The Art of Dining at Mount Vernon

“George Washington always paid keen attention to his dining spaces and their furnishings, mealtime rituals provided opportunities to present himself as a sophisticated member of the gentry class, an enlightened gentleman, and a gracious host,” explains historian Carol Borchert Cadou in the tabletop book published in 2011 by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, “Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Enteraining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon.”

Cadou, the Robert H. Smith senior curator and vice president for collections at Mount Vernon, reports that one guest observed in 1777:

“[Washington] keeps an excellent table and a stranger, let him be of what Country or nation, he will always meet with a most hospitable reception at it. His entertainments were always conducted with the most regularity and in the genteelest manner of any I ever was at on the Continent.”

The meals prepared often came from one of Martha Washington’s cookbooks, including a manuscript handed down through several generations of women in the family of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, which she inherited upon their marriage in 1750. Another often-used cookbook was the sixth edition (1763) of “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” by Hannah Glasse.

From these, two recipes often prepared for George, Martha, and their guests, stand out to Deborah Colburn, interpretive programs supervisor at Mount Vernon, and her colleague, interpreter Sara Marie Massee. On a warm summer day in June, the historians taught three of our Grateful American™ Kids — AJ, Avery, and Callie — to prepare curry of catfish and peas porridge. We thank these students from Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County, VA, for being our reporters for the day.

Scroll down to learn how to prepare these recipes. Also, be sure to watch these cooking lessons on Grateful American™ TV.

Here’s to eating, and cooking, like the Washingtons!David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation / Grateful American™ Kids


Curry of Catfish

What you’ll need: 

  • 1 pound of boneless catfish, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 handfuls of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • 3 to 4 cups of water or chicken broth
  • 1 to 2 Tbsp. of curry powder
  • 2 Tbsp. of butter
  • 2 Tbsp. of flour
  • Salt and pepper

Here’s how: 

  1. Sweat the onions along with one handful of parsley in butter or oil. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. When the onions are translucent, add the catfish along with 3 to 4 cups of water or broth.
  3. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook the fish until firm, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the fish from the liquid and put into a covered dish.
  4. Bring the remaining liquid to a boil and reduce it to one cup.
  5. In a separate pan, make a roux with the butter and flour by melting the fat and adding the flour. Whisk until the mixture is golden, one to two minutes. Add the curry powder and combine with the mixture. Let cool.
  6. Add the curry and butter mixture to the hot liquid and bring it up to a boil. Stir until thickened.
  7. Take the gravy off the heat and stir in the cooked catfish. Cover and let the flavors combine for a few minutes.
  8. Serve over rice. Although not in the recipe, other condiments such as scallions and chutney work wonderfully with this dish.

Did you know: Curries were very popular in the British diet during the period. Although inspired by the East Indies, this dish was invented in Great Britain. The catfish makes it a uniquely American recipe. Perhaps not holding the status of sturgeon or rockfish, catfish was showing acceptance by the second half of the 18th century. Fish was traditionally the second course at the Washingtons’ dinner table.


 Peas Porridge

 What you’ll need: 

  • 1 quart green peas
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 bundle dried mint
  • A pinch of salt
  • Ground pepper to taste
  • Walnut size ball of butter (about 2 T)
  • 2 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 quarts milk

 Here’s how: 

  1. Take a quart of green peas, put them into a quart of water with a bundle of dried mint and a little salt.
  2. Let them boil until the peas are quite tender, then put in some ground pepper, along with a piece of butter as big as a walnut rolled in flour. Stir it all together and let it boil a few minutes.
  3. Add 2 quarts of milk, let it boil for 15 minutes, take out the mint bundle and serve. 

Did you know: In August 1789, Pennsylvania Sen. William Maclay listed in his diary the foods the Washingtons served in New York at a dinner the senator attended. “It was a great dinner,” he wrote, “first was soup [followed by] Fish, roasted & boiled meats Gammon Fowls &ca.” [fn, WM, pp. 136-137]

Click here to find more recipes from Mount Vernon.

And click here for more information about “Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Enteraining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon.”