As Americans bust out the obligatory barbecues and burgers this Independence Day, at Past Repasts we are exploring traditional foods that George Washington and the Founding Fathers might have eaten in celebration of the nascent nation that July 4, 1776. While we enjoy modern convenience foods like packaged buns and pre-formed patties, the Founding Fathers likely consumed an impressive variety of fowl, flesh, and fish. Although we love burgers and hot dogs, our modern food sounded a little anticlimactic after reading the descriptions of dishes the founders might have enjoyed at the very first Independence Day.
Over the centuries, Americans have increasingly departed from local, traditional food practices and grown increasingly dependent on a narrow selection of industrially raised and processed foods that harm our environment and health. We continue to face many of the same issues that have been present in the American food system from the country’s inception: food insecurity, exploitation of labor, monocultures and resource depletion. We are turning to the past and historical figures to understand these issues in the food system and reexamine sustainable, historical food and agriculture in order to shape a better future. This summer we will be exploring the first president’s relationship with food and farming.
What did George Washington Eat on July 4, 1776?
We do not have records of what the founders ate on July 4, 1776, so we have explored George and Martha Washingtons’ documents, food preferences, and contemporary food traditions. Washington was defending New York with his Continental Army while the majority of founders were in Philadelphia for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You can see the Library of Congress record of the expense report Washington submitted to get reimbursement for food expenses on July 4, 1776 below. It includes a number of food items like beef, veal loin, potatoes, beets, cabbage and lobsters.
Barbecue seems like an appropriate food to celebrate the 4th of July given that George Washington seems to have been a big barbecue fan. The image of a serious, bewigged Washington was challenged a bit after learning he was even known to stay over night at a barbecue. He attended several “barbicues” and hosted his own in 1773. Washington prized his sheep over other stock, was quoted referencing mutton (mature sheep meat) favorably, and the expense report indicated that he paid for a leg of mutton on July 4, 1776. We put two and two (or barbecue and mutton) together and determined that barbecued mutton would be a historically plausible food to celebrate the 4th.
“My manner of living is plain. I do not mean to be put out of it. A glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready; and such as will be content to partake of them are always welcome. Those, who expect more, will be disappointed, but no change will be effected by it.”
George Washington, 1786
We have enjoyed a fair amount of Texas barbecue over the years but had no idea there was a rich local tradition of barbecued mutton until we started researching for this blog. A newspaper in Corsicana, Texas reported that locals “appropriately celebrated” the 4th of July with a picnic and barbecued mutton in 1860. Texas Monthly reported that barbecue mutton was much more common before demand for American wool and lamb declined in recent decades (George Washington was very proud that the quality of his American wool rivaled Europeans’ and we think he would be appalled that United States now primarily imports these products). Yearly lamb consumption has dropped from 4.5 pounds per capita to less than a pound since the 1960s. In the UK, Prince Charles helped launch efforts to revive interest in eating mutton to support local farmers and preserve food traditions. Mutton can also be considered a more sustainable alternative to beef and young lambs. We hope to see similar movements in the United States as we found it quite difficult to get mutton locally at the few restaurants that had served it for years and were told the restaurants had difficulty securing a consistent supply of mutton.
We journeyed to Southside Market to experience Texas barbecued lamb ribs firsthand and they were glorious. The meat was perfectly slow cooked and tender with the classic Texas barbecue pepper and smoke. We enjoyed the lamb flavor, it reminded me of a beef rib but more interesting. We will be revisiting lamb barbecuing and mutton in future posts.
George Washington’s Fish Fixation
George Washington was described as “excessively fond” of fish and seems to have eaten it on a daily basis. Americans have trended heavily towards a meat-based heavy diet since colonial times. Contemporary Americans still tend to eat meat at a much higher rate than other countries but consume seafood at about half the rate as people in other countries. Given the health and environmental benefits of consuming fish over most meat sources, George Washington’s preoccupation with local seafood may be a value more of us need to cultivate. Trying out foods from the 18th and 19th centuries in the past week has meant a broader range of seafood and meat than we would normally have (they seemed to have had a greater variety of foods in a single day than we/many Americans probably often have in a week). We have enjoyed being more conscious consumers and breaking the monotony of mostly eating chicken an beef.
We chose to do our own version of Martha Washington’s roast fish recipe in a nod to the first president’s fish fixation. The recipe seemed surprisingly modern with fresh herbs and a lovely caper butter sauce. Washington ate local fish like shad on a daily basis. We could not find shad so we used sustainable, wild sockeye salmon. Serving salmon on July 4th is a longstanding East Coast tradition based on a myth about John and Abigail Adams serving salmon on the first Independence Day. John Adams was not in Massachusetts with Abigail, he was in Philadelphia with the other founders.
Asparagus was grown at Mount Vernon and seemed to have made appearances on the Washingtons’ dining table. Our research indicated that George Washington was very fond of beans and they appear on his expense report for July 4, 1776. While George Washington will be forever known as our first president and our first commander-in-chief, he was first a farmer, growing enough food to make Mount Vernon completely self-sufficient. George Washington struggled with the unsustainable demands of the tobacco monoculture for many years before diversifying his crops and expanding his business to include fishing. He was a tremendous advocate for composting, it is hard to imagine a contemporary president extolling the virtues of refuse and manure but perhaps that speaks to how we have become detached from the earth and food system.
As we celebrate our nation’s history, it is important to acknowledge the role and impact of slavery. Enslaved people were forced to prepare food or labor in agricultural and fishing industries by the founders and early Americans. Michael Twitty provides important insight into the history of enslaved people in the American food system and the contributions African Americans have made to the unique food culture since colonial times in his blog Afroculinaria. Forced labor continues to be a part of the American food system. This Independence Day, we want to urge you to continue to fight for a freedom that includes ending food insecurity, inequity, and forced labor within the food system.