Martha Washington’s dining room table was her pride and joy.
Martha Washington: Plantation Mistress
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. George Washington could not have chosen a better wife and consort.
Mrs. Washington had inherited a huge inventory from the Custis estate – all the accoutrements of gracious living: Nearly four dozen tablecloths and ninety-nine napkins and towels, silver candlesticks, beautiful and expensive silver teapots and accessories, 134 pewter plates.
For formal 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 neighborly people. They were also each 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 – even strangers – came in droves.
The Washingtons’ Dinner Routine
Dinner, the main meal of the day, would be served, usually (and very promptly) at two p.m. It could last for two or three hours, depending on the number of guests they expected and the enjoyment of their company.
The ladies entered dressed in elegant brocades in winter, light cotton gowns in summer. The gentlemen wore their best knee breeches and coats. Shoes were be polished, buckles shining brightly. They would be dining in style.
Soup came first – perhaps a chowder or peanut soup. Baskets of biscuits and breads, freshly churned butter and assorted jams were passed for all to enjoy. Then fish. Since the Potomac River flowed right past their back door, alive with millions of shad in season, all Mount Vernon hands were ready with their nets to harvest the bounty. It supplied the needs of the entire plantation. Some would be salted and set aside for storage, and there was enough for trade in Fredericksburg or Alexandria.
Then came the meats: hams, mutton, beef, game and poultry of all kinds. Wild turkey, duck and goose were plentiful in the woods around the area. The Mount Vernon smoke house overflowed. (It is said that the Marquis de Lafayette had so admired the smokehouse largesse, that the Washingtons sent him a barrel of a dozen large hams as a gift.)
And of course, the wine flowed liberally.
The Garden Bounty of Mount Vernon
The kitchens were not the only domain of Lady Washington. Mount Vernon’s gardens were hers as well since she claimed “vegetables indispensable to the kitchen.” Since George Washington wanted the estate to be a model of self-sufficiency, the garden was planted right behind the stables, which assured 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 chez Washington would feature an assortment of vegetables, stewed, baked, boiled, casseroled or otherwise. What was not used for the immediate feeding of the household and their guests was traded or stored in their root cellars for future needs.
The Mount Vernon Orchards and Dessert
When the Revolutionary War ended, and General Washington returned to Mount Vernon to retire and enjoy the rest of his days, he undertook the planting of orchards of fruit trees. He planted 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: Pies, cakes, confections, fresh fruits and cream, puddings, comfits, trifles, and even Lady Washington’s Great Cake – an eleven pound confection 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.
Then came coffee, perhaps tea (although tea would be served later in the day), and assorted dessert sweet wines. Once dinner was finished, the tablecloths was removed, and an assortment of nuts placed right on the bare table for all to enjoy.
Then the ladies would retreat to another parlor, and 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