes and two companions -- brothers Samuel and Robert Campbell -- arrived at noon, Tobias Lear, Washington's longtime secretary, invited them into the mansion and "called for wine of which we had a glass each." They were taken into what Brookes called "the drawing room" -- probably the large dining room.
Washington sat with his visitors for five minutes and after introducing Mrs. Washington went to change for dinner,.
A dinner bell was rung 15 minutes before dinner, which was usually served at 3 p.m. Washington -- an extremely punctual man -- would wait five minutes, in case someone's watch was not in sync with his. Because the group was small, this dinner was probably served in the smaller and less formal of the mansion's two dining rooms. (This room was recently restored to its 1799 look, with walls painted a bright, almost-Kelly green, which Washington found "grateful to the eye," according to Carol Borchert, Mount Vernon's curator. The color, she said, was thought to aid digestion.)
Meats and vegetables would have been on the table when the diners came in, and three slaves dressed in the Washington livery were there to serve beverages -- probably wine, beer and porter -- from the sideboard. Mrs. Washington was at the head of the table, her husband on her right. In addition to Custis, Brookes and the Campbells, there were Lear and James Craik, the family physician, surgeon general of the Revolutionary Army and Washington's close friend.
In a letter, Washington wrote: "My manner of living is plain -- A glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of them are always welcome. Those who expect more will be disappointed."
But dinner guests at Mount Vernon were served far more than a bit of mutton.
According to Brookes, they sat down to a leg of boiled pork, a goose, roast beef, cold boiled beef, mutton chops, hominy, cabbage, potatoes, pickles, fried tripe and onions.
Though Custis is known to have cooked at least once at Mount Vernon, the slaves there, as at any Virginia plantation, did the backbreaking preparations -- butchering livestock, churning butter, rendering lard and working for long periods by a big, open fire.
The slaves Lucy and Nathan would have prepared the dinner that Brookes documented. Lucy was the daughter of Doll, the Washingtons' first cook, and was married to Frank Lee, the butler. Nathan was married to a field worker living at Washington's Muddy Hole Farm.
The Mount Vernon slaves would not have eaten as well as their masters. They, too, would have started the day early with hoecakes, but their hoecakes would have been made with just water instead of yeast and eggs. Slaves were given a quart of cornmeal a day and about five ounces of pickled or salted herring. They were provided with gardening space and could hunt for small animals.
Corn -- a Native American contribution to Virginia cuisine -- was a staple at all levels of society. The hominy -- dried corn kernels, broken up and soaked or boiled -- that Brookes listed on his menu would have been a common side dish. The roast beef would have been cooked in front of an open fire, and the cold boiled beef at Brookes's dinner was probably corned, according to Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon. Mutton -- sheep more than two years old -- was a less tender and stronger-flavored meat than the lamb favored today. The fried tripe could have been the stomach lining of a cow, pig or sheep.
Thompson says diners such as those at the Brookes meal chose what they wanted from the many available dishes and served one another. "Knowing how to carve meats and serve up dishes in style was part of the upbringing of a gentry person of this period," she says. Curator Borchert says the table probably held a cruet set with saltcellars, dry mustard, vinegar, oil and a ketchup made from walnuts or mushrooms rather than tomatoes.
Much of the dinner that afternoon would have been available from the larder. Since guests were always expected, food was always available. Mrs. Washington went to the kitchen early each day. In his memoirs, her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote: "Immediately after breakfast Mrs. Washington gave orders for dinner, appointing certain provisions, a pair of ducks, a goose or turkey to be laid by, to be put down in case of the arrival of company; a very necessary provision in that hospitable mansion. A ham was boiled daily."
Mrs. Washington took particular pride in her smoked meats, and Washington once wrote the Marquis de Lafayette, "you know the Virginia ladies value themselves on the goodness of their bacon."
Vegetables -- which Mrs. Washington called "the best part of our living in the country" -- had an important place at 18th-century tables. Thompson says cabbage, lettuce, parsley, turnips, potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, celery and cauliflower probably grew in Mount Vernon's winter garden and any could have been served at a February dinner. Other vegetables and fruits would have been preserved in season by pickling for winter eating.
Fried balls of white or sweet potatoes were a popular dish, and onions were eaten on their own, pickled or fried.
After the main courses were removed, Brookes reported, the crumbs were brushed off the table and mince pies, tarts and cheese placed on it. Mince pies would have been made with meat -- one way to use leftovers -- suet, fruits, brandy and the imported spices available to the gentry. Washington imported hard cheeses such as Cheshire and Gloucester, while softer cheeses were made at Mount Vernon.
Any variety of fruit tart could have been part of Brookes's dinner and many of them would have been flavored with rose, orange-flower or mint water. Gail Cassidy, Mount Vernon's manager of interpretation, says most 18th-century kitchens had a "still room" where bushels of rose petals and other flowers and herbs were distilled into small bottles of concentrated flavoring.
When dessert was taken away, the tablecloth was removed and Port, Madeira (Washington's favorite), nuts, apples and raisins were served. Washington liked nuts and probably ruined his teeth cracking black walnuts.
When the final course was over, the guests took their leave. "We soon went after dinner when the General and his secretary saw us on our horses and we departed much pleased," Brookes wrote. While Brookes reported "no toasts were drunk" when he dined at Mount Vernon, a celebration today might include the same toast that the Alexandria newspaper reported was given by one of a "company of gentleman" who celebrated Washington's 1798 birth-night ball at Gadsby's Tavern: "The hero whose birth we celebrate -- may the virtuous principles which ever have influenced his conduct be preserved through succeeding generations."
And may his hospitality and generous table set an example.
Bonny Wolf is working on a book about the Washingtons' eating and entertaining.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company