When George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, he wanted a consort who could make his Mount Vernon plantation a showcase for their friends.
George Washington could not have chosen better. Martha was a twenty-seven year old widow whose late husband had a vast fortune in land and property, along with that rarest of all Colonial commodities: ready cash.
When Martha came to live at Mount Vernon, the Custis estate left with her all the trappings of gracious living: silver candlesticks, about four dozen tablecloths and ninety-nine napkins and towels, beautiful and expensive silver teapots and accessories, 134 pewter plates. For the fancier dinners she brought nine dozen and nine china plates and serving dishes of English porcelain, dozens of beer and wine glasses. She also brought an array of copper kettles and pots, skillets, stew pans, frying pans, ladles and tongs. She also brought the beginnings of a collection of recipes that would be the envy of her neighbors.
From the start, guests were a part of the Mount Vernon tradition. Both George and Martha Washington were the oldest of several siblings, and throughout their forty-year marriage, brothers, sister, nieces, nephews and even great-nieces and nephews would be welcome visitors, sometimes for months at a time. Once Washington reached his fame, guests came in droves. After his Presidency, he once wrote a friend that he and Mrs. Washington were sitting down to dinner by themselves – for the first time in nearly twenty years.
The Washingtons’ Dinner Routine
The kitchens at Mount Vernon were Martha’s domain. She would be up by five or six a.m. to personally supervise the daily meals. Breakfast, of course, would be bountiful, but it would be the two o’clock dinner course that would be the main meal of the day.
No sooner had breakfast ended, than the table would be cleared and dishes removed for washing. A fresh table would be set, and the kitchens once again would be bustling with activity. Dinner could last for two or three hours, depending on the number of guests they expected and the enjoyment of their company.
The ladies would enter dressed in their elegant brocades in winter, and light cotton gowns in summer. The gentlemen would wear their best knee breeches and coats. Shoes would be polished, buckles shining brightly. They would be dining in style.
Soup was usually served first – perhaps a fish chowder or peanut soup. Biscuits and breads, freshly churned butter and assorted jams would be plentiful. There would be fish in season. The Potomac River which flowed right past their back door, was alive with millions of shad. When the fish came upstream, all Mount Vernon hands were ready with their nets to harvest the abundance. Some of the fish would be salted and set aside for storage. An ample supply would feed the plantation and its workers and tenants for months. A large amount would be prepared for trade in Fredericksburg or Alexandria.
Meats, hams, mutton, game and poultry of all kinds would be roasted. Wild turkey and duck and goose were plentiful in the woods around the area. Mount Vernon was also a working farm, and the Washington smoke house would overflow with meats. (It is said that the Marquis de Lafayette had so admired the bounty in Mrs. Washington’s smokehouse, that she sent him a dozen large hams as a gift.)
And of course, the wine would flow liberally.
The Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon
The kitchens were not the only domain of Lady Washington. The estate also included the smokehouse, the buttery, the bakery, the butchering quarters, the root cellar, the ice house and a large kitchen garden since Martha Washington claimed “vegetables indispensable to the kitchen,” and George Washington wanted the estate to be a model of self-sufficiency. The kitchen garden was planted right behind the stables, which assured them of a seemingly endless supply of natural fertilizer.
They raised a variety of asparagus, beets, beans, spinach, peas, artichokes, onions and lettuce, and planted herbs to edge their rows. Thus any dinner at the Washingtons would feature an assortment of vegetables, stewed, baked, boiled, casseroled or otherwise. What was not used for the immediate feeding of their guests and plantation workers was traded or stored in their root cellars for future needs.
The Mount Vernon Orchards and Dessert
When the Revolutionary War ended, General Washington returned to Mount Vernon, where he hoped to retire and enjoy the rest of his days. He planted orchards of fruit trees, including several varieties of pear, apple, peach, cherry and plum trees, which supplied the estate with fresh fruit for at least six months of the year.
Dessert at the Washingtons’ table was as plentiful as the main dinner course. There would be pies, cakes, confections, fresh fruits and cream, puddings, comfits, trifles, and even Lady Washington’s Great Cake – an eleven pound wonder designed to last for several days. Ice cream had become popular by the time George Washington became President. Tradition holds that Thomas Jefferson had returned from France with the recipe. The Washingtons enjoyed the new confection immensely and purchased an ice-cream maker for their own use.
There would be coffee, perhaps tea (although tea would be served later in the day), and claret, a sweet dessert wine. Then, once dinner was finished, the tablecloth would be removed, and an assortment of nuts would be placed right on the bare table for all to enjoy.
The ladies would excuse themselves to another parlor, to resume their handiwork and gossip; the men would linger over claret and nuts, and whatever conversation suited them, be it politics or plantation management or the price of a new carriage.
It would always be an evening to remember.
- Brady, Patricia – Martha Washington: An American Life – Viking, 2005
- Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington: A Life – Galahad Books, 1997