Sunday, January 9, 2022

George Washington (1732-1799) Loved Pineapples - A Matter of Taste or Status?

Martha Washington (1731-1802) - From the Garden to the Table 

While George Washington oversaw most aspects of managing Mount Vernon's  pleasure gardens & grounds, Martha Washington oversaw the Kitchen Garden (The Lower Garden), allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the table year round.

The Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon

“…impress it on the gardener to have every thing in his garden that will be necessary in the House keeping way — as vegetable is the best part of our living in the country.” – Martha Washington, 1792

Inside the Kitchen at Mount Vernon

In the matter of eating & drinking George Washington was temperate. For breakfast he ordinarily had tea & Indian cakes with butter & perhaps honey, of which he was very fond. His supper was equally light, consisting of perhaps tea & toast, with wine, & he usually retired at nine o'clock. Dinner was the main meal of the day at Mount Vernon, & usually was served at two o'clock. One such meal is thus described by a guest:  "He thanked us, desired us to be seated, & to excuse him a few moments.... The President came & desired us to walk in to dinner & directed  us where to sit, (no grace was said).... The dinner was very good, a small roasted pigg, boiled leg of lamb, roasted fowls, beef, peas, lettice, cucumbers, artichokes, etc., puddings, tarts, etc. etc."   The General ordinarily confined himself to a few courses & if offered anything very rich, he would protest, "That is too good for me." He often drank beer with the meal, with one or two glasses of wine & perhaps as many more afterward, often eating nuts, another delicacy with him, as he sipped the wine.

Pineapples

As a young man, making what would be his first and only trip outside of North America, George Washington recorded in his diary the culinary wonders he had found on the island of Barbados. Among the fruits he enjoyed on the trip were "China Orange" and "Avagado" (avocado). However, Washington admitted that while the pear was "generally most admired...none pleases my taste as do's the Pine."

The pineapple remained a rare market find in Europe for nearly two centuries. In the eighteenth century, the English upper class considered the exotic and rather costly pineapple to be a suitable present for friends and those they hoped to impress. On their dining tables, the precious fruit often took the place of honor at the top of a fruit pyramid.

George Washington and other residents of British North America may have benefited from being in closer proximity to the pineapple's native environment, for he certainly was able to acquire them throughout his lifetime. Washington often asked captains of vessels carrying fish, flour, and other commodities from Mount Vernon to the West Indies to bring him "A few Pine Apples," sometimes as many as 2 or 3 dozen at a time.

In addition to getting them directly from the West Indies, pineapples were also purchased from local merchants."3 While the Washingtons generally bought pineapples, on at least one occasion they received them as a gift. The American Revolution disrupted trade with the West Indies, making pineapples scarce. When a woman in New York learned that Martha Washington had been sick, she sent her a number of things "by means of a flag of truce," including 2 dozen pineapples.

While most pineapples were probably eaten in their natural state, cooks of this period did devise some methods for utilizing the leftover fruit, including the rind. Nelly Custis Lewis, Martha Washington's granddaughter who was raised at Mount Vernon, had two recipes for frozen desserts using pineapples. "Fromage of Pine Apples" used minced pineapple, while "Pine Apple Cream," called for steeping or "infusing" a pineapple rind in boiling cream. Utilizing the rind instead of the acidic fruit itself imparted the flavor of pineapple, without taking the risk of curdling the cream.

By Mary V. Thompson, Research Historian, Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

Notes:

1. "George Washington, 22 December 1751," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 1, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925), 27.

2. Jean Gorely, "Pineapple: Symbol of Hospitality," Antiques (July 1945), 22-4.

3. "George Gilpin. . .Contra, 6 June 1798" Mount Vernon Farm Ledger, 1797-1798 (photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 178; "Cash. . .Contra, 6 June 1798" Mount Vernon Farm Ledger, 186.

4. "Martha Mortier to Martha Washington, 15 June 1781" in "Worthy Partner": The Papers of Martha Washington, ed. Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 186, 186n.

5. Patricia Brady Schmit, Nelly Custis Lewis's Housekeeping Book (New Orleans, Louisiana: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1982), 98, 101.

Research plus images & much more are available from the Mount Vernon website, MountVernon.org.