4th of July 2012 and Trends of Less Simple Times

The fourth of July gives us pause to celebrate the birth of a nation and its heritage; which most of us are remarkably unfamiliar with. Instead of giving you a red-white and blue design post, let’s have a look back at two very different types of kitchens; both uniquely a part of the American experience.

George Washington’s kitchen at Mt. Vernon

Look at the lighting in Washington’s Mt Vernon kitchen (above) – in its day, the light sources would have involved lamps, and a constant fire – but note the work triangle already evident in kitchen design!

Before gas, convection, or stainless steel appliances that extend the life of foods we purchase from designer grocery stores like Wegmans (which I fondly refer to as “the mother ship”) there were a very different set of tools used to create a remarkable array of culinary delights. Mt Vernon was an entertainment hub, and the father of our country was invested in demonstrating the latest trends in fashion, architecture and design of his time – second only to Thomas Jefferson who was obsessed with defining a lifestyle that hinged on demonstrating the finest architecture, fashion, food and spirits of an emergent nation.

“A glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of them are always welcome.”  –George Washington, in a letter to a friend.

Because the Washingtons had so many dinner guests, the kitchen bustled with activity day and night. Baking, roasting, broiling, frying and stewing were all accomplished here, both in the fireplace and over piles of hot coals burning at several locations on the hearth.

At least three generous meals were served daily at Mount Vernon. Breakfast was served promptly at 7:00 a.m.; dinner at 3:00 p.m.; and tea at 6:00 p.m. Sometimes a light supper was served at 9:00 p.m. As you can imagine, this schedule meant a long and exhausting day for the team of enslaved workers, including  Nathan and Lucy, who did the cooking.  Lucy lived in an apartment above the kitchen with her husband Frank, the butler. Assistants or scullions, who lived elsewhere on the grounds, hauled water and wood, washed dishes and cooking utensils, and helped with food preparation.

The two recipes below were family favorites. The Great Cake was served during the Christmas holidays and for other special occasions. The hoe cakes were George Washington’s breakfast of choice.

Here are some colonial treats you can resurrect in celebration.

Martha Washington’s Great Cake, from her recipe:

Hercules, Washington’s Chef




Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it a Spoon full at a time till it is well work’d. Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit. 2 hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine and some fresh brandy.

Martha Washington’s 40-egg Great Cake


Modern adaptation of recipe:
In making Martha Washington’s famed cake, Mount Vernon’s curatorial staff followed Mrs. Washington’s recipe almost exactly. Where the recipe called for 5 pounds of fruit, without specifying which ones, 2 pounds of raisins, 1 pound of currants, and 2 pounds of apples were used. The wine used was cream sherry. Since no pan large enough was available to hold all the batter, two 14 layers were made and stacked (note: the original was one single tall layer). The layers were baked in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours. Should be iced with a very stiff egg-white based icing, flavored with rosewater or orange-flower water.

Nelly Custis’s Recipe for Hoecakes (in her words)

General Washington’s typical breakfast has been described by members of his immediate family and several guests. His step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, who was raised at Mount Vernon, wrote “He rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready – he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream.”  She described the recipe in a letter as: “The bread business is as follows if you wish to make 2 1/2 quarts of flour up-take at night one quart of flour, five table spoonfuls of yeast & as much lukewoarm water as will make it the consistency of pancake batter, mix it in a large stone pot & set it near a warm hearth (or a moderate fire) make it at candlelight & let it remain until the next morning then add the remaining quart & a half by degrees with a spoon when well mixed let it stand 15 or 20 minutes & then bake it – of this dough in the morning, beat up a white & half of the yilk of an egg – add as much lukewarm water as will make it like pancake batter, drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south). When done on one side turn the other – the griddle must be rubbed in the first instance with a piece of beef suet or the fat of cold corned beef …”

Modern adaptation of the recipe:
8 3/4 cups white cornmeal
1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
1 egg
Warm water
Shortening or other cooking grease
Honey & Butter

  1. In large container, mix together 4 cups white cornmeal, 1 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast, and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter (probably 3-4 cups). Cover and set on the stove or counter overnight.
  2. In the morning, gradually add remaining cornmeal, egg and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter (3-4 cups). Cover and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes.
  3. Add cooking grease to a griddle or skillet and heat until water sprinkled onto it will bead up.
  4. Pour batter, by the spoonful, onto the hot griddle. (Note: since the batter has a tendency to separate, you will need to stir it well before pouring each batch.) When the hoecake is brown on one side, turn it over and brown the other. Serve warm with butter and honey.

The founding father’s did not flinch from a challenge, hard work, nor courageous color. Imagine this vivid jade green without the benefit of today’s lighting:

Dining Roome from Mt Vernon - image from their website

Room from Mt Vernon

The black stained floors at Jefferson’s Monticello prove yet again that there is nothing new in trends – today they are not colonial, but contemporary!

Thomas Jefferson Dome Room at Monticello – image via chriskern.net

Even vignettes of dishes in the tableware of the times speak to the bright colonial palette.

Dining with the Washingtons – Book Release – from fetacompli

But less we forget, there were two types of kitchens in the emergent American nation.

Green lakes state park is situated in within proximity of my home, and is a 20-minute off trail hike. Well away from the naturally Green Lakes, the park conceals a very different yet no less Americana kitchen. ” Indian Ovens” as the place is called, is a destination announced only by the sight of a gnarled old maple that looks like something out of The Chronicles of Narnia, that may animate at any moment and begin speaking to you.

If the old maple could talk, I could ask it for the names and recipes of the people who gathered here to share meals, and how on earth they were prepared. There is a magical stillness about this place, where modest meals in contrast to Mt Vernon were prepared to share with a no less flourishing community, who stories like their mark on the land have nearly have all but been erased.

Natural stepped stones, fashioned not by the Native American chefs of this kitchen, but rather fortuitously shed from receding glaciers invite you to cross the threshold of this remarkabe kitchen, which you see at a quick right turn.

I don’t know the recipes, but the ingredients remain today. Green Lakes is home to populations of deer, rabbits, fish, black caps (black raspberries) a host of edible plants, which hikers of today tramp past without the slightest consideration of consumption – and a large population of our national symbol, the bald eagle.

Closer examination reveals evidence of ovens fashioned by nature and used by the local Native American community to prepare and share meals…and kitchen expansion, in the form of additional small ovens made by man, perhaps to store food or to smoke fish….

The ovens beg more questions than they answer – for instance, everywhere there are holes that don’t appear to be the consequence of erosion up to roughly human height. I have absolutely no idea as to their intent or purpose, or why the makers went to such an extent to create so many.

Whether colonial color, hoe cakes, or Indian ovens, set aside a bit of leisure time to learn more about the trends of colonial America that brought us to the fireworks and picnics we will all enjoy today – Happy 4th of July!