The archives at Mount Vernon hold a trove of records relating to the day-to-day operation of George Washington’s plantation. While many of these rich documents have been examined for details of the culinary life at Mount Vernon, such as the cookery manuscript owned by Martha Washington, already an antique when she inherited it, with recipes dating to at least the 17th century, many of the records have yet to be analyzed for what they may reveal about the inner workings of our first president’s household. Dr. Jane Levi, fresh from a month’s fellowship at Mount Vernon where she was immersed in the archives, is about to change all of that. She shared her preliminary findings and tentative conclusions, as well as some insights from her parallel and companion study of the near-contemporaneous households of George III and his gourmand son, the Prince Regent.
Levi’s interest initially was sparked in 2015 when The Royal Archives and Kings College London embarked on an ambitious plan to digitize the private papers of George III, including correspondence. Some 33,000 items are currently locked away in Windsor Castle, awaiting the digitization to benefit researchers. Part of the project has involved cooperation with cis-Atlantic groups studying the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century, such as the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which is also undertaking a massive digitization project of the records held by the Association. The sorts of documents Levi has examined include ledger books, garden records, menus, letters, receipts and invoices, many written in a florid eighteenth-century hand, such as this account recording certain foods for the Washington household for the month of April, 1794.
Comparing and contrasting the households of King George and George Washington required Levi to reflect upon Washington as an owner of enslaved people. The Founding Fathers’ rhetoric of the equality and dignity of man collided with the reality of enslavement that was part of the Mount Vernon plantation. Levi gingerly contrasted Washington’s slaveholding–some of the ledgers documented household expenditures for such items as “Negro shoes”– with the seemingly political statements made by George III’s household against slavery. Unlike present-day Royals, who cannot express opinions on important events, George III and his family were depicted as showing at least modest support for the Anti-Saccharrites, a group that boycotted sugar because it was the product of slave labor. Yet unlike flattering and gentle portrayals of Washington as a beneficent slaveholder, the British satirist, James Gillray, lampooned the King and Queen Charlotte in this 1792 cartoon, portraying them modestly and rather unflatteringly. The frowns on the Princesses’ faces suggest that their hearts were not into the political statement being made by foregoing sweetened tea, a feeling shared by the vast majority of British subjects: it is estimated that only 15% of the population were Anti-Saccharrites, and the Crown itself benefitted from some of the slave trade.
Levi noted that much of our fascination with the tables of kings and ruling classes comes from vicarious delight in mentally tasting the luxurious banquets that have been well-documented. But Levi sees these new sources of documents as opening a window onto the hierarchies expressed at the table in the day-to-day running of these households. Although she had yet to process the many documents that she “hoovered up” during her fellowship at Mount Vernon, she had a few preliminary observations about the tables that Martha Washington supervised. The Washington household consumed extraordinary amounts of ham; Martha herself seemed quite fond of asparagus, as they appeared frequently in the records, and we can surmise that they found their way to the table in several of the forms suggested by Hannah Glasse, as Martha owned a copy of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a volume much more contemporary in its recipes than the handwritten manuscript that she inherited. The ledger books show, among other tipples, that the Washingtons were extremely fond of madeira.
Levi had been able to perform a more detailed analysis of the household accounts of George III, who has a reputation for frugality, almost to the point of meanness. Nonetheless, the provisions sent to his table marked distinct status, even when compared to those of the Princesses and other members of the Royal household. Hierarchy was expressed through both the number of dishes sent to the table (service à la française was the standard style) and their quality: the King and Queen enjoyed 12 dishes at dinner and 10 at supper, while the Royal Princesses had to be content with 8 and 5 respectively. Of course, the Prince Regent, the future George IV, was a notorious voluptuary: his table overflowed with delicacies to the point of surfeit.
Another way hierarchy was expressed at table was in the compensation paid to those who served the King. George III was apparently very fond of chocolate (although without any sugar, one wonders how pleasing it might have been): his Royal Chocolate Maker was nicely compensated, although not as well as his Wine Steward. Nonetheless, we can be confident that George III frequently enjoyed a cup or glass of chocolate, and it is a recipe for “Chocolate Wine,” adapted from Emma Kay’s Dining with the Georgians (Amberley Books, 2014). The recipe nicely unites the King’s fondness for chocolate with the President’s love of madeira.