Mount Vernon Celebrates 18th Century Style

Mount Vernon Celebrates 18th Century Style

George Washington honored with food and a look back in history

Mount Vernon, the estate of George and Martha Washington, was originally rescued for restoration in 1858, and has recently begun a new project to reinforce its foundation

Mount Vernon, the estate of George and Martha Washington, was originally rescued for restoration in 1858, and has recently begun a new project to reinforce its foundation

    Chef Justin Cherry, of Half Crown Bakery, presents traditional colonial foods cooked in clay ovens typical of the colonies.

Not many could have a 297th birthday and have hundreds show up at the house to celebrate. President George Washington is one of those few, still remembered and admired, more than two hundred years after his death in December 1799 at age 67. His restored estate at Mount Vernon again hosted an event in celebration of surveyor, military man, army general, statesman, first United States President, and farmer, and provided celebrants with a view back into his life and times.

Along with birthday cake, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, which owns and maintains Washington’s former estate, organizes the public party, free to all to attend on Washington’s birthday, February 22; an annual celebration with corporate sponsorship. As on normal operation days, the estate is open for tours of the mansion, along with the Presidential Library, museum, and leadership institution. 

A highlight of the event is an opportunity to enjoy the breakfast reported to be Washington’s favorite, hoecakes and honey, prepared in a clay oven typical of those found up and down the East Coast in those times. Chef Justin Cherry, owner of Half Crown Bakehouse, with help from his parents Louann and Ken, has hoecakes and wheaten bread with salted pork fat on offer for a colonial food experience. 

Cherry, who researched 18th century foodways in a fellowship at Fred W. Smith Library at Mount Vernon, explains that similar ovens were common in the colonies and in New France. Cherry says, made from no special pattern and of varying sizes, the ovens were generally about 4 1/2 feet in width by 6 feet in length, with a wall 8-inches thick, and a bottom of about 18 inches of clay reinforced with planks of wood. His hoecakes are made with a combination of white flint corn and roasted yellow flint corn, plus salt and pork fat; true to recipes of the time. Flint corn isn't sweet, but has a robust, earthy flavor, well suited to grits and cornmeal cakes. A honey and butter mixture, kept warm by the oven, tops the cakes, and creates a hearty morning meal. Colonials would have eaten this meal between 7 and 8 a.m., with their next meal, termed dinne’ between 2 and 3 p.m.; supper time was typically not until 8 or 9 p.m., following a light meal, tea, between dinner and supper.

The Mount Vernon ladies purchased the mansion and 200 acres of farmland and forest in 1858 for $200,000. The seller was the last private owner, Washington’s great grand-nephew, John Augustine Washington III. Along with preservation of the President’s many papers, the estate has restored the grounds to give 21st century visitors a sense of what the grounds were like in the 18th century as a working plantation. Along with extensive kitchen and fruit gardens, and restored working buildings, such as the blacksmith, smoke, kitchen, carriage, and wash houses, visitors can learn more about the family’s life and the lives of enslaved and indentured servants, and how they lived and worked at the plantation. Livestock, including Hog Island sheep and Devon oxen, create a window into farm life. Costumed interpreters explain plantation practices.

George and Martha Washington are buried on the grounds, about 50 yards from a cemetery where some of the plantation’s enslaved people were buried. Seventy unmarked graves of enslaved people at Mount Vernon were documented through 2017 as a survey sought to commemorate the lives of individuals who lived and died at Mount Vernon.