I eat my peas with honey.
I've done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny.
But it keeps them on the knife.
-- Folk rhyme
The really important details of Federal era Washington -- what, how and with whom people ate -- are sadly neglected. So the Chronicler is delighted to record the serving up of tasty tidbits in a new show, "A Taste of Power: The Rise of Genteel Dining and Entertaining in Early Washington," at the Octagon, the American Institute of Architect's house museum. The exhibit is amplified by its accompanying book, "Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington" (to be published in November) and a checklist, a catalogue of the exhibit.
This rich exhibit was cooked up by Kym S. Rice, guest curator; Ellen Kirven Donald, research associate; Barbara G. Carson, its chief historical consultant and author of the book; and Nancy Davis, Octagon director. The project, open now through Oct. 30, is the Octagon's third in a series of five on early Washington history.
Show and book (you'll be astounded to learn) reveal that from 1800 (when Congress and the president came here) to 1829 (when Andrew Jackson was inaugurated) not all of the citizens were equally adept in social maneuvers -- unlike today, when everybody knows everything and no one ever misbehaves in public.
Though one traveler of the period (quoted in the exhibit's checklist) said, "Everything is genteel or ungenteel," Margaret Bayard Smith, a chronicler of the period, believed people could become genteel through education.
Despite First Lady Abigail Adams's plea to John to "Remember the ladies," those of her sex were denied more than the vote in the early days of Washington society.
Barbara Carson writes in the show's book that Col. John Tayloe III -- the wealthy Virginia planter who built the Octagon as a city mansion in 1801 -- invited to dinner the mansion's architect William Thornton, but not Mrs. Thornton. And when Thornton entertained, his wife's function, after seeing the food to the table, was to play the piano.
At one private ball, at midnight, the ladies were served cups of chocolate and dry toast. The men, afterward, were invited to a back parlor where they ate ham, mutton and tongue.
Even so, Washington women, as described by novelist Smith in 1814, "here are taking a place in society which is not known elsewhere." At evening parties, she reported, women were no longer relegated to sitting against the wall, but actually mingled "with more ease, freedom and equality."
The customs of official entertainment had not been codified, and were defied by Thomas Jefferson, the first president to spend more than a few months in the new White House. He substituted pell mell ( "without distinction or discrimination") for protocol ranking. The British ambassador's wife, offended that she was not taken into the dining room on Jefferson's arm, wanted to start another Anglo-American war.
Then, as now, the White House was the center of entertaining, though Jefferson wrote, in his 1803 "Canons of Etiquette" ( displayed in the exhibit): "In social circles all are equal. No precedence ... of any one over another, exists in either right or practice, at dinners, assemblies or any occasions."
Dress was not uniform. One waiter, hired for a formal dinner, came to serve with a bare chest, saying his shirt was dirty and his wife didn't wash it. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, whose marriage to Napoleon's brother was annulled, shocked the guests of the Madison White House when she wore a transparent Grecian gown. Unfortunately for those of prurient interest, the painting of the divine Bonaparte in the exhibit shows only her head and bare shoulders.
The Octagon is especially appropriate as a place to discuss and re-create entertaining in Washington during that period. Tayloe was said to be one of the richest men in the country at the time, and like many Washington social season residents to come, he was a friend of a president -- in this case, George Washington.
The dining room of the Octagon shows the Tayloes' silver plateau (an ornamental centerpiece)and candlesticks. Research Associate Donald prepared crystallized fruits, iced and decorated scones, among other delicacies. The table, set for dessert, uses china displayed with neoclassical themes from a French Courtile factory porcelain; the dishes were once owned by Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.
When the British burned the White House Aug. 24, 1814, President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, moved into the Octagon. The War of 1812 ended with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent in the upstairs circular parlor.
The great table/desk on which the Treaty of Ghent was signed is now set for tea (an important meal of the period) with an 18th-century French china tea set (originally owned by John Mason, a Georgetown financier) and more of those Donald-decorated scones.
In the exhibit rooms on the second floor, drawings, cartoons and paintings are now hung that illustrate entertaining and entertainers of the period. Especially illuminating are the watercolors of Anne-Marguerite Rouille de Marigny, the Baronne Hyde de Neuville and wife of the French minister in Washington from 1817 to 1822. Her watercolors provide invaluable information on servants: a cook, a beautiful woman shown in a plain but handsome dress, is especially charming.
The Octagon had 12 house servants, as well as a nurse and tutor hired for the children. The male servants, porters, waiters and grooms, a Tayloe son wrote, "wore Blue Quaker Cut Coats Turned up with Red-Red Vests -- Collers & Pockets Gold laced -- Breeches, Whitest long stockings, Shoes & Buckles -- The full Costume Shoulder straps or small Epaulettes." At an 1814 New Year's Day reception at the White House, an apparition, described as a "rolling ball of burnished gold, carried with swiftness through the air by two gilt wings." Upon closer inspection, a social critic of the period, found the apparition to be the French minister "weighted with gold lace" attended by "gorgeous footmen with chapeaux bras, gilt braided skirts and splendid swords."
Carson writes, "Whether slave or free, blacks dominated food services in Washington and other urban areas." Not until 1850 were white servants, mostly immigrants, widely employed here. When Smith entertained, she would hire the "most experienced and fashionable waiter in the city," actually what we'd call a caterer. Henry Orr, a free black, consulted on the menu for Smith's fancy dinner. Potatoes and beets, Orr warned would not be, in the fad word of the day, "genteel."
At the Octagon, slaves lived in quarters at the rear of their property. But they ate in the servants' hall in the house. And the housekeeper lived in this area. But during the Madisons' tenure, the servants complained so much about the dampness of the Octagon's basement that the president and his wife found dryer quarters for their household.
The Washington Market, illustrated here by an Augustus Koller drawing, opened in 1801 to provide fresh vegetables, meat and fish for the city. The man of the house, basket on arm, most often did the marketing himself. And the thrifty housewife carefully doled out the ingredients for the day's meals.
The well-to-do ate, as they said in the South, "high on the hog." Specifically, Carson cites a letter from the 1820 attorney general who was served "a sweet small ham of bacon," a goose, two boiled chickens, cabbage, beets, potatoes and beans, followed by tarts, sweetmeats, cheese, peaches and pears. His thirst was slaked with claret.
An engraved plate, lent by Gunston Hall, diagrams a suggested dessert table: dry sweetmeats, apples, biscuits, wafers, oranges, compotes, pineapple and an assortment of ices.
Fancy houses had elaborate storage in the cellar for beer, wine, vegetables, coal and wood. Not everyone had such riches. Smith's 1824 novel, "A Winter in Washington," tells about a self-reliant laundress who searches the wild for food for her family.
Some 200 actual objects used during the period are in the exhibit. The fork was a relatively new eating implement. Not everyone could afford a proper three-tined one. Several versions are shown here, from silver to steel and bone. Indeed, table equipage was generally in short supply. A watercolor by Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) of the breakfast on the ship Eliza carries the note, "Passengers breakfast as the utensils become vacant. The 'slop bason' also feeds the Goat, and serves to wash Mrs. Taylor's baby."
Another observer, Harrison Gray Otis, described a buffet table at British minister Bagot's ball as having "tables forming a sort of triple sideboard, the upper platform of which was decorated with plate and flowers and the lower one contained some very richly embellished dishes."
And yes, that essential of Washington social life, the sex scandal, was around then as now. An 1836 engraving of the "Celesteal Cabinet" Henry R. Robinson, illustrates a famous cause ce'le`bre of Jackson's administration. Peggy O'Neal Eaton, in a drawing of the period in the Octagon show, is portrayed as dancer, performing before the Cabinet. O'Neal, a woman with a reputation for indiscretions and the daughter of a local tavern keeper, had married the Navy secretary, but was not received by society. Finally, her husband resigned. He was reported as suffering from "Eaton Malaria."