At Washington’s table
Monday was Presidents’ Day and next Monday is George Washington’s birthday. How would the first president have celebrated at his table? Sandy Oliver seemed like a good person to ask. Oliver, 62, is founder, editor, and publisher of Food History News, formerly a quarterly and now a website (www.foodhistorynews.com). Based in Islesboro, Maine, Oliver is a noted food historian and the author of “Saltwater Foodways’’ and “Food in Colonial and Federal America.’’
Q. Did people do birthday dinners back then?
A. I don’t see much reference to events like what we think of as a birthday party. People probably did celebrate; they observed a birthday. But we’re not talking cakes and candles. The earliest birthday cake I’ve seen among normal folks was right around the Civil War.
Q. So Lincoln might have had a birthday cake.
A. He might have. It was certainly coming more into fashion.
Q. What might have been on George Washington’s menu?
A. He was a Virginia gentleman, so he was eating a gentrified menu. You’d eat the same way in Boston, or England, for that matter, if you were in the gentry. Among that class, the main meal was at midday, usually between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. It’s not at all unusual that there would be a variety of meat. So they would have had something roasted and something boiled, then some small things cooked.
Q. How would the time of year have affected what dishes were served?
A. Given that it would have been February, there may very well have been beef or mutton on the table. They certainly could have had roasted pork or they may also have had ham, which would have been boiled. Possibly some form of fowl.
A. What you want to get in your mind is a table with a soup tureen at one end - and in Washington’s era turtle soup was terribly, terribly popular, or it could have been calf’s head soup. Then, arranged in a very symmetrical fashion, would have been some smaller dishes: squab, perhaps, a small chicken dish. That would have been balanced off by a leg of mutton or something of that sort. In between there would have been dishes of some vegetables. In wintertime we’re looking at root vegetables. Also pickled things, such as pickled onions. Baked items, as well. Things we think of as dessert we might have found on the table with the main course: an apple pie, a mincemeat pie, or a pudding of some sort. All this would have been on the table at the same time. This was before these sweet dishes were broken off and moved to the end of the meal. After that they would have cleared the cloth away and gotten apples and nuts out of storage.
Q. Would there have been wine at the meal?
A. Oh yes.
Q. Thomas Jefferson had a great interest in food. He was a real gourmet?
A. That’s his reputation. He really liked good food. I don’t think that Washington has quite that same reputation.
Q. Maybe the wooden teeth hurt.
A. I know. Poor guy!