The True George Washington: Tastes and Amusements: Food

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


In food Washington took what came with philosophy. "If you meet with collegiate fare, it will be unmanly to complain," he told his grandson, though he once complained in camp that "we are debarred from the pleasure of good living; which, Sir, (I dare say with me you will concur,) to one who has always been used to it, must go somewhat hard to be confined to a little salt provision and water." Usually, however, poor fare was taken as a matter of course. "When we came to Supper," he said in his journal of 1748, "there was neither a Cloth upon ye Table nor a Knife to eat with but as good luck would have it we had Knives of our own," and again he wrote, "we pull'd out our Knapsack in order to Recruit ourselves every one was his own Cook our Spits was Forked Sticks our Plates was a Large Chip as for Dishes we had none." Nor was he squeamish about what he ate. In the voyage to Barbadoes he several times ate dolphin; he notes that the bread was almost "eaten up by Weavel & Maggots," and became quite enthusiastic over some "very fine Bristol tripe" and "a fine Irish Ling & Potatoes." But all this may have been due to the proverbial sea appetite.

Samuel Stearns states that Washington "breakfasts about seven o'clock on three small Indian hoe-cakes, and as many dishes of tea," and Custis relates that "Indian cakes, honey, and tea formed this temperate repast." These two writers tell us that at dinner "he ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond. He partook sparingly of dessert, drank a home-made beverage, and from four to five glasses of Madeira wine" (Custis), and that "he dines, commonly on a single dish, and drinks from half a pint to a pint of Madeira wine. This, with one small glass of punch, a draught of beer, and two dishes of tea (which he takes half an hour before sun-setting) constitutes his whole sustenance till the next day." (Stearns.) Ashbel Green relates that at the state banquets during the Presidency Washington "generally dined on one single dish, and that of a very simple kind. If offered something either in the first or second course which was very rich, his usual reply was?'That is too good for me.'" It is worth noting that he religiously observed the fasts proclaimed in 1774 and 1777, going without food the entire day.

A special liking is mentioned above. In 1782 Richard Varick wrote to a friend, "General Washington dines with me to-morrow; he is exceedingly fond of salt fish; I have some coming up, & tho' it will be here in a few days, it will not be here in time?If you could conveniently lend me as much fish as would serve a pretty large company to-morrow (at least for one Dish), it will oblige me, and shall in a very few days be returned in as good Dun Fish as ever you see. Excuse this freedom, and it will add to the favor. Could you not prevail upon somebody to catch some Trout for me early to-morrow morning?" When procurable, salt codfish was Washington's regular Sunday dinner.

A second liking was honey. His ledger several times mentions purchases of this, and in 1789 his sister wrote him, "when I last had the Pleasure of seeing you I observ'd your fondness for Honey; I have got a large Pot of very fine in the comb, which I shall send by the first opportunity." Among his purchases "sugar candy" is several times mentioned, but this may have been for children, and not for himself. He was a frequent buyer of fruit of all kinds and of melons.

He was very fond of nuts, buying hazelnuts and shellbarks by the barrel, and he wrote his overseer in 1792 to "tell house Frank I expect he will lay up a more plenteous store of the black common walnuts than he usually does." The Prince de Broglie states that "at dessert he eats an enormous quantity of nuts, and when the conversation is entertaining he keeps eating through a couple of hours, from time to time giving sundry healths, according to the English and American custom. It is what they call 'toasting.'"

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