In this video, we make switchel, a summertime beverage popular in the 1700s. Its ingredients contain a lot of potassium which replenishes the body’s electrolytes. Learn more about switchel and other methods used to say cool in the 18th century on this blog post.
Typically, when modern Americans think of summer barbecue food, they think of meat grilled over an open flame. While that would certainly appeal to an eighteenth century audience, it is not necessarily what they considered ‘typical’ summer fare. Large livestock like pigs and cattle were usually slaughtered and butchered in the late fall/early winter when the weather was far more conducive to task. This meant that large roasts (like mentioned in our earlier blog) were not the norm in the warmer months. Instead, people of the 18th century looked to the seasonality of ingredients to inspire their summer time fare.
Eighteenth century diets were very dependent on the growing seasons. Summer was a bounty of fruits, vegetables, greens, herbs, and anything else that could not be had in the dead of winter. Much like today, there were a variety of methods, styles, and recipes used to please the numerous palates.
With today’s weekend farmers markets and roadside stands, a salad seems the ubiquitous summer option. But what would our forefathers have thought of raw vegetables tossed in oil and vinegar? They certainly had all of the elements available to them but their tastes were different than ours. After all, we still have oysters and ice cream but most of us no longer enjoy oyster ice cream.
While the oldest references to salad come from ancient Rome (usually referred to as sallet) it was not ubiquitous in English summer cuisine. While there are some references in cookbooks and menus of the time that called for ‘salad herbs’ like lettuce and spinach to be served raw, most of their English recipes called for cooking the vegetables in some way.
The modern stereotype of English cooking insists that greens be boiled until no real flavor or texture remains. And while many of 18th century recipes for vegetables include boiling (and some for quite some time) there is also this warning in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
There was a clear appreciation for fresh vegetables even if they were prepared in some manner. An appreciation that extended into George Washington’s own household. One recipe included in Martha Washington’s cookbook was for a ‘Lettis Tart’ which called for ‘cabbage lettis’ and prunes to be put in a crust with cinnamon and ginger and then baked like a pie.
In addition to recipes calling for fresh fruits and vegetables, early Americans were very familiar with numerous preservation methods in order to enjoy vegetables and fruit out of season. In the summer they would pickle vegetables, dry herbs, and make preserves with fruits so they could enjoy them all year long.
In September 1784, George Washington traveled west of the Allegany Mountains. He recorded some of his supplies in his diary and includeed a canteen filled with ‘Chery Bounce’. This was a drink made from cherries preserved in brandy and was a way for Washington to take the taste of Virginia summer with him on his travels.
This summer when you are contemplating your patriotic picnic options for your July Fourth festivities, don’t pass up the greener options. They have far more in common with the summer options of our founding fathers than you may have originally believed.
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
In this video, we taste three different chocolate drinks from across the centuries and discover what ingredients went in them to make each taste so differently.
Read about “Sweet-Toothed Colonials and Their Chocolate” here.
As thanksgiving approaches we turn our thoughts to tradition, family, and feast. Thanksgiving traditions call to mind family around a table full of food, a roast turkey with cranberry sauce, or maybe even a romanticized recreation of New England meal from the 17th century. But what is the history behind that tradition? What would people of the 18th century Virginia thought of our feast? Would Betty and George Washington have sat down for a meal of turkey and mashed potatoes in late November?
Thanksgiving as a national holiday wasn’t born until the 19th century and many modern American concepts of Thanksgiving come from legend and advertising.
But when you peel back the layers of myth and romance in the above painting, in the advertising, and in the legends, you find a history deeply rooted in the 18th century and just as at home in Virginia as in Massachusetts.
While many people tend to look to colonial New England as the origin point for this late fall celebration, these bountiful autumn feasts have existed in places all over the world and for much longer. Many agrarian cultures have celebrated harvest festivals to mark the end of the harvest season. Families and communities came together, celebrated the bounty of the harvest, and gave thanks for all they had.
In the 1700s, Virginian households were familiar with a large fall feast. Produce that hadn’t been preserved had to be eaten. Cooler weather meant it was time to butcher and preserve meat. Soon, winter weather would make travel impractical. Any farm that enjoyed a bountiful year could celebrate with a large feast in the late fall.
But what would have been served at those feasts?
The dishes typically associated with Thanksgiving are inherently American. Turkey, potatoes, pumpkins, and cranberries are indigenous to the Americas and were unknown to Europeans prior to the 1500s. By the 18th century, Atlantic trade changed this. Some American produce like cranberries and pumpkins did not enjoy popularity in England. However, other American food had been fully accepted into kitchens and cookbooks on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Lewis family owned Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, a cookbook from which Betty undoubtedly pulled many of her recipes. It contains multiple dishes modern Americans would consider typical Thanksgiving fare. It provides instructions for roasting a turkey complete with stuffing, making gravies for every kind of meat/preparation, and baking a plethora of desserts. It even contains a mashed potato recipe on page 193 that would be perfectly at home on any modern table.
BOIL your potatoes, peel them, and put them into a sauce-pan, mash them well; to two pounds of potatoes put a pint of milk, a little salt, stir them together, take care that they don’t stick to the bottom, then take a quarter of a pound of butter, stir it in, serve it up.
But if we are going to study Thanksgiving’s historic details, what about the term itself? Thankfully, we have George Washington himself to look to. Seventeen months after the ratification of the Constitution the newly elected President put forth a proclamation at the request of the Congress and Senate that…
… recommend[ed] to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
The day assigned was November 26, 1789, the last Thursday of the month.
We may not know whether or not Mary Washington ever sat her family around a large turkey dinner at Ferry Farm in late November, but we do know that a large harvest meal would not have been uncommon. Since Hannah Glasse’s cookbook rested on her shelf, we can have confidence that Betty Washington Lewis would have approved of our present-day mashed potatoes and roast turkey. Finally, we can read the words of Thanksgiving proclaimed to Americans by George Washington, as the new nation’s first president. When you sit down with family next week, remember that you are part of long tradition and celebrating something truly American.
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
In this video, we make a rare colonial-era treat known as “An Orange Fool” recently featured in a written blog post about where colonial Americans got their fresh fruit from. You can find the blog post and the “Orange Fool” recipe here.
In our age of weekly farmers’ markets, drive-thru smoothie shops, and 24/7 grocery stores, it can be hard to truly understand the importance of fruit to the average colonial Virginian. They, however, would have been well aware of how rare it was and of what it meant to have it. Indeed, they were so aware of its rarity and luxury that they bought and used special dishes in which to serve the fruit. We recently wrote in “Fine and Fashionable Fruit Dishes” about just such white, salt-gazed fruit dish excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Just how rare was fresh fruit in colonial America and, when it was available, where did it come from?
Historians have surveyed old records from stores, taverns, and ordinary households to figure out how often early Americans ate fruit. One such study ranked different foods according to the amount of money spent on them. In this ranking, fruit came in eighth after meat/poultry, grains, alcohol, and other foods. Ultimately, paired with nuts, fruit accounted for less than 3% of the overall food expenses in Virginian households.
The same study examined the food expenses of people at all levels of society, whether an anonymous wigmaker or the royal governor. From 1769 to 1770, fruit/nuts were nearly 8% of the royal governor’s food expenses while most other Virginians spent less than 1% of their food expenses on fruit/nuts. Fruit was for the wealthy and was a rare luxury in 18th century America.
The rarity of this luxury was a direct result of where fruit grew and how people got it. There were two options when it came to fruit for the colonists; locally grown or imported. For most, of course, locally-sourced seasonal produce was really the only option.
A global exchange of livestock, diseases, fruits and vegetables sometimes called “The Columbian Exchange” began with European exploration of the Americas in 16th century. By the mid-1700s, the American colonies were a unique place for growing fruit. Europeans transplanted old favorites — quinces, apples and peaches — to the New World. They enjoyed new varieties of fruits — strawberries, cherries, and grapes — in America that had closely related cousins in England and Europe. Then, they added to their diet fruits naturally indigenous to the Americas. These included fruits well-known today like cranberries and blueberries as well as fruits now largely forgotten like pawpaws. With all that variety, early Americans still had to settle for what could be grown in their specific climate and at a particular time of the year. Even local fruit, whether transplanted or indigenous, was an expensive luxury.
Naturally, tropical species like citrus fruits and pineapples became the zenith of the colonial fruit hierarchy. If someone really wanted to demonstrate their wealth, these imported fruits were the way to go. They could not be acquired locally and indicated the buyer had deep pockets as well as a more sophisticated palate. While wealthy Virginians attempted to grow some of these fruits in private “orangeries”, the precursor to modern greenhouses, they mostly came from islands in the Caribbean. Transportation made them extraordinarily expensive but their expense did not mean there was any shortage of uses for them.
Because they symbolized wealth and simply had a short shelf life, fresh fruit was displayed on a fruit dish or epergne as a decoration and status symbol. Fruit’s value also came from its multiple uses within a home. Cookbooks of the time gave plenty of uses for fruit ranging from the familiar such as apple dumplings to the foreign like salt pickled lemon. The most commonplace recipes (or receipts as they were referred to in that period) concentrated on preserving fruits so that colonists could enjoy their flavors throughout the year.
To conclude, we present a receipt from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a book we know was part of the Lewis family library at Kenmore. The receipt’s colonial version comes from a first edition facsimile from 1747.
An Orange Fool – Colonial Version
TAKE the Juice of six Oranges and six Eggs well beaten, a Pint of Cream, a quarter of a Pound of Sugar, a little Cinnamon and Nutmeg; mix all together, and keep stirring over a slow Fire, till it is thick, then put in a little Piece of Butter, and keep stirring till cold, and dish it up.
An Orange Fool – Version updated for today
1 c Heavy Cream
1 c Orange Juice (3 Fresh squeezed oranges or store brought)
1/3 c Sugar + 1 tsp sugar
½ Orange zest
½ Tbs butter
1 egg + 2 egg yolks
½ tsp Vanilla Extract
½ tsp Cinnamon
¼ tsp Nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees
- Place four 6-ounce (or six 4-ounce) ovenproof cups or ramekins in a deep baking pan just large enough to hold them. Fill baking pan with enough water to come halfway up the pan.
- Add cream, orange juice, zest, and 1/3 c of sugar to a small saucepan and bring to medium heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture starts to steam. Add butter.
- Meanwhile whisk the egg, yolks, and vanilla extract together in a separate bowl.
- Once the orange cream mixture has come to temperature remove from heat and use a ladle to slowly pour it into egg mixture while vigorously whisking the eggs.
- Once the cream and eggs are fully incorporated return them to the small saucepan and put back onto low heat. Let the custard steam but NOT simmer (approx. 175 degrees).
- Take off heat and pour into ramekins through a fine strainer.
- Mix the remaining sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together and sprinkle onto each cup.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the custard is just set
- Let cool at room temperature for 1 hour and serve. OR chill in the refrigerator overnight for a cool summer dessert.
Next time you pour yourself a fresh glass of orange juice, buy some fresh fruit at the grocery store, or stop a farm stand by the road for apples remember the luxury that you are enjoying. This aspect of our daily lives is an opportunity of which our forefathers would have been sincerely jealous.
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services
 Walsh, Lorena S., Ann Smart Martin and Joanne Bowen. Provisioning Early American Towns. The Chesapeake: A Multidisciplinary Case Study. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997: 141.
 Ibid: 300.