Outside of scholars and historians, it’s a fair bet that a good portion (hopefully) of the nation now know, and have heard from, the Founding Fathers more than they ever have in their lives.
This is a good thing. We all need to be reminded of the fundamental guiding reasons behind the establishment of a country free of imperialism and totalitarian rule. It took approximately 116 days for the Constitution to be drafted and it should at least take that long to decide if any of its articles have recently been broken. Don’t you think?
But let’s stick to 1787 when the Founders began truly thinking, arguing, name-calling, and compromising over the formation of our democratic government. At some point every day, they all agreed they were hungry and needed a good satisfying meal.
In consideration of this singular moment in our history when the Founding Fathers have been so vividly resurrected, I thought it’d be fun to present a couple of their favorite meals–specifically what James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Thomas Paine might have craved.
Whether they went to a tavern or back home, their meals were cooked by our Founding Women. For more than a handful, slaves did, too.
My primary source is Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery, brought back to life by one of the earliest and greatest food historians, Karen Hess. She presented the original recipes, then gave detailed explanations of ingredients and how it was probably cooked.
Let’s start with Martha’s husband, George Washington.
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups white cornmeal
3 to 4 cups lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
*Lard or bacon grease
Mix the yeast together with 1 1/4 cups of cornmeal in a bowl. Add 1 cup lukewarm water and stir until the yeast and cornmeal is well combined. Mix in about 1/2 cup more water, if needed, until the mixture has the consistency of pancake batter. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
Add 1/2 to 1 cup of the remaining water to the batter. Stir in salt and egg. Gradually add the remaining cornmeal. Gradually add more water if batter is too thick. Cover with a towel and let stand for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat a griddle or skillet over medium high heat. Brush a little lard or bacon grease across the surface. Ladle about a 1/2 cup of batter onto the griddle and cook until the bottom is golden brown–about 4 to 5 minutes. Turn and cook the other side.
Move the hoe cake to a plate and drizzle it with melted butter. Hold in the warm oven as you make the rest.
Serve with honey.
Hoe cakes have a pure African lineage so it’s safe to say Washington’s household was beholden to theirs slaves for introducing new recipes. Washington is said to have favored the cakes because they were easy to chew (remember his dentures) and, with their hard crust and density, they could be wrapped in a napkin and eaten on the run.
*Lard or bacon grease is more authentic to the recipe and it gives the cakes a nice meaty taste.
There are few clues to any special dish for Hamilton. His biographer, Ron Chernow, noted that, considering his wife Eliza was of Dutch decent, she would have served him at least some of her family’s recipes, particularly since meat and fruit were often shipped down from her father’s estate near Albany. This recipe is recorded as popular on the Washington’s table when Hamilton served as the General’s aide-de-camp.
Lard pie crust, divided in two
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoon capers
*1 cup pickled oysters, drained
1 pound veal scallopine cut into bite size pieces
Salt and pepper
2 hard boiled egg yolks, sliced
1/4 pound ground veal
Pinch of allspice and nutmeg
1 lemon cut into round slices
Roll the pastry and line an 8″ pie plate
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
Sprinkle bits of butter across the pastry bottom then spoon half the capers and oysters over the butter. Add the veal and egg slices and salt and pepper to taste.
Season ground veal together with allspice and nutmeg, then form into small ball and add to the filling. Layer the rest of the capers and oysters over the stuffing and dot with more butter.
Cover the filling with crust. Slice two vents on top of the crust and brush with egg whites. Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake for about 45 minutes more. The filling will be bubbling over the vent holes.
*Oysters. They were plentiful and cheap back then and were often pickled to preserve. Oysters are neither plentiful nor cheap now–and nowhere to be found in my neighborhood. I substituted clams. Oysters would have been meatier but the clams were okay. The hefty pie has a really nice vinegary flavor. The husband really liked it!
Martha’s recipe for pickling oyster:
Place shucked oysters (or clams) in a crock (or glass jar). Cover with your best white wine vinegar. Add pickling spices and refrigerate. Pickle for at least 2 days.
The one sure thing from diaries and letters is that Thomas Paine loved mashed potatoes. One source mentioned he’d order just mashed potatoes when everyone else around the table was having full courses. It’s important to use a ricer to get the texture just right.
4 to 6 white peeled potatoes and cut into quarters
Place potatoes in a pot, cover with water and add a small pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer. Cook until just tender. Drain well.
When they’re cool enough to handle, press the potatoes through a ricer into a bowl. Stir and begin to carefully pour in cream until the potatoes begin to come together. Mound them and, depending on taste, dot with butter. Place in a warm oven until ready to serve.
There’s so many dishes to choose from for Jefferson–from French to country (i.e. heavily influenced by his slaves). I have chosen this recipe because there is documented proof he was very fond of it and I am, too. Have this by your side if you’ve had a times-that-try-men’s-souls, democracy-depends-on-you kind of day, or you merely have a soar throat and a good book to read.
Port Wine Jelly
3/4 teaspoon garnulated gelatin
1/2 tablespoon cold water
1 inch stick cinnamom
1/3 cup port wine
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon sugar (optional)
Soak gelatin in cold water. In a double boiler, gently simmer clove, cinnamon and port wine for ten minutes. Take off heat and add gelatin. Stir to completely mixed. As soon as the gelatin is dissolved add lemon juice. Stir. Strain into a bowl and chill to set.
To serve: Scoop into a pretty cordial wine glass.
*The syrupy jelly pictured is not what this recipe will look like. That’s the result of directions for actual jelly/jam. Jefferson’s kitchen would have used the above recipe which is often used in Invalid Cooking. When you follow the directions above, you will have a light, bright jewel-tone jelly. I should have remade this but I didn’t want to use any more of my Christmas port. As always, I’m hopeless.
Two more Founding Fathers to go:
For Madison, I’m presenting ice cream but all the Founders were addicted to it. Ice cream represented sophistication (very French/European) and status. It required expensive resources such as a large amount of sugar and the ability to keep winter ice until summer which then required an ice house on your property. A good herd of dairy cows would be essential and, most importantly, you’d have to be able to spare one set of very strong arms to churn a paddle until a dainty mixture properly froze. Double all this if you were to follow the fashion of the day and serve ice cream at large dinner parties, which Dolly Madison often did. Madison had plenty of help–100 slaves–to make sure this happened. With a history like this, it kind of puts you off ice cream, doesn’t it?
FINALLY! John Adams, God bless his old grouchy self. Abigail, besides being one of the most marvelous women in our history, cooked up a whole banquet of dishes for him and her family throughout their long lives. He appeared to have loved her Apple Brown Betty. But perhaps not as much as his morning, noon, and night portion of hard cider and beer.
Let’s all raise a glass of cider and ale in faith that, in the days and months to come, the Constitution will see us through another 233 years!!