Does DC have a food tradition of its own? The other day I set off to Mount Vernon – home of the guy who located our capital city where it is, who oversaw the city’s construction, and who, after all, the city is named for – to see if George and Martha Washington’s desserts shed any light on this hotly contested question. In particular, I wanted to know if the Washington Cake recipe in Malinda Russell’s history-making 1866 cookbook has any connection to George Washington. If it does, then I say we have a distinct food tradition.
When I got to Mount Vernon, I decided to poke around for a bit before heading to see “Hoecakes & Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington.” I hadn’t been to Mount Vernon in years and wanted to see what was new. I wandered around the beautiful garden and then meandered a little further. What I meandered into took me back to something I wrote about a few days ago – buttermilk.
I’d come upon the Slave Quarters. Mount Vernon has a Men’s Sleeping Room and a Women’s Sleeping Room. George Washington owned several farms, and slaves on the outlying farms – not at Mount Vernon proper – typically lived in single- or double-family cabins. The enslaved people who worked at the Mansion House Farm, however, generally lived communally. The men bunked in one room and the women and children bunked in another. The rooms were crude places, for cooking as well as for sleeping, and the exhibit explains that corn was the staple of slaves’ diet. They ate cornbread or hoecakes or a cornmeal mush with some meat on it and they, like enslaved people elsewhere in North America and the Caribbean, supplemented their diets by hunting, fishing, and growing vegetables in gardens they tended in their limited free time.
Enslaved children, the exhibit went on to explain, received half-rations of food. To supplement their meager diets, these kids – like Phil and Patty, the son and daughter of an enslaved woman named Lucy – were also given buttermilk.
The history of desserts, their makers, and their ingredients isn’t always sweet. Kudos to the folks at Mount Vernon for helping us learn a bit more about the lives of some of the littlest and least-known people in our past.