Getting a handle on Martha Washington’s pans


Kitchen equipment, servants’ livery and more are part of the display opening Saturday in the museum at Mount Vernon. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

“Hoecakes and Hospitality: Cooking With Martha Washington” opens Saturday, presenting a behind-the-scenes look at how the Washingtons ate in 18th-century America and what it took to get food on their table. It was no easy feat.


The Washingtons’ food was “made in these very pots and pans,” says Susan Schoelwer, a curator for Historic Mount Vernon. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Amazingly, much of the kitchen’s original equipment — including common objects such as bowls and plate warmers — has survived. “This kind of anonymous, ordinary stuff usually gets thrown out,” curator Susan Schoelwer said yesterday during a press preview of the exhibit. But in the Washingtons’ case, a relative bought up many of their belongings for his own use and preserved them. So George and Martha’s meals, Schoelwer said, were “made in these very pots and pans.” They’re front and center at the exhibit, their cracks and pits and dents testifying to hard use.

Most of the objects have been on display before but weren’t easily visible — perhaps glimpsed as you walked past the kitchen door. “This is the first time they’ve been shown together in this context, in this way,” Schoelwer said.


A heart-shaped waffle iron, one of at least two “Whorfling Irons” listed in an inventory taken after George Washington’s death. It would be grasped by its long handles and suspended over hot coals. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

As for what he ate, there’s plenty of surviving evidence of his culinary interests. He loved shad, for example, and olives and Madeira.

And he loved hoecakes; hence the exhibit’s name. Schoelwer explained that hoecakes were pancakes made from cornmeal that got their name because even if you were out in the field with no griddle at hand, you could fry them on the blade of a hoe. The tool’s business end was much larger in those days, and there’s one on display – not original to Mount Vernon, but of its time – to illustrate.


A copper poffertjes pan was used to make puffed Dutch pancakes that the Washingtons served for dessert. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Back to the name of the exhibit: Did Martha Washington actually cook? We can’t be  sure, Schoelwer said, but it’s known that she was “a hands-on presence in the kitchen.” One of her cookbooks, the English classic “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by Hannah Glasse, is part of the display, opened to a recipe for ice cream.

Visitors to the exhibit can come away with recipes for period foods, including hoecakes. Members of the media came away with the experience of a memorable multi-course tasting lunch by chef Walter Staib of Philadelphia’s City Tavern restaurant, who hosts the PBS cooking series “A Taste of History.” On hand for the meal was Martha Washington (a.k.a. Mary Wiseman), who sat at the head of the table and answered questions about her life and her famous husband, never once breaking character. 

Other well-known chefs will show up at the estate Saturday to create their own interpretations of hoecakes. Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, David Guas of Bayou Bakery, Christophe Poteaux of Bastille and Robert Wiedmaier of Brabo will cook over an open fire beginning at 9, and members of the Mount Vernon staff will make their own traditional versions as samples for the public. It kicks off George Washington’s birthday weekend You can read more about it here.


Chef Walter Staib and Mary Wiseman, as Martha Washington, visit in the kitchen during the media tour and luncheon on Thursday. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

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