Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Food
Food was a part of daily life at Mount Vernon, just as it is today. Thinking about food in terms of where it comes from, how it is prepared, and how it tastes can help create connections to George Washington and others who lived in the past. Food can help students relate to history in a new way: through their senses. Studying and preparing the foods that George Washington enjoyed, such as hoecakes and ice cream is a tasty way to make history come alive for students today.
The incorporation of food and recipes as primary sources should always include a discussion of the accessibility of ingredients. Over the past 300 years, technology and transportation have radically changed how food is moved, how it is preserved, and when it is available. Exploring the geographic distance or seasonal variations in food availability changes what we know about that eating experience.
Whenever possible, prepare a recipe for tasting. The flavor and texture of a dish can aide in the understanding of the palate and flavor preferences of a time period. Students may be surprised at how familiar, or how strange, the tastes might be. Students can also gain an understanding of the time and labor involved in making a dish, as well as the tools needed for its preparation, by cooking it themselves.
Combining a written source related to food (recipes, shopping lists, food ledgers) with the cooking tools and places where food was prepared and cooked allows for rich multi-sensory routes of inquiry into the 18th century.
Don’t forget about the drinks! The 18th-century global economies of hot chocolate, rum punch, and wine integrate the importation of sugar and exotic ingredients into historic narratives.
Life on George Washington’s plantation centered on producing food for consumption and sale in the most efficient and economical way possible. After he abandoned tobacco in 1767, the primary crop at Mount Vernon became wheat (which was ground into flour for baking and sale at the market). Kitchen gardens, cornfields, and orchards provided diverse seasonal vegetables that were processed and stored for consumption year round. Livestock such as cows, sheep, and hogs provided milk, mutton, and pork. The food grown at Mount Vernon fed hundreds of people each year including members of the Washington family, guests at Mount Vernon, and hired and enslaved individuals who labored on the estate.
Guests to the estate left written accounts of their experiences dining at Mount Vernon. Dinner at a Virginia plantation home was an opportunity to display the wealth of the plantation through the abundance and diversity of the food served. A list of the dishes in just one course could be staggering and dinner could last for hours. The meat and vegetable course might highlight wild game as well as one of Martha Washington’s hams while also highlighting freshly picked produce from the garden. Second-course sweets such as baked pies, ice cream, and Martha’s Great Cake demonstrated the Washingtons’ access to exotic ingredients like sugar and various spices in addition to the plantation-grown contribution of fruit. The skills of the enslaved and hired cooks were also on display during dinner through the new, fashionable, and complex recipes served at dinner.
Based on historical records, historians know that enslaved adults with work assignments on George Washington’s five farms were given a daily ration of 1 quart of cornmeal and 5-8 ounces of salted fish. Sometimes supplemental rations such as buttermilk and fresh or salted pork were also provided. This written documentation provides valuable information, but it does not tell the full story. Archeological research of the house where many enslaved families lived at Mount Vernon recovered bones from hundreds of domesticated and wild animals and evidence of vegetables and fruits. We know that enslaved people on Washington’s five farms were allowed to use land near their dwellings for garden plots and they were allowed to raise chickens and ducks for eggs and poultry. Some of the food they produced was sold at the market in Alexandria, or directly to the Washington family. The proceeds from these sales belonged to the enslaved person who sold the good and could be used to purchase additional food, small trinkets, or other products at the market.
The pervasive nature of the myth that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree has tied the life and legacy of Washington to the cherry. While Washington had cherry trees at Mount Vernon there is no record of him chopping one down in his youth.