Hot Chocolate, Cold Meat, Gingerbread: What Washington Really Ate

Statue of George Washington in the Virginia state capitol

As a schoolgirl, I learned the myth of the cherry tree and visited this statue of George Washington in the Virginia state capitol

For George Washington’s birthday, my mother used to buy a supermarket cake overloaded with pink frosting that stuck to the knife. Never mind that the cherries tasted more of chemicals than fruit. Every bite felt patriotic.

At my elementary school in Richmond, I learned that George Washington, born in Virginia, chopped down his father’s cherry tree when he was a boy. When his father confronted him, George said, “I cannot tell a lie” and ‘fessed up, revealing his sterling character. The only problem with that story? Biographer Parson Weems, who published the Life of Washington in 1800, likely made it up. So much for honesty.

Sketch of young George confessing to chopping down the cherry tree in the 1867 edition of the "Life of Washington" biography

Sketch of young George confessing to chopping down the cherry tree in the 1867 edition of the “Life of Washington” biography

Since the cherry desserts we eat for Washington’s birthday are based on a myth, I decided to look for more accurate information about what our nation’s first President ate. Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia, maintains an authoritative digital encyclopedia about his life. From this, I learned about his household custom of serving hot chocolate and cold meat for breakfast. For dinner, one guest reported on roasted pork, boiled lamb, beef, peas, lettuce, cucumbers, artichokes, puddings and tarts. Towards the end of his life, Washington also operated the largest distillery in America at its time, which kept his guests well supplied with whiskey.

The Mount Vernon Cookbook, published in 1984 by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the group that has preserved and managed Mount Vernon since 1853, contains a few historic recipes — none featuring cherries. To honor George Washington this year, I made gingerbread, described (aptly) as “a very dark and spicy gingerbread, not sweet.” Mrs. Washington served it with a glass of Madeira or rum or a mint julep. Tea? Not traditional!


Mount Vernon Gingerbread – circa 1798
(slightly adapted from the recipe in The Mount Vernon Cookbook)

Makes 24 squares

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup dark molasses
1/2 cup warm milk
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
1 heaping teaspoon mace (see note)
1 heaping teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup brandy
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
Juice and grated rind of 1 large orange
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup seedless raisins (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour one 9-by-13-inch Pyrex baking dish or two 8 1/2 inch square baking dishes.
  2. Cream together butter and brown sugar until light.
  3. Add the molasses and milk. Mix well.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix together the ginger, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg and stir into the batter. Add the brandy.
  5. In a small bowl, beat the eggs until light and thick.
  6. In another bowl, sift together the flour and cream of tartar. (I just whisked it with a fork).
  7. Stir eggs and flour alternately into the batter. (I added about 1/3 of the eggs, 1/3 of the flour, at a time).
  8. Stir in the orange juice and rind.
  9. Dissolve the baking soda in 1 teaspoon of warm water. Add to the batter and beat until light.
  10. Add raisins, if using.
  11. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans. Turn out on a rack to cool completely before cutting into squares.

Note: I didn’t have mace, so I substituted allspice. Mace is made from the membrane of the nutmeg seed; extra nutmeg would have worked, too.


About heritagerecipebox

I am named after my great-grandmother, who only prepared two dishes, according to anyone who remembers. Somehow I ended up with a cooking gene that I brought with me from Richmond, Virginia to my current home in Boston, Massachusetts. I have worked as a journalist and published three cookbooks plus a memoir and a novel. This blog gives me a chance to share family recipes and other American recipes with a past.
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