How to Eat Like George Washington on Presidents' Day

Madeira wine was one of Washington's faves.
Madeira wine was one of Washington's faves.
Photo by diego hernandez

Presidents' Day is not traditionally a "foodie" holiday, but it should be. Although 18th-century American fare could be a bit hit or miss, our founding father/first president, George W. (the original!), seems to have had good taste in grub. Of Washington's eating habits, his grandson Custis, wrote:

"He ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond. He partook sparingly of dessert, drank a home-made beverage, and from four to five glasses of Madeira wine."

Pescaterian meals where the booze flows like water? That's a dining campaign I can get behind.

Although historians far more knowledgeable than I have discounted the chopping-down-the-tree-cannot-tell-a-lie anecdote, the first president was actually really keen on cherries. Family members have testified to his great enjoyment of the berry; Martha Washington also possessed many recipes for cherry tarts, cakes, pies, etc.

Lest we forgot, the White House did not yet exist during Washington's presidency, so ole Georgie continued living at Mount Vernon after he took the oath of office. Not having his own personal team of chefs, however, did not seem to prevent Washington from eating well at home.

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Pudding was the favored fare for Washington, but political fodder for cartoonist James Gillray.
Pudding was the favored fare for Washington, but political fodder for cartoonist James Gillray.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Menus from various parties and dinners given at Mount Vernon, a fully-functioning farm, include wild game dishes, fruit (then an exotic, expensive delicacy), and rich puddings. Eating was almost always a very formal affair, though one visitor observed that the matudinal meal was simple, sort of:

"Mrs. Washington made tea and coffee for [George and the family]; on the table there were two small plates of sliced tongues and dry toast, bread and butter, but no broiled fish, as is generally the custom..."

Nothing like tongue for brekkie.

Given that in the latter half of his life Washington wore some very uncomfortable false teeth, it's impressive he was still able to enjoy some of the less tender dietary staples, because, let's put it this way, colonial Americans were big fans of well-done meat. I guess a couple of glasses of red wine does wonders for lubrication.

This President's Day, in honor of the nation's first leader, have some cherries, a pudding or two, and a bottle of Madeira. Cheers, George.

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