Sunday, November 1, 2020

Plants to Food at Washington's Mt. Vernon - Kitchens

Outside The Kitchen at Mount Vernon

George Washington's visitors were delighted by bountiful offerings of fresh vegetables and fruits from Mount Vernon's gardens and reveled in after-dinner walks amongst all manner of edible, life-sustaining plants. While George Washington oversaw most aspects of managing Mount Vernon's pleasure gardens, fields for crops, & formal grounds, Martha Washington oversaw the Kitchen Garden (The Lower Garden), allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the table year round.  Martha Washington declared in 1792, “…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.” – 

The kitchen garden was first enclosed with brick walls in the early 1760s to protect its produce from deer and other animals. In 1786 the walls were extended and reshaped as part of Washington's new landscape plan. English boxwoods were also planted that same year. Washington's head gardener, usually an indentured servant trained in Europe, was required to submit weekly written reports that reflected the yearly cycle of gardening.

Preparation for planting began in the late fall upon the introduction of dung to increase the fertility of the soil. By early March the garden was producing carrots, onions, leeks, turnips, parsnips, and beets. Soon after, kidney beans, peas, onions, and carrots were planted. At the end of March workers were occupied with grafting apple trees, spreading manure, digging artichokes, planting cabbage, and sowing cauliflower, and celery. Strawberries were gathered in May. Summer and early fall were devoted to harvesting crops as they ripened throughout the kitchen garden.

The first kitchen at Mount Vernon was one of four outbuildings (along with the dairy, storehouse, and washhouse) that were positioned in two pairs, each running in a line at an angle to a corner of the Mansion's west facade. The buildings formed an open forecourt that framed the house and faced the circle where the formal carriage driveway lead to the Mansion.

The placement of the kitchen at Mount Vernon was dictated by a series of functional, social, and environmental factors. The concern for safety from potential fires, the desire to avoid kitchen heat, and the need to avoid the smell of food cooking in the household were of significant importance. In addition, there was the desire to separate domestic functions from the dwelling in order to reinforce the segregation of slave activities from those of the planter family.1

A kitchen based on these guidelines was constructed at Mount Vernon some time before 1753 and was replaced in 1775, the year George Washington undertook a significant enlargement of the Mansion, while simultaneously altering the layout of a variety of outbuildings as well as of the surrounding gardens and grounds.2

The expansion and redesign at Mount Vernon began just before Washington left to command American forces outside of Boston in May 1775. The plan called for the construction of new outbuildings to match the enlarged Mansion. The outmoded structures were demolished and two new buildings—the kitchen and the servants' hall—were erected in their place.

The new kitchen was larger and more architecturally detailed than the original, matching the Mansion in many aspects. Most notably, the siding boards on the facade facing the circle were beveled and sanded to create the appearance of stone blocks. Covered walkways called colonnades were built to connect each of the new structures to the Mansion. Workers carrying food back and forth between the kitchen and the Mansion did so along a protected passageway.3

The updated kitchen included three workrooms on the first floor and a loft above, which served as the residence of the cook or housekeeper. The largest of the three workrooms included a fireplace and attached oven. The other workrooms were a scullery where food was prepared and dishes were washed, and a larder with a subterranean cooling floor to store food. According to the inventory of the kitchen completed after 

George Washington's death, the kitchen contained a wide variety of cooking equipment, including pots and pans, skillets, a griddle, a toaster, a boiler, spits, chafing dishes, tin and pewter "Ice Cream Pots," coffeepots, and strainers.4

Dennis Pogue, Ph.D.

1. Camille Wells, "The Eighteenth-Century Landscape of Virginia’s Northern Neck," Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine (December 1987): 4231–2; Donald W. Linebaugh, "'All the Annoyances and Inconveniences of the Country': Environmental Factors in the Development of Outbuildings in the Colonial Chesapeake," Winterthur Portfolio 29, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 1–18.

2. Dennis J. Pogue, "Mount Vernon: Transformation of an Eighteenth-Century Plantation System," in Historical Archaeology of the Chesapeake, eds. Paul A. Shackel and Barbara J. Little (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 101–14.

3. Dennis J. Pogue, "Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 1931–2006," Archeological Society of Virginia Quarterly Bulletin 61, no. 4 (December 2006): 165–75.

4. W. K. Bixby, ed., Inventory of the Contents of Mount Vernon ([privately printed] 1810), 41–4.

Research plus images & much more are directly available from the Mount Vernon website - to begin exploring, just click the highlighted acknowledgments above.