Monday, January 24, 2011

George Washington's Thursday Dinners

When George Washington became the first president of the United States in 1789, some of the most pressing questions facing the new nation involved social manners and etiquette. This might seem trivial today, but, back then, George and his fellow patriots had just fought a long war against the British Crown and they wanted to be sure that the American people would never mistake their president for a king.

How much pageantry should surround the office of the presidency? How elaborate should presidential dinners be? And how should the new president be addressed? As “His Excellency”? “His Mightiness”? Or, as Vice-President John Adams suggested, "His Highness, the President of the United States of American and Protector of the Rights of the Same?"

These were questions of great importance when George Washington took the Oath of Office on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789.

That same week, Washington distributed questionnaires to his cabinet members, soliciting their opinions regarding the basis of “a tenable system of etiquette.” After much discussion, it was decided that George would be addressed as President Washington or simply Mr. President.

It was also decided that “levees” (receptions) would be held each Tuesday afternoon for foreign ambassadors and other “strangers of distinction” and that congressional dinners would be held each Thursday. Friday nights were chosen for Martha Washington’s “Drawing Rooms” and the remaining days were reserved for state banquets and personal entertaining.

Despite his desire to avoid the trappings of monarchy, George's Thursday dinners were truly fit for a king. Dinners began promptly at four o’clock and typically consist of three bountiful courses, the first two of which usually included fifteen or twenty different dishes – all brought to the table at once!

A menu from Martha Washington’s cookbook reveals just how elaborate these dinners could be. For a first course, she suggested serving Boiled Turkey, Baked Salmon, Shoulder of Mutton, Chicken Patties, Baked Ham, Stewed Cabbage, Scotch Collops, Pork Cutlets and Sauce Robert with Mashed Potatoes, Maids of Honors, Dressed Greens, French Beans, Oyster Loaves and Celery Sauce.

This course would be followed by Asparagus a la Petit Poi, Crayfish in Sauce, Fruit in Jelly, Lamb Tails, Partridges, Poached Salmon, Wild Duck, Roasted Hare, Sweetbreads, Plovers, Prawns, and Chardoons with Fricassed Birds, Rhenish Cream and custard.

After this course, the table cloth was removed and fresh glasses and decanters of wine were placed on the table with all kinds of fruits and nuts. If Martha and other ladies were present, they would excuse themselves at this point and the men would settle down (with very full bellies!) to talk about politics and other important affairs of the day.

Although most of the recipes in Mrs. Washington's cookbook might be difficult to duplicate today, you can try this more recent recipe for Poached Salmon with Dill, which is simple to prepare and tastes simply delicious.

1 to 1½ pounds salmon fillets
½ cup dry white wine (a good Sauvignon Blanc)
½ cup water
A few thin slices of yellow onion and/or 1 shallot, peeled and sliced thin
Several sprigs of fresh dill or sprinkle of dried dill
A sprig of fresh parsley

Put wine, water, dill, parsley and onions in a saute pan, and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Place salmon fillets, skin-side down on the pan. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Season with freshly ground black pepper and enjoy.

FOOD FACT: If you happen to live near Mount Vernon or plan on visiting someday, be sure to stop by the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant which serves such tasty and authentic colonial appetizers as Peanut and Chestnut Soup, Colonial Hoe Cakes, and Fried Brie with Strawberry Sauce. Dinner menu items include Filet Mignon wrapped in Virginia Pepper Bacon and topped with Fresh Crabmeat and Hollandaise, Roast Duckling with “George Washington’s favorite Apricot Sauce,” and Stuffed Pork Loin with Opium Sauce.