The Art of Dining at Mount Vernon

“George Washington always paid keen attention to his dining spaces and their furnishings; mealtime rituals provided opportunities to present himself as a sophisticated member of the gentry class, an enlightened gentleman, and a gracious host,” explains historian Carol Borchert Cadou in, “Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon.”

Cadou, the Robert H. Smith senior curator and vice president for collections at Mount Vernon, reports that one 1777 guest observed: “[Washington] keeps an excellent table and a stranger, let him be of what Country or nation, he will always meet with a most hospitable reception at it. His entertainments were always conducted with the most regularity and in the genteelest manner of any I ever was at on the Continent.”

The meals prepared often came from one of Martha Washington’s cookbooks, which include a manuscript handed down through several generations of women from the family of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis; she inherited it upon their 1750 marriage. Another often-used cookbook in the Washington kitchen was the sixth edition (1763) of Hannah Glasse’s “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.”

While the Washingtons may not have sampled recipes from “The Virginia Housewife,” Mary Randolph’s popular cookbook was also utilized during the Revolutionary era.

So we were thrilled when historians at Mount Vernon opened the doors (and the outdoor kitchen) to welcome three of our Grateful American™ Kids — AJ, Avery, and Callie — to prepare two dishes the Washington’s and their guests would have enjoyed: curry of catfish and peas porridge.

These students from Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County, VA, were our reporters for the day as they were guided through a Revolutionary Era cooking lesson by Deborah Colburn, the interpretive programs supervisor at Mount Vernon, and her colleague, interpreter Sara Marie Massee.

Scroll down to learn how to prepare these recipes, which may be a fun addition to your meals this holiday season.

Here’s to cooking, and eating, like the Washingtons! Wishing you and yours all the best this Thanksgiving! David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation / Grateful American™ Kids


A Dish Made for a President: Curry of Catfish

 

Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • 1 pound of boneless catfish, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 handfuls of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • 3 to 4 cups of water or chicken broth
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp. of curry powder
  • 2 Tbsp. of butter
  • 2 Tbsp. of flour
  • Salt and pepper

Here’s how: 

  1. In butter or oil, sauté the onions, along with one handful of parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. When the onions are translucent, add the catfish, along with 3 to 4 cups of water or broth.
  3. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook the fish until firm, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the fish from the liquid and put into a covered dish.
  4. Bring the remaining liquid to a boil and reduce it to one cup.
  5. In a separate pan, make a roux with the butter and flour by melting the fat and adding the flour. Whisk until the mixture is golden, one to two minutes. Add the curry powder and combine with the mixture. Let cool.
  6. Add the curry and butter mixture to the hot liquid and bring it up to a boil. Stir until thickened.
  7. Take the gravy off the heat and stir in the cooked catfish. Cover and let the flavors combine for a few minutes.
  8. Serve over rice. Although not in the recipe, other condiments such as scallions and chutney work wonderfully with this dish.

Did you know:

Curries were very popular in the British diet during the period. Although inspired by the East Indies, this dish was invented in Great Britain.

The catfish makes it a uniquely American recipe. Perhaps not holding the status of sturgeon or rockfish, catfish was showing acceptance by the second half of the 18th century. In fact, fish was traditionally the second course at the Washingtons’ dinner table.

In August 1789, Pennsylvania Sen. William Maclay listed in his diary the foods the Washingtons served in New York at a dinner the senator attended. “It was a great dinner,” he wrote. “First was soup [followed by] Fish, roasted & boiled meats Gammon Fowls &ca.” [fn, WM, pp. 136-137]

Source“The Virginia Housewife,” by Mary Randolph

Click here to watch our Grateful American™ Kids prepare this recipe! 


 

Prepare one of Martha Washington’s Favorite Dishes: Peas Porridge

 Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • 1 quart green peas
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 bundle dried mint
  • A pinch of salt
  • Ground pepper to taste
  • Walnut size ball of butter (about 2 T)
  • 2 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 quarts milk

 Here’s how: 

  1. Pick a quart of green peas, and put them into a quart of water with a bundle of dried mint and a little salt.
  2. Let them boil until the peas are quite tender, then add some ground pepper, along with a piece of butter as big as a walnut rolled in flour.
  3. Stir it all together and bring to a boil.
  4. Add 2 quarts of milk and let it boil for 15 minutes.
  5. Remove the mint bundle and serve. 

Source“The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse,” 5th edition p.79

Click here to find more recipes from Mount Vernon.

And click here for more information about “Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon.”