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Feeding George Washington

June 2024
1min read


transcribed by Karen Hess , Columbia University Press, 518 pages, $16.50 softcover . CODE: COL-2

IN THE LATE SIXTIES A CHILDREN’S BOOK appeared about a boy’s struggle to know what his hero George Washington ate for breakfast. At the book’s end, the boy’s family sits down to a hearty and evocative morning meal, but they do so with nothing like the culinary precision set forth in this family-recipe book, owned for fifty years by Martha Washington and passed down through the generations.

It tells what the first President might have had for lunch, dinner, and even high tea. The handed-down “family manuscript” was Martha’s from 1749 to 1799, from the time of her original marriage, to Daniel Custis, until after George Washington’s presidential farewell. Its unspecified authors explain in good eighteenth-century prose such operations as how “To make a codling tarte eyther to Looke clear or greene,” how “To bake muton in blood,” and how “To make Little frying cakes wth ye pulpe of apples.” The culinary historian Karen Hess has treated these cookbooks as the lively historical texts they are, but she doesn’t ignore the food. The book also serves as a kind of chart showing New World game, vegetables, and fruits entering and improving old English recipes.

The Booke of Sweetmeats section would have had wider practical use for its original readers than the Booke of Cookery , since it included medicinal recipes, instructions on dozens of ways to store fruit, and directions for clarifying sugar and for bringing it to “Manus Christi Height.” Read without Hess’s fine explanatory notes, some of the recipes have a mysterious, poetical ring: “To Make Nimblesses: Lay gum dragon in steep in rosewater, then strayn it thorough a cloth, & beat it in a stone morter with ye white of an egg till it looks very white, then beat & searse double refined sugar & beat it into your gum & egg by degrees, till it is soe stiff yt you can take it forth of yr morter.” Originally published fifteen years ago, this is the Booke’ s first appearance in a paperback, kitchen edition.

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