George Washington’s Family Cookbooks

George Washington
George Washington
Mount Vernon

Martha Washington’s cookbook tells a tale, one that really needs no elaboration:  George went through life toothless. Recipes for soft puddings, quidonys (a type of fruit preserve), and jellies abound. Of course, puddings testified in part to the, well, Englishness of the Father of Our Country and his wife. But the fact of the matter remains: George’s wooden teeth just didn’t cut it.

In spite of the lack of modern dentistry, George Washington lived in interesting times.

Washington, the first American president, owned an enormous estate, Mount Vernon, near what is now Washington, DC.  Facing the Potomac River, Washington’s manor provided access to Chesapeake Bay, the very bay sailed by the first English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The vast lands thrived thanks to the sweat and labor of Washington’s African slaves.

Slaves did the cooking in the detached kitchen at Mount Vernon and on other Virginia plantations of the time. Since most slaves could not read, it fell to the lady of the house to supervise the cooking and other household tasks. For that reason, manuscript cookbooks and household management manuals passed down from mother to daughter and then to granddaughters — these “books” filled the gap for women more used to sewing a fine seam than the messy work of plucking a dead chicken.

Martha Washington, her granddaughter Nelly Custis Lewis, and Nelly’s niece Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, wife of general Robert E. Lee — all three left behind cookbooks of note that are available today.**

But a little “who begat who” is in order — otherwise the significance of the Washington family cookbooks loses a little of its shine.

Martha Washington

George Washington, married the widowed Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. This is the Martha Washington every American school child comes to know of.

Custis Children

What a lot of people never know is that Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died in 1757, leaving Martha a widow with two children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis. Eventually Martha’s grandchildren came to live at Mount Vernon and were adopted by the childless Washingtons after Jacky’s death at age 26.

Nelly Custis Lewis, like her grandmother and many other women of the day, kept a housekeeping book: Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book. When she married Lawrence Lewis in 1799, Nelly became the mistress of  Woodlawn, another large plantation built on land owned by George Washington. As a wedding gift, she received a manuscript cookbook from her grandmother Martha, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats (edited and annotated by food historian Karen Hess.)  Martha’s copy apparently, according to Hess, ended up in her hands in 1749, copied from another manuscript sometime in the seventeenth century. In Hess’s analysis, the recipes represent the “cuisine of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.”

Nelly Custis Lewis

Another historian, Patricia Brady Schmit, edited Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book, which provides both commentary and a telescopic look into the kitchens of Virginia’s opulent plantation culture.

And Anne Carter Zimmer, great-granddaughter of Robert E. and Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, took the papers and notes and mementos found in a small cardboard box belonging to her great-grandmother and turned it into a paean to her ancestors, The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book. The author updated most of the recipes, but included the original wording, as well modern interpretations.

Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee

Strewn among recipes for “Stewed Beef, Mrs. Barry” and “Hanson’s Thin Biscuits” lie somber reminders of the precariousness of life, even for wealthy, pampered people like the Washingtons, Lewises, and Lees. Nelly’s first baby came only after a week of labor, although no “receipt” for the pain of childbirth appears in any of the books. But elixirs for sore throats and salves for breast lumps and “cures” for croup promise relief from afflictions still with us.

Fritters and fried doughs proved very popular with the Washingtons and their descendents. The Pegge manuscript of 1381, or The Forme of Cury,  includes fritter recipes, attesting to the long history of this cooking method.

A couple of apple fritter “receipts” and one of potato fritters suggest that the current taste for sweet and greasy didn’t begin with Dixie Cream or Krispie Cream doughnuts.

Or even with Sara Lee.

To Make Fritters

From Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats

Take a pinte of very strong ale, put it to a little sack & warme it in a little skillet; then take 8 youlkes of eggs & but 2 whites, beat them very well; yn put them to alittle flower & beat them together, yn put in yr warme ale; you must put noe more flower to ye eggs after ye ale is in. yr batter must be noe thicker than just will hang on ye apples. Season ye batter with ye powder of nutmegg, cloves, and mace; then cut your apple into little bits & put them into ye batter; yn set on ye fire a good quantity of  tryrd suet or hoogs lard, & when it is very hot drop in yr apples one by one with yr fingers as fast as you can. When they are fryde, lay ym on a cleane cloth put over a cullender, yn lay ym on trencher plates, & strow on ym sugar & cinnamon.

Apple Fritters (Photo credit: La Mia Cucina)

Mrs. Lee’s Apple Fritters

From The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book

Allow 4 eggs to a qt of milk make a thick batter with flour & beat it well stir in a qt of apples chopped fine have a frying pan with hot lard & drop them in the more lard the better tho they can be fried in a little.

Potatoe Fritters

From Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book

Beat the yolks of 6 eggs very light, add to them a quart of milk, boil as many Irish potatoes as will make a quart, skin & beat them very fine, put them into the milk & eggs, & thicken with flour, the thickness of common fritter batter, beat all ’till very light, fry in lard as common fritters.

**For Further Study:

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, edited by Karen Hess

Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book, edited by Patricia Brady Schmit

Nelly Custis Lewis papers

The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book, by Anne Carter Zimmer

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

Woodlawn Plantation (Photo credit: A. M. Kuchling)

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