Americans have been celebrating George Washington’s birthday since he became president. We have continued this tradition for over two hundred years with the help of Congress who, in 1879, officially designated Washington’s Birthday (February 22) as a Federal Holiday. You might be asking yourself some questions right now:
Do we still celebrate Washington’s birthday on February 22?
What holiday are we celebrating this Monday, February 20?
Did Washington’s birthday change into Presidents’ Day?
In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Law (Pub. L 90−363, 82 Stat 250, H.R. 15951), which moved certain official federal holidays to be celebrated on a Monday. In 1971, the observance of Washington’s Birthday was officially moved to the third Monday of February. During this time, an amendment came up that attempted to rename Washington’s Birthday to the generic Presidents’ Day, but it stalled and died. Although calendars, advertisers, and schools might say that Monday is Presidents’ Day – the official designation of this federal holiday is Washington’s Birthday.
In honor of Washington’s Birthday I was inspired to read Dining with the Washingtons: historic recipes, entertainment, and hospitality from Mount Vernon (2011) and thought I should highlight some interesting tidbits mentioned in the book.
Dining and Entertaining at the Presidential Residence- New York and Philadelphia (remember the White House wasn’t built yet):
- It is said that Washington did not have extravagant tastes and he usually dined on a bit of meat and cornbread. However, he designated Thursdays at 4 pm (if it was a busy week he also designated Tuesdays at 4 pm ) for dining with 10-20 congressmen and other public officials. This was an elaborate affair with a hefty menu of meats, vegetables, desserts, fruits and of course libations (wine and punch) being served. It is interesting to note that some of the food served in Philadelphia came from Washington’s home, Mt Vernon in Virginia.
- On Fridays at 7 pm the First Lady would have a levee (reception) and serve refreshments of tea, coffee, and cake to the guests. The public was allowed to visit the presidential residence and meet the President and First Lady without invitations- the only requirement was you had to be well-dressed.
- The presidential and Mount Vernon kitchen was run by head cook Hercules- the family knew him as Uncle Harkless and he was often referred to as “a capital cook” by Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis. Hercules was a black man and in February 1786 was listed by Washington as a slave working as a cook at the “Home House.” On February 22, 1797 (Washington’s 65th Birthday) Hercules escaped from Mt. Vernon to be a free man, but he was considered a fugitive until Washington’s death when he officially became a free man.
Dining and Entertaining at Mount Vernon:
- Washington received many visitors at his Mt. Vernon home before his presidency and after. In a letter to his mother, Washington called Mt Vernon, “a well resorted tavern” (15 Feb. 1787, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress).
- Washington mainly consumed food that was locally produced at Mount Vernon. Beans, vegetables and fruits were grown on the property and meats (pork, beef, mutton) were salted/cured in the Mt. Vernon smokehouse. Before the Revolutionary War there are records of Washington importing foods such as olives from Italy and cheese, porter (ale), and hard cider from England. After the war Washington tended to buy American-made. In a letter dated January 1789, Washington writes Marquis de Lafayette “I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America. Both those articles may now be purchased of an excellent quality.”
- There were a lot spirituous liquors consumed at the presidential household and Mt. Vernon. Though some liquors were purchased (champagne from France, wine for Portugal, and rum from the West Indies), there was a desire to produce ‘spirits’ at Mt. Vernon. It is said that Madeira (wine from Portugal) was Washington’s favorite drink. Unfortunately, after many failed attempts, Washington was never successful in cultivating a vineyard or producing wine at Mt. Vernon. However, there were successes- hard cider was made from the apples of Mount Vernon and after his presidency Washington built a distillery at Mt. Vernon that produced rye whiskey and small amounts of brandy. This distillery was profitable and, at the time, became one of the most successful distilleries in the country.
- Washington was a fisherman. After his presidency Washington started a commercial fishing venture along the Potomac which caught herring and shad. The fish was cured, salted, and sold.
- Breakfast at Mount Vernon was at 7 am and a typical Washington breakfast consisted of Indian cakes (meal) with honey and butter, and tea. Dinner was at 3 pm, Tea at 6 pm, and occasionally a light supper was served at 9pm.
If this post has left you wanting more about presidents and the food they ate, see our Presidential Food Selected Resources Guide for a selection of books and websites that will whet your appetite. And if you are in the D.C. area, you might consider visiting the Main Reading Room Open House on Monday, February 20 where we will be showing off a selection of recipes from our collection of presidential and White House cookbooks.