"Last Thursday, I had the honor of dining with the President in company with the Vice President, the Senators, the Delegates of Massachusetts, and some other Members of Congress, about 20 in all... The dishes were placed all around and there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams, etc., puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch. No lady but Mrs. Washington dined with us and we were waited on by four or five men servants dressed in livery."
Description of a Christmas Eve dinner given by President George Washington in 1795 from a letter by Theophilus Bradbury.
TODAY, WHEN DINNER with a president is surrounded by gilt-edged invitations, metal detectors, Secret Service and cuisine minceur, it's hard to remember that in the first years of the Republic, almost anyone with an introduction (and some without) could feast with a president or a past president with little notice and at his expense.
When George Washington was president, he tried to bring plantation pleasures and simplicities to the presidential household "without partaking of the follies of luxury and ostentation." On the other hand, though not the international sophisticate that Thomas Jefferson was, Washington had a well-developed yearing for elegance. The trick, he found, as not all other presidents have managed since, was to be every inch a president and not a centimeter a king.
Such a tradition of taste was not easy to translate into a menu for today. The State Department's Fine Arts Committee found as they planned a $1,000-a-plate dinner, scheduled for Friday, to benefit the endowment of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. At the invitation of Secretary and Mrs. Shultz, 200 guests will dine on delicacies in the treasurehouse of American antiques, considered one of the best collections in the country.
Every year Clement Conger, chairman of the State Department Fine Arts Committee and curator of the White House, arranges a fund-raising dinner, based on a historical menu. Most years, Thomas Jefferson's fabled good taste has been the inspiration. But Washington was chosen this year because of his 250th birthday commemoration.
Conger and his assistant, Gail Serfati, took the assignment to Christine Meadows, the preeminent Washington scholar and curator at Mt. Vernon. Meadows, who has recently contributed to the book, "George Washington's China" by Susan Detweiler (Abrams), sent them a collection of letters about Washington's bills of fare. She suggested that the serving platters be garnished with flowers, especially "nasturtiums which are delicious." From her suggestions, William Seltzer of Columbia Catering, working with assistant chef V. brennan Hurley and Susan Hoskins, Columbia's food standards director, planned a menu and recipes to feed 200.
Washington called his home "a well restored Tavern." He wrote a friend once that if no one showed up unexpectedly, he and Martha would eat dinner by themselves for the first time in 20 years.
Washington explained his day in a letter of May 1797 to James McHenry, his secretary of war: "breakfast (a little after seven o'clock)... is ready... this being over, I mount my horse and ride around my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces, come as they say out of respect for me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this from having a few social friends at a cheerful board! The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea brings me within the dawn of candlelight."
He sent to Madeira for butts (150 gallons) or pipes (110 gallons) of "your choicest Madeira wine" and served champagne, punch, beer, cider and other wine. He ordered huge quanitites of Gloucester, Cheshire and cream cheeses. Oranges came from the West Indies along with "Chocolate Shells" for Martha's morning hot chocolate.
One visitor, Henry Wansey, wrote of a June 1794 breakfast with the president in Philadelphia: "Mrs. Washington herself made tea and coffee for us. On the table were two small plates of sliced tongue, dry toast, bread and butter... but no broiled fish, as is the general custom..."
An 1802 breakfast visitor, Manasseh Cutler, was more fortunate. He breakfasted on ham, cold corned beef, cold fowl, red herrings and cold mutton, the dishes ornamented with sprigs of parsley and other vegetables from the garden.
In June 1797, a visitor to Mt. Vernon wrote that the dinner, served as usual at 4 p.m., was very good: "A small roasted pig, boiled leg of lamb, beef, peas, lettuce, cucumbers, artichokes, etc., puddings, tarts, etc."
Usually the evening meal was tea, a simple affair of beverage and cakes. A supper with cold meats was served on special occasions.
To keep up with all this, Martha Washington had her own manuscript cookbook, with her family recipes (published last year as "Martha Washington's Book of Cookery," edited by Karen Hess, Columbia University Press.) She also used "The Art of Cookery," (London, 1765) said to have been written by a man using a femining pseudonym.
Conger hasn't tried to equal Martha Washington's spread. But his dinner menu for Friday night is lavish. Eight courses are accompanied by the proper white and red wines and champagne to follow. A tasting committee that tried the menu at lunch recently had no need for tea, not to mention breakfast the next day. Some spoke of the necessity for walking to Mt. Vernon to regain their figures. Here's the menu:
Beaten bisquits with Virginia ham.
Bouchees plumped with pate.
Quail eggs with black caviar
Essence of tomato soup
Warm cheddar benne seed bisquits
Crab mornay in vol au vent
Raspberry ice served in a lemon
Roast duckling with Calvados sauce
Poached apples filled with chestnut puree
Wild rice and mushroom ring, filled with buttered snap beans and sausage
Watercress and leaf lettuce salad with vinaigrette
Cheese tray served with herbed bread
Charlotte russe with brandied peach halves
Twenty dignitaries are to act as hosts at the tables for 10, including Secretary Shultz, Cabinet members, foreign ambassadors and their spouses, and Edward H. Alexander, a Toledo steel magnate who is paying for the dinner so all proceeds can benefit the fine arts fund. Guests will draw their table assignments from a silver bowl. ESSENCE OF TOMATO SOUP (12 servings) 1 tablespoon onion, chopped fine 5 tablespoons butter 2 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped 6 fresh tomatoes, chopped 1 tablespoon fresh garlic, pressed 2 1/2 cups beef consomme 2 1/2 cups tomato juice 16-ounce can tomato sauce 1/4 cup sugar Salt, cayenne, ground white pepper to taste
Saute onion in butter until golden brown. Add chopped tomatoes and garlic, Saute on high heat, 2 to 3 minutes. Add beef consomme and tomato juice and bring to a boil. Add tomato sauce -- finish with sugar, white pepper, salt and cayenne pepper. Let simmer at low heat for 1 1/2 hours -- strain through chinoise or fine mesh strainer. CRAB MORNAY (Makes 1 1/2 quarts) 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup finely chopped scallions 2 tablespoons flour 1 pint heavy cream 1/2 pound finely grated jarlsberg cheese 1/2 cup minced parsley 2 tablespoons sherry Hot pepper sauce and salt to taste 1 pound crab meat
Saute scallions in butter and add flour. Cook 3 minutes without browning, add cream and cheese and incorporate well. Add parsley, sherry, salt and hot pepper sauce. Simmer 10 minutes at low heat, then gently fold into the crab meat with a rubber spatula. CHEDDAR SESAME CRISPS (Makes 2 1/2 dozen) 1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated 1/2 pound butter 3 tablespoons bacon fat 2 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt Up to 30 drops hot pepper sauce Up to 10 drops worcestershire sauce 6 tablespoons toasted sesame seed
Mix all ingredients together. Shape between palms into 2-inch rounds and bake on cookie sheet at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. WILD RICE AND MUSHROOM RING (10 servings) 6-ounce package long graim wild rice 1/2 pound converted white rice 1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced 1/2 cup chopped onion 4 tablespoons butter 2 cups chicken stock or water 3 eggs Butter for pan Snap beans for center (recipe follows)
Cook wild rice according to package directions. Make converted rice.Saute mushrooms and onion in butter. Add white rice and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, cover and put in 350-degree over for 20 minutes. Fold in cooked wild rice and add well-beaten eggs. Mix well and fill a 2 1/2-quart buttered ring mold -- place in oven in bain maire for 25 to 30 minutes. Unmold onto 12-inch platters. Fill center with snap beans. SNAP BEANS 1 1/2 pounds snap green beans cut in 1/2-inch pieces 4 tablespoons butter 1 onion, chopped 1 pound mild pork sausage Salt and pepper to taste
Clean snap beans and place in boiling salted water, bring back to a boil and cook for 5 minutes or until al dente. Shock in ice water and drain. Saute onions in butter until golden brown and add sausage. Brown well for 15 minutes. Strain grease and add sausage and onion mixture to grean beens. Season with salt and white pepper. Reheat snap beans by sauteing for 5 minutes over high heat. Fill wild rice and mushroom mold with mixture before serving. CALVADOS SAUCE FOR ROAST DUCK (Makes 2 cups) 7 tablespoons butter 1 ounce shallots, minced 1/3 cup white wine 1/2 cup Calvados 3 cups duck or chicken stock 3 tablespoons flour
Saute shallots in 4 tablespoons butter until transparent, add the white wine and reduce until almost dry over medium-high heat.Add 1/4 cup Calvados and reduce again. Add duck or chicken stock and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Make a roux by browning flour in remaining butter (using more butter if needed). Add Calvados mixture to roux gradually, whisking constantly.Strain through a chinoise. Flambe the remaining calvados and add to the sauce.