Happy Presidents' Day, everyone! Originally celebrated on February 22nd, which is George Washington's birthday, President's Day was consolidated with Abe Lincoln's in 1971 and every year food blogs are inundated by everything cherry in George's honor (poor Abe gets little mention at all, and you can just forget about all the other Presidents).
The story goes that little George "barked" a cherry tree as a child and couldn't "tell a lie" to his father, admitting the deed. Cherries have been a symbol of George ever since.
But did the poor barked cherry tree actually exist? Most historians say no, given that the story first appeared in a later edition (but not the first) of a biography published some years after Washington's death. Although some historians argue that it is, in fact, likely to be true, given that none of George's (i.e. Martha's) children ever disputed it.
But did George ACTUALLY like cherries?
The story goes that cherry pie was his favorite, and thus cherry pies are served in his honor all over the country. But was it?
A search of Washington's papers for "pie" brings up only a couple of mentions, all referring to "Christmas pie." Searching for "cherry" brings up hundreds of hits - all about Washington planting cherry trees of all difference varieties at Mount Vernon. So he certainly liked cherries. But cherry pie?
Pie was a common way to turn fruit into dessert in the 18th century and was much easier to make in the days of open-hearth cooking than the more complicated cakes. Cakes were also much more expensive, being leavened with numerous, long-beaten eggs and calling for large amounts of butter, sugar, and spices. Pies, on the other hand, were made with lard and a little flour, with a cooked fruit filling, which may or may not have been sweetened. Pies could also be sweetened with the much cheaper honey, molasses, or maple syrup. They were also a lot faster to make and less likely to scorch in a dutch oven over coals or inside a beehive oven.
So it is possible that Washington ate a fair number of cherry pies in his day. But the thing about cherries is that they aren't even remotely in season in February. Martha Washington did record a recipe for preserved cherries. And cherry bounce, a sort of homemade cherry brandy, was popular in the 18th century. But cherry pie for George's birthday? Not likely, unless it was made with those preserved cherries.
If you ask the folks at Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, NY (not too far from where I live), they'll tell you that Washington's favorite food was walnuts. Which crops up (no pun intended) in the tree planting sections of Washington's papers just as often, if not more so, as cherry trees.
Another Washington legend says he could crack walnuts with his bare hands. Which with English walnuts (his favorite) is quite easy. Native American black walnuts, however (those most readily available to George), are a different story. Most people crack those by running their cars over them.
With their British heritage, George and Martha may have made pickled walnuts, which are made in June when black walnuts are still green and the nut hulls haven't fully formed yet. The pickled green nuts (recipe here) are eaten whole (hull and all!) with cheese. In the 18th century cheese and nuts with fruit was a common "dessert course." They'd probably go great with some preserved cherries and cherry bounce.
If you'd rather celebrate George with a dessert, try the slightly more accurate Martha Stewart's walnut pie (though what you'd substitute for corn syrup I'll never know). Or bake Martha Washington's "Great Cake," which would have been eaten at Christmastime (maybe a few slices were left by February?).
But keep in mind that, according to Martha's grandson Custis, George may not have even liked dessert all that much. Custis wrote, "He ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond. He partook sparingly of dessert, drank a home-made beverage, and from four to five glasses of Madeira wine."
Maybe fish in Madeira would be a better dish to celebrate Washington? Certainly cherry bounce counts as "a home-made beverage."
Really, whole walnuts, cheese, and preserved cherries with a glass of cherry bounce or Madeira would be the most accurate "dessert" to reflect George's predilections.
If you'd rather, go ahead and celebrate Abe Lincoln instead. Apples, corn cakes, bacon, and gingerbread men were among his favorites. If you'd like to know more about Abe and his penchant for helping Mary in the kitchen, check out Rae Katherine Eighmey's Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen or listen to this interview from NPR.
However you celebrate our past Presidents, just remember that when it comes to the past, culinary or otherwise, our American mythology isn't always accurate. Happy eating. Happy Presidents' Day.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.