A thought on what George and Martha might eat today


 On George Washington’s final trip through Westport, he didn’t partake of the feast prepared for him by hosts Captain Ozias Marvin and his wife. But what might they have prepared for our first president? Roberta Rosa shares the background on the Washingtons' dining traditions as well as the recipe for one of Washington’s favorite sweet treats--Trifle. Just in time to prepare it for his actual birthday on Feb. 22!

By Roberta Rosa

George Washington's birthday is on Feb. 22, and I thought it would be appropriate to examine what a birthday celebration with George and Martha would have been like.  Birthdays in the Washington home were big events along with Christmas Eve and New Year's Day. There are many records of the meals served by George and Martha along with account books that reveal (according to 'The First Ladies Cook Book), "that food was consumed in amazing quantities; orders for claret and champagne were placed 26 dozen at a time."

The Washingtons also did quite a bit of entertaining during the breakfast meal, although these were much less formal, and Mrs. Washington herself made the coffee and tea and only one servant attended. George and Martha found it necessary to confine their official entertaining once he became President to Tuesday and Thursday evenings with dinner being served at four in the afternoon. President Washington had, by the time of his presidency, set in place rules of protocol that he and his wife followed in order to simplify the difficult task of being President in addition to maintaining a home, an estate and a table which would impress visitors. 

It is recorded that as many as 10 to 15 extra guests would join them when they were at Mt. Vernon each night for dinner and accounted for much of the eight tons of pork sent to the smokehouse to be consumed in a given year! And what was the surprise expense? The cost of candles, due to the fact that many of his guests stayed overnight.  In addition, the Washingtons housed the servants of their guests and their horses. It has been said that Washington considered all of his entertaining an important part of duty to his country, and Martha complied with anything that she saw as benefitting her husband. She was so devoted to Washington that she travelled with him during all of his winter encampments with the Continental Army.

Dinner with the President and his wife was elaborate with many offerings of meat, fish (a favorite of our first President), soup, fowl, and many different forms of dessert including puddings, pies, etc. And what about the story of that cherry tree? Part of American lore and nothing more. Cherry pies were served frequently because they were available in abundance. Locally grown - what a concept. It is recorded that frequent offerings at dinners were Beefsteak and Kidney Pie and English Trifle. 

Trifle has changed a great deal over the years.  Below is the recipe served by the Washingtons. Perhaps this would have been served instead of our traditional birthday cake. It has evolved over the years to resemble a large 'parfait'. Read more about Washington's favorite foods at this foodtimeline.org link!

Below is the Washingtons’ recipe for Trifle (though the picture is of a modern day Trifle found at http://www.pinterest.com/).


To make Trifle, you will put slices of Savoy cake or Naples biscuit at the bottom of a deep dish, wet it with white wine, and fill the dish nearly to the top with rich boiled custard (recipe below). Season half a pint of cream with white wine and sugar, and whip to a froth- as it rises, take it lightly off, and lay it on the custard. Pile it up high and tastily decorate it with preserves of any kind, cut so thin as not to bear the froth down by its weight. 

Trifle ingredients:

  • Sponge cake, Naples biscuit, or jelly roll, cut into slices
  • 1/2 cup white wine, sherry, or brandy
  • 1 pint whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon sugar rich custard (see below)
  • candied fruits and angelica for decoration


Line the bottom and sides of a deep dish with slices of sponge cake, Naples, biscuit, or jelly roll. Wet them with 1/3 cup wine, and fill the dish nearly to the top with rich boiled custard.

Season 1/2 pint of heavy cream with 1 tbsp. wine and 1 tbsp. sugar; whip to a froth and lay it on the custard.  Cover and decorate with the remaining 1/2 pint whipped cream, preserves of any kind, candied fruits, and angelica.

Rich Custard ingredients:

  • 1 quart milk, scalded
  • 1/2 cup cold milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • a pinch salt
  • 6 eggs, whole
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla or almond extract*


Scald 1 quart milk. Add 1/2 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt.  Beat 6 whole eggs and add cold milk to them.  Stir, and gradually add to the hot milk mixture.  Cook in top of double boiler until custard coats the spoon. When cold, add the flavoring.

*Of course, you made your own extract! That takes approximately 3 months with good rum and expensive vanilla beans.  I've done it and will write about it one day!!

All of Roberta's Retro Recipes can be found on Roberta's Realities


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