Today is Washington’s Birthday, a holiday also known as Presidents’ Day, which recognizes the legacy of all American presidents.
The history of Presidents’ Day can be traced back to the late 1700s. People began celebrating George Washington’s birthday while he was still president, and about a hundred years later, his birthday became a federal holiday. Meanwhile, many people celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th, in the year of his assassination (1865) and afterward, though Lincoln’s birthday never became a federal holiday.
Since the passage of the Monday Holidays Act, Washington’s birthday has been celebrated on the third Monday in February. President Nixon called the holiday “Presidents’ Day” to honor all past presidents. Many states and people have followed his example, though “Washington’s Birthday” is still the holiday’s legal name for the federal government. But under any name, it’s a great day to celebrate everything that our past presidents, including Washington and Lincoln, have done for our nation.
Since this is a food blog, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the our first President’s culinary habits. Was President Washington a “foodie?” According to this short essay, by Anne Petri, wife of Wisconsin Congressman Tom Petri, I think he was … and a “slow foodie” at that.
GEORGE WASHINGTON AND FOOD
By Anne Petri
George Washington and food. These two categories—the historical and culinary—rarely go together. But an examination of life at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, sheds fascinating light on the norms of eating, entertaining, and hospitality in the 18th century.
George Washington once referred to his home as a “well-resorted tavern” and existing records confirm this description. According to household documents, Mr. and Mrs. Washington dined alone only twice in the last 20 years of their marriage. Friends as well as curious citizens flocked to see the President, and, with customary grace, he welcomed them to his home, not only for meals but to spend the night.
One guest described Washington’s hospitality as “entertainments … conducted with the most regularity and in the genteelest manner.” In 1777, visitor Nicholas Cresswell was equally laudatory: “[George Washington] keeps an excellent table and a stranger, let him be of what Country or nation, he will always meet with a hospitable reception at it.”
While the cost of entertaining was considerable, cash was not generally required. George Washington’s own farms (covering nearly 8000 acres) were self-sufficient and could provide most of the produce and meat that was necessary.
Once the dinner bell rang, Washington subscribed to the five-minute rule: guests must be seated within five minutes of the bell. Once seated, the dishes were placed in the center of the table and in a decorative fashion around the eating area.
And what did guests eat? One visitor from New York recounts the following:
At dinner wine, porter and beer. After it we drank about three glasses… At dinner we had two pint globular decanters on table, after dinner large wine glasses. Port was brought in claret bottles … Menu … Leg boil[ed] pork, top; goose, bot; roast beef, round cold boil[ed] beef, mutton chops, hommony, cabbage, potatoes, pickles, fried tripe, onions ets. Table cloth wiped, mince pies, tarts, cheese; cloth of[f], port, madeira, two kinds nuts, apples, raisins. Three servants.
According to a newly-released book entitled George Washington’s Mount Vernon (ed. Wendell Garrett), “the Washingtons were among the first colonial Americans to acquire Josiah Wedgwood’s fashionable cream-colored ‘Queen’s Ware’ and among the first post-Revolution Americans to purchase porcelains brought back from Canton on the Empress of China, the ship that opened American trade with China.”
As cognizant of precedents on the dining table as he was in matters of government, Washington also acquired the nation’s first service of French porcelain to grace state dinners, a practice that continued until 1900.
Washington was equally concerned with manners. At age 15, he copied a series of injunctions regarding manners “in company and conversation” which survives to this day. Among those rules are some special admonitions governing behavior at the dining table: “Make no shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table, neither find fault with what you Eat.” This superb advice as well as many other helpful tidbits are available in a lovely booklet entitled George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.
When he wasn’t entertaining, Mr. Washington generally had breakfast at 7:00 (7:30 in the winter) and dined on his favorite, hoe cakes—corn cakes topped with butter and honey. He had dinner at 3:00. Tea was served from 6:00 to 7:00 and he retired generally at 9:00 pm.
While there is no archival evidence of particular recipes George Washington enjoyed, there are a number of excellent books which highlight colonial favorites or recipes made with ingredients available in colonial times. Mount Vernon has itself published a superb cookbook entitled The Mount Vernon Cookbook. Reprinted below is one recipe from the book featuring a Wisconsin favorite—the cranberry.
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- Pinch salt
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/3 cup boiling water
- 1 1/2 cups sifted flour
- 1 1/2 cups cranberries, cut in half
Combine eggs, sugar, salt and molasses. In a separate container, put 2 teaspoons of soda in 1/3 cup boiling water. Add to egg mixture. Stir in flour and cranberries. Steam in a buttered rice steamer for 1 1/2 hours. Serve warm with the following sauce.
- 2 sticks butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cup half and half
Melt butter. Add sugar and half and half and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President!