You won’t often find steak and kidney pie in
the U.S. these days. But if you want to eat
one of George Washington’s favorites, here’s
the recipe. Recipe and photo courtesy
Some of us remember life before Presidents Day. Until 1971, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was a state holiday, celebrated in many states on the his birthday—Lincoln was born February 12, 1809 in Kentucky in that iconic one-room cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. It was a bank, government and school holiday, not to mention a day of retail sales specials.
George Washington had a separate holiday on his birthday, February 22nd (he was born on February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to a wealthy planter family).
In 1971, both presidential holidays were shifted to the third Monday in February and combined as Presidents Day, to allow federal employees a three-day weekend. The private sector followed. Adieu, Lincoln’s Birthday; and yours too, George Washington’s Birthday. You holidays are now part of a vague Presidents Day celebration.
DINING WITH GEORGE WASHINGTON
The planter and surveyor who would become the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Washington was known for keeping a bountiful table. He was fond of fine food and enjoyed fresh fish almost daily (often for breakfast with hoe cakes).
Steak and kidney pie, mashed sweet potatoes and string beans almondine were a popular dinner, served with pickles and other condiments, particularly mushroom catsup (tomato catsup came much later—see the history of ketchup). Favorite desserts included tipsy cake (trifle), Martha Washington’s whiskey cake and yes, cherry pie.
What did Washington drink with his meals?
Beer was a favorite drink of George Washington, as it was for many people living in 18th century America and Europe. Before municipal water supplies, the water supply was unreliable, with the water from lakes, rivers and wells carrying harmful pathogens. Even young children drank beer.
Washington was particularly fond of porter, a dark ale, but Madiera and wine were usually present at the table as well. Beer was brewed at Mount Vernon, and hops were grown there. In addition to grain-based beer, persimmon beer and pumpkin beer were brewed in season.
Washington’s notebooks include a recipe for small beer, which was a weak beer (lower alcohol content) consumed by servants and children. The full-alcohol beer was called strong beer.
WHAT ABOUT THE HARD STUFF?
In the era before cocktails*, punch was the way to combine spirits, sugar, lemon juice, spices and other ingredients.
Washington also enjoyed eggnog. His own recipe included brandy, rum and rye, the latter of which was made on the estate. A little-known fact about the Father Of Our Country: At the time of his death, he was the country’s largest producer of rye whiskey. The restored still at Mount Vernon continues to produce un-aged rye whiskey using Washington’s original recipe.
Dining with Lincoln? You might be served a bowl of oyster stew. Photo courtesy Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
DINING WITH ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Given the choice of a good meal with George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, opt for Washington.
Abraham Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was an illiterate farmer. Meals in the family’s one-room cabin comprised simple farm fare.
Thus, Lincoln was not bred to be a connoisseur of fine food like Washington. His colleagues on the law circuit noted his indifference to the boardinghouse fare. As president, focused on work, he hardly remembered to eat; often, his sustenance was a nibble of apples, nuts, cheese and crackers. Chicken fricassee with biscuits and oyster stew were favorites when he took the time to for a formal meal.
Lincoln’s favorite beverage was water. He didn’t drink alcohol and it was seldom served at the White House. He did enjoy coffee, perhaps for the energy as much as the flavor.
A glass of water is fine, but we’d rather have a crisp white wine with our fruit and cheese.