This year would not be a good year for ice cream. In fact, there would be none at all if we relied on the technique George Washington used at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate that’s perched on the banks of the Potomac River.
His source of ice was the frozen river. Given the warm winter we’ve had here in D.C. , there’s no chance. Seems the weather is nothing like it was on Jan. 26, 1786, when Washington wrote in his journal:
“Renewed my Ice operation to day, employing as many hands as I conveniently could in getting it from the Maryland shore, carting and pounding it.”
That’s according to a new exhibition on the cookery of Mount Vernon, “Hoecakes and Hospitality,” that opens this President’s Day weekend.
That ice was stored in a dry well or ice house until milk and cream became available from dairy cows in the spring.
Martha Washington used a recipe from the most popular cookbook of the day, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery, to prepare a slushy, creamy version of the sweet treat we’ve come to love. (Her copy of the book is shown in the exhibit.) But forget chocolate or vanilla. Fruit was the only thing added to the cream and sugar. And the Washingtons served their guests tiny portions, doled out in delicate white French porcelain cups, that appear to hold no more than an ounce or two.
The Salt got a sneak peak of a new exhibit showcasing dozens of artifacts from Martha Washington’s kitchen. Some are original, and some are reproductions of items known to be owned by Mount Vernon.
There are the mundane items such as big pots and pans. But there are also some wonderful pieces that we’re likely not have in our modern kitchens: a tin still used to distill mint or rose water. A petite, fancy, French cocotte used for serving recipes such as asparagus ragu. And a nifty tin spice container that originally had a grinder at its center.
There’s also a page from one of Washington’s ledgers that meticulously documents the procurement of kitchen and household items. After touring the exhibit, it’s clear the Washigntons had some fussy culinary habits.
For instance, they were big-time importers of coffee. According to one of his ledgers, George Washington imported 150 pounds of beans in November of 1799. And not just any beans. Turns out the Founding Father George loved beans from the Red Sea port of Mocha. Sometimes he also exchanged flour or his Potomac-caught herring for coffee beans from the West Indies.
The amount of labor that went into brewing a cup of joe was pretty intense. Enslaved cooks used one of two “coffee toasters” placed in front of the kitchen fire and then used a hand grinder to grind them.
And other imports? Wine from the Canary Islands; double Gloucester cheese from England; brandy and olives from France; pickled mangoes from India and lots of Mediterranean anchovies, capers and currants.
Coconuts, limes and turtles from the West Indies, and my favorite: pickled walnuts. Why pickled walnuts? Well, maybe it was to preserve them. But it’s also possible that the pickling softened up the nuts, making them easier to chew for our nation’s first president, who had notoriously bad teeth.