November-December 2017 — 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 Washingtons 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 a very happy Thanksgiving! — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation / Grateful American™ Kids
What Did George and Martha Washington Eat for Supper?
Dressing for dinner — “Changing clothes before dinner seems to have been customary at [George Washington’s] level of society,” explains Mary V. Thompson, author of the essay entitled, Served up in excellent order, in “Dining with the Washingtons” (p. 37). “Both step-granddaughter Nelly and Polish visitor Niemcewicz recorded that Washington dressed for the occasion. And in a letter to Nelly’s brother, Washington suggested that the young man, nicknamed Washy, stop what he was doing about an hour before the meal, a time ‘allowed for dressing, & preparing for [dinner], that you may appear decent.'”
Image: “The Washington Family” by Edward Savage (c. 1789-1796), shows (from left to right): George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Nelly Custis, Martha Washington, and an enslaved servant. The Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art
Make a Meal Prepared for a President:
Curry of Catfish
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
- In butter or oil, sauté the onions, along with one handful of parsley. Season with salt and pepper.
- When the onions are translucent, add the catfish, along with 3 to 4 cups of water or broth.
- 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.
- Bring the remaining liquid to a boil and reduce it to one cup.
- 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.
- Add the curry and butter mixture to the hot liquid and bring it up to a boil. Stir until thickened.
- Take the gravy off the heat and stir in the cooked catfish. Cover and let the flavors combine for a few minutes.
- 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. 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
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 Tbsp.)
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- 2 quarts milk
- Pick a quart of green peas, and put them into a quart of water with a bundle of dried mint and a little salt.
- 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.
- Stir it all together and bring to a boil.
- Add 2 quarts of milk, and let boil for 15 minutes.
- Remove the mint bundle and serve.
Source: “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” by Hannah Glasse, 5th edition p.79
Don’t stop yet: Click here to watch our Grateful American™ Kids prepare this dish.
Find more recipes cooked by the Colonists here, courtesy of Mount Vernon.
And click here for additional details about “Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon.”
When did Americans officially begin celebrating Thanksgiving?
November 26, 1789 — Although Americans commonly trace the Thanksgiving holiday to a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation — as depicted in this 1899 oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris — the first official celebration of Thanksgiving is held in the United States in 1789.
Following a resolution of Congress, President George Washington proclaimed it a day of "public thanksgiving and prayer" devoted to "the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be."
Subsequent presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied. It wasn't until President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.
In 1939, however, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November.
As a result of the proclamation, 32 states issued similar amendments, but 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on two different days — the president and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week.
To end the confusion, Congress decided to set a fixed date for the holiday. On Oct. 6, 1941, the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. The Senate, however, changed the resolution, establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday to take into account those years when November has five Thursdays.
The House agreed, and President Roosevelt signed the resolution on Dec. 26, 1941, thus establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.
Sources: founders.archives.gov, archives.gov, wikipedia/Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Proclamation Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789
“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and — Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to ‘recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.'” Click here to read more.
— George Washington
Dining at Monticello
Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance
By Damon Lee Fowler, Editor
208 pages, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation
While George and Martha Washington were certainly excellent hosts, many would argue that the best spot in Virginia to have a meal was at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson's years in Paris enhanced his fondness for French food, which is well documented in Thomas Craughwell’s book, “Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.”
However, the offerings at Monticello also incorporated Continental cuisine with more common Virginian fare, yielding a celebrated blend of cultures and traditions. “Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance” combines recipes, background essays, and lush illustrations to provide an inviting view of the renowned hospitality offered at Thomas Jefferson's table.
Ten introductory essays by Monticello scholars and outside experts illuminate all areas of food and drink at Jefferson's home, ranging from the groceries and wine imported from Europe, to the restored kitchen at Monticello, and the African-Americans who participated in this rich food culture at every stage. Following these essays are 75 recipes found in the family manuscripts, some written in Jefferson's hand. Click here to learn more about the book.