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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The “Hoecakes and Hospitality” exhibit featured a behind-the-scenes look at how food was prepared and presented at Mount Vernon. Martha was in charge of overseeing all activities involved in food preparation and service (kitchen, kitchen garden, dairy, smokehouse, larder, dining room), supervising a staff of enslaved cooks, housekeepers, butlers and waiters, and of course coordinating menu selection.
Mount Vernon was basically self-sufficient when it came to food (five farms, smokehouse, distillery, gristmill, orchards, gardens, fishery), and the Washingtons entertained hundreds of national and international guests each year, many of them uninvited. Martha was always the gracious hostess, her warm and friendly personality nicely balancing out her husband’s more reserved nature.
It was great fun seeing Martha’s cookbooks and handwritten recipes and dinner invitations, kitchen bells, and various 18th century cooking utensils and tableware, which renewed my appreciation for their laborious, entirely “from-scratch” method of food production that’s so different from the way we do things now with our sophisticated kitchen equipment and convenience foods. While today there is a “movement” for organic, locally sourced foods in season, back then our forefathers really had no choice but to cultivate their own crops and avail themselves of the bounty found in woods, field, and stream.
Hams cured in the Estate smokehouse held special prominence on the Washington family tables; Martha took great pride in overseeing each stage of the curing process and hams were often shipped as gifts domestically and abroad. In addition to fresh seasonal vegetables (beans, lettuces, peas, cabbages, parsnips, potatoes, cauliflower), a typical dinner included a variety of meats. A few guests recorded their memorable meals in detail, like this account by Joshua Brookes (1799):
The table was arranged with a leg of boiled pork at the head, a goose at the foot, and the following dishes arranged around the table: roast beef, round cold boiled beef, mutton chops, hominy, cabbage, potatoes, pickles, fried tripe, and onions. Beverages offered during dinner included wine, porter, and beer. The tablecloth was wiped off before the second course, which included mince pies, tarts, and cheese. The cloth was then removed altogether and port and madeira, as well as two kinds of nuts, apples, and raisins were set out.
Through reading Dining with the Washingtons, I learned that Madeira wine was a particular favorite of the President; it was imported along with teas, spices, some beers, coffee, chocolate, olives, and exotic fruits like pineapple, coconut, and mango. He was very fond of fish and nuts; the Washingtons enjoyed a lot of oysters, lobsters, shad and cod. But for all the bounteous feasts lavished upon his guests, Washington himself had simple tastes and was basically a modest person not particularly fond of small talk or big parties. In a letter to his friend George Fairfax, he said:
My manner of living is plain . . . A glass of wine and a bit of mutton is always ready — such as will be content to partake of it are welcome — those who look for more will be disappointed.
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Perhaps what best represents the essence of Washington’s plain tastes is his favorite breakfast, hoecakes. He woke up each morning at dawn, spent several hours reading and tending to correspondence, and inspected his stables and kennels before sitting down to breakfast promptly at 7 a.m.
He liked three hoecakes “swimming in butter and honey,” which he washed down with three cups of tea (Hyson being a particular favorite) without cream. You probably know that hoecakes were ubiquitous during Colonial times and is distinctly American, having originated with the Native Americans and eaten by African slaves as well as European settlers.
It’s basically a cornmeal mush flatbread cooked on a griddle, sometimes baked. Hoecakes, as they are known in the South, were also called johnnycakes (New England), journey cakes, ash cakes, shawnee cake, mush cakes and jonnybread. Field hands used to cook theirs on the blade of a hoe held over an open flame. Hoes designed for cotton fields were large and flat (I saw one in the exhibit).
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Years after he died, Washington’s step-granddaughter Nelly Custis Lewis confirmed his love for hoecakes and described how she made them:
. . . take at night one quart of flour, five table spoonfuls of yeast & as much lukewarm water as will make it the consistency of pancake batter, mix it in a large stone pot & set it near a warm hearth (or a moderate fire) make it at candlelight & let it remain until the next morning then add the remaining quart & a half by degrees with a spoon when well mixed let it stand 15 or 20 minutes & then bake it — of this dough in the morning, beat up a white & half of the yolk of an egg — add as much lukewarm water as will make it like pancake batter, drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south). When done on one side turn the other — the griddle must be rubbed in the first instance with a piece of beef suet or the fat of cold corned beef.
I made the recipe found in Dining with the Washingtons, adapted for the modern cook by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump.
It’s simple to make, but takes a little advance planning, as does any recipe calling for yeast. Although it looks like a pancake, it’s not light and fluffy like your favorite buttermilk pancakes. These are rather dense and take longer to cook (5 minutes each side) and are tastier with lots of butter and honey (or maple syrup). Just two of these sated my hunger for a few hours — I can now see how George’s three hoecakes tided him over for the next 8 hours until dinner at 3 p.m., their main meal of the day.
Eating hoecakes is a lovely way to connect with the past and channel the Father of Our Country.
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S FAVORITE HOECAKES
modernized recipe developed by Nancy Carter Crump
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
2-1/2 cups white cornmeal, divided
3 to 4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
melted butter and honey or maple syrup for serving
1. Mix the yeast and 1-1/4 cups of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the lukewarm water, stirring to combine thoroughly. Mix in 1/2 cup more of the water, if needed, to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
2. Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
3. When ready to finish the hoecakes, begin by adding 1/2 to 1 cup of the remaining water to the batter. Stir in the salt and the egg, blending thoroughly.
4. Gradually add the remaining 1-1/4 cups of cornmeal, alternating with enough additional lukewarm water to make a mixture that is the consistency of waffle batter. Cover with a towel, and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Heat a griddle on medium-high heat, and lightly grease it with lard or vegetable shortening. Preparing one hoecake at a time, drop a scant 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle and cook on one side for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. With a spatula, turn the hoecake over and continue cooking another 4 to 5 minutes, until browned.
6. Place the hoecake on a platter, and set it in the oven to keep warm while making the rest of the cakes. Drizzle each one with melted butter.
7. Serve the hoecakes warm, drizzled with melted butter and honey or maple syrup.
~ from Dining with the Washingtons, edited by Stephen A. McLeod (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2011).
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Dining with the Washingtons is a well-researched, lushly illustrated, beautifully designed coffee table book containing highly readable and engaging historical essays, gorgeous color photographs, artwork, and more than 90 delectable 18th century recipes.
I especially like seeing the china, porcelain, flatware, and silver used at Mount Vernon, because it reflects the Washingtons’ refined tastes, personality and family history. If I were to visit, I might have tea with George and Martha on the portico, sip Hyson or Bohea from an export China cup graced with delicate polychrome scenes, or slurp (politely, of course) garden pea soup from a Staffordshire creamware soup plate in the small dining room. I would hold fast to the ham, lest the hound Vulcan make off with it in a mad dash, and refrain from trying my hosts with too much chitchat.
We topped off our visit with lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn (Len had an Old Virginia Ham Sandwich and I had the Colonial Turkey Pye) and a quick browse through the gift shops, where George himself convinced me to purchase a doll’s tea set for Cornelius. The pattern, Ribbons and Cornflower, was modeled after a large French porcelain mug used by George during his Presidency, manufactured by Christopher Potter (Paris, 1790-95). Apparently he drank neither coffee nor tea from it, more likely beer or ale.
Friday is George Washington’s actual birthday. Somewhere he’s having salt cod with egg sauce, a piece of Martha’s Great Cake, and a big bowl of ice cream. Cornelius drinks neither beer nor ale, but is happy to toast George with fresh apple cider in his new cup and saucer. Since the General loves nuts, Cornelius has also volunteered to polish off a piece of pecan pie.
Happy 281st Birthday, George!
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♥ Enjoy this short video about the “Hoecakes and Hospitality” Exhibit to see some of the objects on display.
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” Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.” ~ George Washington
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This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to put on their best bibs and aprons, and share their food-related posts (reviews, recipes, photos, musings, etc.).
Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.