You enter Mount Vernon’s newest museum exhibit as if you were paying a call on George and Martha Washington at home. There’s the clop, clop of horses’ hooves, and the sudden vista of the mansion before you. You hear bird song; and is that a dinner bell? Maybe, because the smell of baking bread is in the air.
“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 country’s first first family entertained guests galore — in one year, there were 600. And all the kitchen work was done, of course, on what were possibly state-of-the-art gadgets back then but that look fairly forbidding today.
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.
Their huge estate produced plenty of food, but George and Martha had a taste for many of the exotic foodstuffs that Europe and other parts of the world had to offer, though they would have to wait months for shipments to make their way across the ocean and up the Potomac. Thanks to George’s meticulous recordkeeping — “very valuable for us,” Schoelwer said — you can see lists of foods he ordered and his kitchen expense logs.
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.
Washington ate hoecakes every morning. Because his teeth were so problematic, “these sort of fried mush cakes . . . would have been an easy thing to eat,” Schoelwer said. The estate’s enslaved workers also were given cornmeal and would make the cakes for their own breakfast. “So it’s a food that kind of ties together the whole plantation,” from master to slave, she said.
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.