Saturday, March 13, 2021

Plants to Food at Mt. Vernon - Mrs. Fitzhugh’s Buns


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 nece]ssary 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

Outside 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.

Mrs. Fitzhugh’s Buns

This recipe for these slightly sweet and spicy buns is adapted from one in a small group of manuscripts in the Mary Custis Lee Papers at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond. Forgotten for more than a century, these papers were found in 2002 in two wooden trunks at the Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Company in Alexandria, Virginia. Included are letters, legal papers, journals, and other significant documents, all collected by Mary Custis Lee, eldest daughter of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. 

The recipe likely came from Ann Bolling Randolph Fitzhugh (1747-1805) mother-in-law of George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857). Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis was raised by Martha and George Washington after his father died.

This recipe is a modern adaptation of the 18th-century original. It was created by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump for the book Dining with the Washingtons.


2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 cup lukewarm water, divided

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided

2 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1/4 cup lukewarm milk


1. Sprinkle the yeast over 1/4 cup of the water, add 1 teaspoon of the sugar, and set aside to proof until bubbly—about 5 minutes.

2. Sift the flour, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and salt together into a large mixing bowl.

3. Stir together 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar with the butter. Add to the spiced flour, mixing with your fingers until crumbly.

4. Whisk the egg together with the remaining 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons of sugar. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, and pour in the egg and sugar, proofed yeast, and milk. Stir until well mixed, adding enough of the remaining water to make a soft dough. Put the dough in a buttered bowl, turning to coat with butter. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel, and set aside in a warm place to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until doubled.

5. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan with vegetable shortening. Push down the dough with a wooden spoon. Divide into 12 pieces, shape into balls, and place in the prepared pan. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise for about 45 minutes, until doubled.

6. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Position the rack in the upper third of the oven.

7. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the buns are lightly browned. Watch carefully, as they can easily burn. Immediately remove the buns from the pan, and place on a wire rack to cool.

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

Colonial Era Cookbooks

1615, New Booke of Cookerie, John Murrell (London) 

1798, American Cookery, Amelia Simmons (Hartford, CT)

1803, Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter (New York, NY)

1807, A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Eliza Rundell (Boston, MA)

1808, New England Cookery, Lucy Emerson (Montpelier, VT)

Helpful Secondary Sources

America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking/Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Colonial Kitchens, Their Furnishings, and Their Gardens/Frances Phipps Hawthorn; 1972

Early American Beverages/John Hull Brown   Rutland, Vt., C. E. Tuttle Co 1996 

Early American Herb Recipes/Alice Cooke Brown  ABC-CLIO  Westport, United States

Food in Colonial and Federal America/Sandra L. Oliver

Home Life in Colonial Days/Alice Morse Earle (Chapter VII: Meat and Drink) New York : Macmillan Co., ©1926.

A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America/James E. McWilliams New York : Columbia University Press, 2005.