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This year, we celebrated President’s Day with a return visit to Mount Vernon and by whipping up a batch of George Washington’s favorite hoecakes.

After reading Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2011), I was especially anxious to check out “Hoecakes and Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington,” a special exhibition at the new Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, a truly fabulous place with its many galleries and theatres, interactive displays, fascinating exhibits and 700+ objects illuminating the style, taste, and personalities of the Washingtons, their life at the Estate, the presidency and the Revolutionary War.

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Every morning at 7 a.m., George Washington ate three hoecakes and drank 3 cups of tea for breakfast.

It sounds a little meager for a man six feet tall, especially since he had a country to run.

Until two weeks ago, I didn’t even know what a hoecake was. I’m guessing oodles of kids around the country are already on to George and his cakes, because they’ve read this cool book: George Washington’s Breakfast, by Jean Fritz (Putnam, 1998).

         
            Cover illustration by Tomie Paola
                Interior illos by Paul Galdone
                For ages 7 and up, 48 pp.

Young George W. Allen shares Washington’s name and birthday. Since he feels almost related to him, he wants to know everything he can about the father of our country. But one day at breakfast, George realizes he doesn’t know what Washington ate every morning. So begins an enthusiastic, determined quest for the answer, which drives the plot and makes for a fun, engaging read.

Kids will immediately note George’s dated use of a card catalog, but will admire his tenacity as he reads book after book, searching for the answer. They will also pick up some interesting facts about Washington as their anticipation steadily builds, so that by the time George finds out about the hoecakes, they’ll be anxious to try them. 

The New York Times Book Review called George Washington’s Breakfast “delightful,” as it “combines history, biography, research, cooking, and a determined child.” After eating the hoecakes, George felt even more related to Washington than ever before.

So what are they? A traditional Southern cornmeal pancake, originally cooked by field hands on the blade of a hoe over an open fire. Washington’s hoecakes were probably cooked on a griddle in the oven, though, and he liked them slathered with butter and dripping with honey.

     
             GW’s meals were cooked in this fireplace at Mt. Vernon

Of course I simply had to try making some of my own. I opted for this modernized recipe, which calls for milk instead of water, and unlike the gargantuan recipe posted at the Mt. Vernon website, uses baking powder rather than yeast.

 

They make a nice change from traditional flour-based pancakes, and are good with maple syrup, honey, or butter and jam. For a fluffier (albeit less authentic) hoecake, use 1 cup of flour plus 1 cup of cornmeal.

Make some this weekend — it’s your patriotic duty!

Here’s a cute webpage showing some third and fourth graders enjoying hoecakes prepared by a library media specialist.

  INFO BITES:

Washington was modest, courteous, and had flawless manners. He subscribed to the five-minute rule: all guests must be seated within five minutes of the dinner bell.

The Washingtons were among the first colonial Americans to acquire Wedgwood’s cream-colored ‘Queen’s Ware,’ and among the first to purchase porcelains brought back from Canton.

He also acquired the nation’s first service of French porcelain to grace state dinners.

His farms (8,000 acres) were self sufficient, providing most of the meat and produce he needed to entertain his constant flow of guests.

He had dinner at 3, tea at 6 or 7, and retired by 9 p.m.

Regarding behavior at the dinner table, Washington wrote:

Make no shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table, neither find fault with what you Eat.

~ from Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

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