In the Classroom
20 Questions for Reading and Evaluating Historic Recipes
The Washingtons were fond of chocolate. However, chocolate was not consumed in the same way by the Washingtons as it is today, such as in a smooth candy bar form.
The year 1757 marks the first record of George Washington ordering 20 pounds of chocolate. Throughout his life, he continued to buy chocolate. He bought quantities as small as one pound and as large as fifty pounds, which he purchased three months prior to his death in 1799. Chocolate was primarily consumed as a warm beverage in the 18th century, which is how the Washingtons frequently enjoyed it. Most often it was served with breakfast, similar to coffee or tea. Hot chocolate was prepared by grating chocolate into boiling water, milk and water, or wine and water. Then spices and sugar were added. Next the drink was frothed and then served.
Mrs. Washington enjoyed a lighter, tea-like chocolate beverage. To prepare this beverage, the shells of the cacao beans were steeped like a tea. The drink was similar in color, flavor, and bitterness to coffee. This chocolate “tea” was often served at Mount Vernon for breakfast or anytime coffee and tea were served.
In a 1789 letter to Clement Biddle, Washington ordered two pairs of slippers, and a set of clogs to fit them, for Mrs. Washington. He writes, “She will likewise thank you to get 20 lb. of the shells of Cocoa nuts, if they can be had of the Chocolate makers.” The lighter beverage also made an impression on Mount Vernon guests, Burges and Frances Ball, Frances was Washington’s niece.
Following their visit, her husband wrote to Washington in 1794 requesting “two or three bushels of chocolate shells such as we’ve frequently drank Chocolate of at Mt. Vernon.” Ball further wrote “my Wife thinks it agreed with her better than any other Breakfast….” Washington fulfilled the request for his niece, however, even though chocolate was a popular product, it was not readily available as items were today. Ball requested the chocolate shells on February 13 and did not receive them until April 5.
Because chocolate was an established part of the breakfast table, there were cups specific to serving the warm beverage. The cups varied in style. They did not always have handles and often resemble narrower and taller tea cups.
In the Sevres china service owned by the Washingtons, there are chocolate cups. Washington purchased the set in 1778. They are similar in form, but the larger cups were intended for chocolate. The “States” china service given to Martha Washington contains a chocolate cup with two handles, a saucer, and a lid.
"...As I have troubled you so far, I wd take the liberty of requesting you’ll be so good as to procure & send me 2 or 3 Bush: of the Chocolate Shells such as we’ve frequently drank Chocolate of at Mt Vernon, as my Wife thinks it agreed with her better than any other Breakfast..."