Last week, I went to Mount Vernon to see what I could learn anything about Washington Cake. Malinda Russell’s 1866 A Domestic Cookbook – the first cookbook by an African American – has a recipe for Washington Cake and so do other cookbooks from the 1800s. Was there really a connection to George Washington, I wondered.
After poking around a bit and discovering something new about buttermilk in enslaved children’s diet, I headed to see the fine exhibit (which closes on August 11), “Hoecakes & Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington.” Would I find Washington Cake there?
I did not. But what I did find astonished me. George Washington – the father of our country, a role model for generations of Americans – had five desserts at dinner daily. Yes, folks, five desserts a day. Why didn’t I know this before?
Dinner was the main meal of the day, prepared and served by slaves such as cooks Hercules, Nathan, and Lucy, and butler Frank Lee and also by hired workers, and was eaten between 2 and 4 p.m. The first course consisted of five meat and vegetable dishes arranged, following polite dining customs of the day, symmetrically on the table. Then came the second course of around five sweet dishes.
Desserts often centered on fruits. Apricots, strawberries, gooseberries, and cherries were local ingredients, while exotic fruits like pineapple were imported. Washington, we know, didn’t cut down a cherry tree, but he did eat cherry pie. Apple pie too. Fruit tarts, gingerbread, and cookies were other dessert choices. And so – the Washingtons really were exemplary – was ice cream. It was, the exhibit explained, a favorite dessert at Mount Vernon! No chocolate or vanilla for our first president. Ice creams were often flavored with fruit.
I had no idea Washington shared my love of ice cream. I didn’t know that he had bought a “Cream Machine for Ices,” ice cream molds, and an ice cream spoon, (probably a scoop). And I had never even heard of an icery – a porcelain vessel, sort of like a wine bucket, for keeping ice cream cold – before.
I learned a lot. But does any of this really change my understanding of Washington?
I’ve always found him hard to relate to. Not because he was a great leader. He was, indeed, a great leader at a time the United States desperately needed great leadership. That isn’t what makes him hard to relate to and nor is it that he was a complex, flawed person. He was insecure about his haphazard education. He hungered for distinction. He fought for freedom while holding fellow humans in bondage — but then, in his will and after his wife’s death, he freed his slaves.
Washington has seemed human to me, but I still couldn’t relate to him. Like other gentlemen of his day, Washington worked hard to control his emotions. He was formal. He was aloof in his time and across time.
But he liked ice cream? Well, now, that’s a man I can relate to.