A military hero, Founding Father, and first president of the United States, George Washington holds a unique place in American history. During his tenure as president, Washington spent time in the nation's early capitals - first New York City, then Philadelphia - and at his Mount Vernon estate. Everywhere he went, Washington dined on similar fare; he was a self-professed man of simple tastes.
America's first president enjoyed a mix of foods that spoke to his upbringing and environs. While he may be one of the most influential people of all time, Washington's favorite foods were pretty straightforward. Whether he was dining with political colleagues or family members, the president's meals reflected his personal preferences as much as his appreciation for moderation and tradition. Washington wasn't opposed to trying new things, especially when they alleviated his dental problems, and he didn't shy away from some of the finer things in life.
When it comes to favorite presidential foods, George Washington always made sure to have his cake - with some ice cream on the side - and eat it, too.
Breakfast With The Washingtons Included Tea, Tongue, And Hoecakes
When one visitor dined with the Washingtons in Philadelphia, he commented on what they served for breakfast: "Mrs. Washington herself made tea and coffee for us. On the table were two small plates of sliced tongue, dry toast, bread and butter, etc., but no broiled fish as is general custom."
While the guest doesn't mention them specifically, Washington's favorite breakfast food, hoecakes, was probably also on the menu. Hoecakes are essentially pancakes made out of corn. Several visitors mentioned eating hoecakes at the Washington residence, including statesman Winthrop Sargent in 1793. Sargent called breakfast "very substantial" with "Indian hoecake with butter and honey" forming "the principal component parts." Polish author and politician Julian Niemcewicz wrote that the president ate "tea and caks [sic] made from maize; because of his teeth he makes slices spread with bread and honey."
Martha Washington's granddaughter, Nelly Custis, claimed Washington "ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey." Her brother confirmed this: "This meal was without change to him whose habits were regular... Indian cakes, honey, and tea formed his temperate repast."
Washington Always Insisted He Had Simple And Modest Tastes
In a letter to his friend George William Fairfax, Washington asserted his "manner of life is plain and I do not mean to be put out of it - A glass of wine and a bit of mutton is always ready - such as will be content to partake of it are welcome - those who look for more will be disappointed, but no change will be effected by it."
Washington often demonstrated his dedication to this ideal. He didn't believe in spending large amounts of money on food, something that put him at odds with his steward, Samuel Fraunces. According to the president's stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Custis, Fraunces was prone to buy fish for Washington - one of the Founding Father's favorite foods - "regardless of price."
On one occasion, Washington asked Fraunces what type of fish he had purchased for the day. Fraunces said it was "a shad, a very fine shad... I knew your excellency was particularly fond of this fish and was so fortunate as to procure this one in market - a solitary one, and that first of the season."
Washington responded, "The price, sir; the price... the price, sir?" Fraunces's response of three dollars incensed Washington, who ordered Fraunces to "take it away, sir; it shall never be said that my table set such an example of luxury and extravagance."
The Washingtons Hosted Congressional Dinners On Thursday Evenings
The Washingtons hosted regular gatherings, including Thursday night dinners for members of Congress. Congressional dinners began at 4 pm - Washington was punctual and disciplined in all aspects of his life - and brought together friends and colleagues alike.
The meals, themselves, were served at a long table where Washington "sat half-way from the head to the foot" and Martha Washington sat on the other side. Waiters served food out of "alabaster figures," and "a small roll of bread, enclosed in a napkin, was laid by the side of each plate." Washington's preference for simple food was apparent. When something "was very rich, his usual reply was 'That is too good for me.'"
First was the soup; fish roasted and boiled; meats, gammon, fowls, etc. This was the dinner. The middle of the table was garnished in the usual tasty way, with small images, flowers (artificial), etc. The dessert was, first apple-pies, pudding, etc.; then iced creams, jellies, etc.; then water-melons, musk-melons, apples, peaches, and nuts.
Everyone drank wine, although Washington often had beer as well. After the meal, the women went to have coffee in the drawing room while the men smoked cigars in the dining room.
Ice Cream Serving Spoons And Pots Were Common In The Washington Household
A luxury food in the 18th century, ice cream was something only the wealthy class enjoyed. To make ice cream, one needed a cow (whose milk didn't need to be sold), ice (cut from a river and stored in an ice house), and imported products like salt and sugar. Putting time and effort into making ice cream was something few could afford to do.
Early recipes for ice cream, a food introduced to the United States by the French, call for "a pint of scalding cream," "six ounces of double-refined sugar" and “four handfuls of salt” placed in “a tub of ice broken small.” Peaches and other fruits were often mixed in. Once “the cream is all froze up... [and] put into the mould," it was served immediately.
Washington had access to the goods and labor needed to make ice cream. Washington described "employing as many hands as I conveniently could in getting [ice] from the Maryland shore, carting and pounding it." Washington also documented the purchase of a "Cream Machine for Ice." Throughout his presidency, Washington bought ice cream serving spoons and ice pots. Washington had as many as 36 ice pots, which he used to hold the much runnier ice cream of the 18th century.
The Washingtons served ice cream when hosting guests on Friday evenings. According to Abigail Adams, who attended several of the events, Martha Washington "entertaind with Ice creems and lemonade." When Senator William Maclay attended a dinner in 1789, he was also served ice cream, albeit in a "disagreeably warm" room.