Menus From History: George Washington

What did America’s first president eat for dinner?

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

There is much fuss made about American presidents. Everything they do is examined then reexamined ad nauseam. What did they wear? What did they write in their journals? Who did they correspond with? Yet, despite all of that what they ate is rarely discussed with such vigor.

Food has evolved, and continues to evolve, abreast of technology. As technology begins to rapidly progress and change, so too has what is served on the tables of people throughout history. Despite everyone needing to eat daily, or nearly daily, the history of our leaders meals has been largely ignored.

These thoughts got me thinking… What did George Washington eat on a typical day?

Not Gourmet

A satirical depiction of the American dinner. (1788, Library of Congress)

One of the most remarkable things about how the Washington’s dined, was how unremarkable it truly was. Despite having thousands of letters, documents, journals and other writings from the time, people rarely mention the dinners they had with Washington other than to say that they had attended. Very few mentions of the menus, presentation or food are ever made.

This had led many to infer that the meals themselves were basic and unspectacular. Instead of throwing massive gourmet state dinners, the Washingtons had dinners that were more like a family affair. Their food choices, it seems, were not so different from that of the common man.

Senator Wingate of New Hampshire wrote this of one of the dinners he attended with George Washington in 1789, writing:

“It was the least showy dinner that I ever say [sic] at the President’s. As there was no clergyman present, Washington himself said grace on taking his seat. He dined on a boiled leg of mutton, as it was his custom to eat of only one dish. After the dessert a single glass of wine was offered to each of the guests, when the President rose, the guests following his example, and repaired to the drawing-room, each departing at his option, without ceremony.” — Senator Paine Wingate

Similar descriptions can be found of other dinners if one looks hard enough. The consensus (or lack there of) was that the dinners with George Washington were exceedingly ordinary.

Another guest, Amariah Frost, wrote later in 1797 of a meal she partook of at Mount Vernon saying:

[dinner consisted of] a small roasted pigg, boiled leg of lamb, roasted fowles, beef, peas, lettice, cucumbers, artichokes. . .puddings, tarts, etc.

Washington would serve wine to his guests but it was often noted that he preferred a mug of cold, weak, beer to wine and Washington would only partake in wine at official dinners.

His dinners were served promptly at either 3PM or 4PM and they did not wait for stragglers or late guests. The food would be served either way.

While the spread was sometimes robust, there was nothing exotic or particularly noteworthy in their choice of food. It was all standard American affair taking from what was available on the continent.

Manhattan vs. Mount Vernon

Painting of Mount Vernon (Library of Congress)

It was often noted that the meals held at Mount Vernon were much nicer affairs than the ones that were held elsewhere. Before the official christening of Philadelphia as America’s new capital, New York City served as the temporary capital of the new United States.

Washington had a residence on Cherry Street where he would host government officials but it was a drab affair compared to those at Mount Vernon.

That is because Mount Vernon was a full estate that was considered completely self sufficient. They raised, braised and stored their own meats. They grew their own garnishes and vegetables.

New York and the islands surrounding it were rather Spartan in terms of luxury at the time, it was not the city we know today. Meals at the New York residence had more gamey meats and things like nuts. They had to eat what was available from the surrounding areas. Similarly, Philadelphia was not used to hosting elaborate dinners such as we are used to presidents having.

When the Washingtons were not at Mount Vernon they were content to eat like the people around them. But Mount Vernon, an established estate, had the capacity to host much greater and grander meals, though they still were not all that grand.

It is easy to forget that at the time, George Washington was the president of an upstart frontier nation which was far removed from the opulence and tradition of the Old World.

Breakfast

George Washington ate breakfast every morning, usually around 7AM after doing some work from when he arose at dawn. Breakfast was a basic American affair consisting of your choice of tea or coffee and cold meats.

It seems like breakfast for George Washington was a consistent affair. From his time in the army to breakfast at Mount Vernon, it was always a punctual and simple meal. This can be seen from a guest account in 1802, near the end of Washington’s life, in which she describes breakfast as:

ham, cold corned beef, cold fowl, red herring, and cold mutton, all garnished with parsley and other vegetables from the garden.

Cold meats, a little garnish and coffee. A frontier breakfast from a frontier president. Washington, was not a fancy or flashy man and this can be seen in the way he took his meals.

Breakfast Menu — Served Promptly At 7AM

  • Your choice of coffee or tea
  • A variety of cold meats, depending on what was available that day

Dinner Menu — Served Promptly at 3PM

Beverages

  • Wine
  • Beer
  • Coffee upon request

Starting Course

  • Pea soup
  • Cold meats

Main Course

  • Roasted or broiled meats that would largely consist of pork, beef or mutton
  • Various game meats depending on the season including gammon and fowl
  • Roasted fish when available
  • Garnishment of vegetables (from the garden when available)

Dessert

  • Apple or cherry pie
  • Bread pudding
  • Chilled creams and jellies

Written by

Hobbyist historian | Political scientist | Story teller | Lover of animals | Freelancer | Always open for work -> grantpiperwriting@outlook.com

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