We like to think of Dining With the Washingtons as the cookbook antidote to all of those “breaking” news stories on what the presidential candidates are eating on the campaign trail. (In a nutshell, fast food: Burgers, hot dogs, fries and plenty of Pizza Ranches on the Republican side.) Nothing like an election year to get you back in that good old-fashioned cooking mood.
In the Washingtons' kitchen (in its current book form, at least), there are no political jabs, no contrived smiles for iPhone snapshots (ah, the glorious days of presidential portrait painting), nor does dinner with the president require a $35,800 campaign contribution. The cookbook will set you back all of $35 if you buy it directly from Mount Vernon, which we highly recommend so the entire net proceeds go toward maintaining Washington's nonprofit estate for the public, rather than a portion thereof into an Amazon executive's deep-discount corporate pockets.
Another reason to pony up the extra pennies? Dining With the Washingtons happens to be one of the best historic cookbooks we've seen in years.
This isn't the typical dry, straightforward culinary history read, as it's clear by the photographs alone that there were some hefty donor contributions required to make this coffee table-style book come to fruition. Add in the half dozen Mount Vernon staff members who wrote the book's essays and edited the collection of memoirs, diaries, plantation documents, archeological items and personal correspondence presented in the first half of the book, and you could leave out the 90 historical recipes in the second half. But what's the hoecake fun in that?
The recipes have been tweaked for modern readers but are largely true to their apple pie (p. 172) roots. There is the expected heartier winter larder fare, like stewed vegetables and meats, corn fritters and pound cake, but also plenty of vibrant green pea soups and farm (plantation, rather) fresh raspberry ice cream. Those recipes that aren't from the Washington household are often combinations of several 18th-century recipes (Actual recipe testing in a historic cookbook!), or were compiled from period cookbook authors like Hannah Glasse, who wrote The Art of Cookery.
In terms of the Washingtons' own palates, Martha was known for her baking skills, and the president reportedly was a fan of classic hoecakes for breakfast. A hearty way to start the day after those crazy late-night parties the night before, one might say. Or, as it is an election year, perhaps we should go with the more politically correct “tireless socializing” description in the book's first chapter, below:
[Washington's] diaries convey a sense of the couple's tireless socializing. For example, in 1768, well before the American Revolution made George Washington a household name on two continents, he and his wife had dinner guests on 82 of the 291 days for which there are records. … In 1785, two years after the war's official end, the Washingtons welcomed dinner guests 225 times and overnight guests 235 times….
Mt. Vernon dinner parties fueled by plenty of high-octane punch and “cherry bounce” (a brandy and sour cherry drink that Washington reportedly favored, recipe p. 204) sure sound like a lot more fun than arguing about the economy over a crappy fast food burger.
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