History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


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Relating to George Washington through Desserts

Last week, I went to Mount Vernon to see what I could learn anything about Washington CakeMalinda 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.

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What I Learned about Buttermilk at Mount Vernon

 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.


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Washington Cake — Evidence of a Washington, DC, Food Tradition?

Washington, DC, isn’t a great food city.  That’s what my old boss Mark Furstenberg said in a controversial recent Washington Post article.

Food in DC is getting better and better, practically by the week.  In the realm of desserts, there’s the Sweet Lobby on Barracks Row, with its fantastic macarons and prize-winning cupcakes.  Nearby, H Street NE has a thriving restaurant scene.  And a little to the north of H Street is the fantastic new Union Market.  But because Washington was “barely a city” for “so very long,” Furstenberg says, DC doesn’t have “a real tradition, a food culture, a food identity.”  Nothing to call its own.

Well, what about the Washington Cake?  Malinda Russell’s 1866 Domestic Cookbook has a recipe for a Washington Cake.  My guess is that this dessert was named for George Washington.  But the city has a special link to our first president.  He chose the site.  Locating the capital city – which he hoped would be an important trading center too – on the Potomac would bind together the eastern and western parts of the new nation, he thought.  (And, yes, it would help the property values of all the land he owned in the area.)  And George Washington oversaw the construction of the city in the 1790s too.  Can we Washingtonians claim a cake named for him as our own?

Mount Vernon currently (but not for much longer!) has an exhibit  “Hoecakes & Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington,” that sounded like it might shed light on this question so I headed there to see what I could find out.  Check back in coming days about desserts at Mount Vernon, the Washington cake, and more.