Wednesday, September 18, 2019

George Washington and Ham

 The Smokehouse at Mount Vernon

Inside the Smokehouse

Each morning at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s wife, Martha, met with the cooks to plan the menu for dinner, the main meal of the day served between 2:00 and 4:00.  Mount Vernon dinners required two cooks aided by several assistants who performed tedious tasks like peeling vegetables and plucking turkeys.  Martha Washington briefly hired German cooks but most of Mount Vernon’s cooks were slaves.  A great bell was rung fifteen minutes before dinner at Mount Vernon.  Guests changed into dressier clothes for dinner.  George and Martha Washington welcomed thousands of guests to Mount Vernon in the more than forty years they lived there.  A slave butler and waiters, in livery, were responsible for bringing food to the table quickly and efficiently.  Dinner consisted of two courses. 

The first course featured meat and vegetable dishes.  Ham was almost always featured.  A ham was boiled daily and Martha took great pride in her hams.  Martha sent hams as gifts.  In 1796 George Washington informed the Marquis de Lafayette that Mrs. Washington, “…had packed and sent…a barrel of Virginia hams.”  He reminded his friend, “…you know the Virginia ladies value themselves on the goodness of their bacon.”  In addition to ham, foods likely to be found on Martha Washington’s table included carrot puffs, chicken fricassee, pickled red cabbage, fish, and onion soup. Even though these foods appear familiar, the seasonings were very different from those used in modern cooking. Colonial cooks liked nutmeg and especially enjoyed a sweet taste. Salt and pepper were not heavily used. Some foods would make the modern diner blanche, rabbits and poultry, for example, were not only prepared with their heads and feet still attached, they were served at dinner that way as well.

Neither Martha Washington nor the women of the South’s leading families were marble statues, they had the same strengths and weaknesses, passions and problems, joys and sorrows, as the women of any age.  So just how did they live?

These are the often overlooked stories of early America. Stories such as the roots of racism in America, famous murders that rocked the colonies, the scandalous doings of some of the most famous of the Founding Fathers, the first Emancipation Proclamation that got revoked, and stories of several notorious generals who have been swept under history’s rug.

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