What Did the Founding Fathers Eat?
Every other Thursday, President George Washington and his wife, Martha, held an official dinner at Mount Vernon, their lavish plantation estate on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia. Guests were invited from across our fledgling nation, and the meal started promptly at 4 p.m.
A rich assortment of dishes would be served: roasted fish, caught fresh from the Potomac; boiled ham or cured bacon, from their proudly bred, forest-foraging hogs; perhaps wild duck or goose, served roasted or in a “goose-pye.” Vegetables were picked from Mount Vernon’s extensive gardens and farm, and made into fresh salads, cabbage pies, or asparagus “ragoo.” In the winter, summer pickles were served in their absence.
To drink, there were bottles of wine, like imported Madeira, or locally brewed beer and hard cider, from the region’s wide variety of apples. Dessert might include a selection of jellies, pies, puddings, and fruit—or even ice cream, made with ice harvested from the frozen Potomac in the winter.
“What was at Mount Vernon was phenomenal,” said New York City-based culinary anthropologist Joanna Pruess. “[Washington] had so much available to him; it’s remarkable how well they ate.”
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, dubbed the country’s “most illustrious epicure” by the late American culinary historian Karen Hess, cultivated 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of fruit in his vast gardens at Monticello, Virginia. In the kitchen, these local treasures were transformed, melded with the French flavors and techniques that Jefferson loved so much. (He even had his cooks specially trained in French cuisine.)
Despite his love of French food, Jefferson also obsessively nourished his American roots.
“Jefferson always tried to apply his scientific method to everything, including his food production,” said Frank Clark, head of the Department of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg. He tracked production quotas, studied the books of agricultural scientists, and had slaves trained in the craft of brewing beer. He supported small farmers and frequently gifted seeds to family and friends, and even kept a diary of the seasonal produce that came through the Washington, D.C. farmers market—a great boon to modern scholars.
Such records dispel any myths of bland or boring food in the 18th century. Poor farmers and slaves were limited to simple diets, eating out of necessity, but the wealthier feasted. Even during our country’s fresh beginnings, a rich food culture—naturally grounded in the now resurfacing concept of eating fresh, local, and seasonally, across all levels of society—was already alive and thriving.
A Diverse Culinary Landscape
By the 1770s, Tidewater, Virginia, the location of the first English settlements in America, had been firmly established.
“We had a wonderful food culture that developed pretty early on here,” said Clark. “This is a wonderful place to eat in the 18th century. We had access to all sorts of good stuff.”
Blessed with three growing seasons, as opposed to England’s two, sprawling fields and plantations produced a huge variety of crops, from wheat to leafy greens and root vegetables.
We’ve lost some of that variety today, Clark said, as a number of early cultivated crops—like the schronza, a kind of leaf vegetable, or the skirret, a small, long, white carrot-like root—have since mostly disappeared from our diets. Colorful varieties, like red and purple broccoli, or multi-colored carrots, also once abounded, but today have largely been bred into uniformity. They’re now slowly making a comeback, sometimes ironically treated as a novelty.
In terms of meat, early Virginians were also “a lot more broad-minded in their culinary pursuits,” Clark said. Birds, mammals, and sea creatures of all types were part of their diets. Small songbirds like cardinals and snipes were hunted; cattle and free-roaming pigs provided fresh, high-quality meat (Virginia hams were said to rival even the best of Germany); and the Chesapeake Bay turned up plentiful oysters, crabs, and 15-foot sturgeons.
They wasted no part of any animal, either. “Organs were big on the menu of everybody from the royal governor down to the poorest Virginian,” Clark said.
An American Cuisine
At first, New World food culture borrowed heavily from the Old. Aside from locally grown foods, the wealthy also enjoyed a variety of imported goods from England and beyond, from wines and vinegars to almonds and cayenne peppers, maintaining an English food culture in the New World. Tastes and techniques were carried over from English and French traditions.
But with the conception of our new nation soon came the birth of a new cuisine.
“You see the cuisine evolving, where they’re including things that were native to this country, what was available to them,” Pruess said. Though settlers arrived in the New World with varied European backgrounds and their respective culinary traditions, “[they] very quickly started adapting to the world [they] were in.”
During and after the American Revolution, that transition became more pronounced—and deliberate.
“As we became American, we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world,” Clark said. “We wanted to do that not just by our politics, but also through our foods and our beverages. We wanted to embrace the new continent and all the riches of the foods that are native here.”
Enter corn, a New World grain that quickly became an American staple, and other native crops like pumpkins and squash. Corn-distilled Bourbon whiskey grew in popularity over rum, and we learned to drink chocolate, instead of English tea, and more cider, in place of beer. Along with native ingredients, African influences also helped shape this new cuisine, apparent in cookbook recipes for dishes like black-eyed pea fritters, ubiquitous on the West coast of Africa and carried to America by slaves.
Common farmers and slaves were likely eating native foods early on, simply as a matter of survival. A deliberate change, however, could be seen in the diets of the gentry—those that did have a choice.
Washington was a particular advocate of American cuisine, Clark said. The president became known for eating hoecakes—a predecessor of cornbread, made from cornmeal cooked up into dense, heavy patties—topped with honey from his own beehives at Mount Vernon for breakfast every morning. (Partially because he famously wore dentures, confining him to a diet of soft foods.)
Later, Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, reached out to people throughout the country to crowdsource a definition of its cuisine, Pruess added. She would invite diplomats and ordinary citizens alike to her weekly social gatherings, and request recipes gathered from American women across the country to be prepared in the White House kitchen.
“They were all trying to understand that this was a country,” Pruess said. As the country developed, so grew its cuisine.
Centuries later, American food culture has evolved, diversified, and blossomed. We’ve gained a lot moving forward—but not without losing some, too.
“Overall, we’ve probably lost a lot of food knowledge as a culture,” Clark said. “In the 18th century, people as young children went to market everyday, learned to look at a piece of beef and tell whether it was good or not, by looking at it, by smelling it, by poking it. Everybody—male or female, rich or poor, free or slave—would’ve learned these things growing up, because they’re life survival skills.”
Now, for many of us, supermarket labels and expiration dates do the work. Clark pointed to food sourcing as another area of loss.
“Everything they ate 200 years ago was fresh, local, in season—or was preserved in some manner, by pickling or drying,” Frank said. That was simply what food was. Today, “we’re eating all sorts of things we don’t know we’re eating, or we don’t care that we’re eating—artificial colorings, flavorings, preservatives, unpronounceable chemicals.”
“A lot of us frankly have not bothered to learn much about our food,” he said.
Sure, early Americans knew less about calories and cholesterol and fat, but their consumption of foods like fatty salt pork, likely concerning from a modern standpoint, was better offset by a different, more active lifestyle than many of ours, and heavier consumption of fresh vegetables and whole grains.
And no, 18th-century medical or nutritional advice probably wouldn’t all check out scientifically today, but the people understood intimately something often forgotten today: food is medicine.
It’s a philosophy espoused by ancient cultures from Greek to Chinese.
“If you were sick in the 18th century and you went to any physician in town, first thing they’re going to tell you to do is change your diet,” Clark said. “We separate health and food in our minds. They never did that.”
But that’s changing. With the growing interest in sustainable sourcing and eating, holistic nutrition, and the so-called “farm-to-table movement,” we’re really just going back in time and learning from our roots.
“We’ve kind of come around almost 360 degrees,” Clark said. “We’re trying to get back to what’s always been the best food, which is the food that’s growing right next to you.”