February 17, 2011
We associate lots of things with George Washington. He’s a face on our currency, he looms large on Mt. Rushmore, and to use that oh-so-familiar sobriquet, he’s the Father of Our Country. Edibles, however, don’t readily spring to mind. Popular mythology does place him in striking distance of a cherry tree, but that’s more or less the extent to which we talk about food and this founding father. However, in his new biography on Washington, author Ron Chernow sheds light on some of our first president’s eating habits, from a Christmas dinner savored in the bitter cold of Valley Forge to how he and wife Martha entertained guests at their Mt. Vernon estate. For example, he offers this account of a dinner given soon after Washington reluctantly accepted the presidential office:
Every other Thursday the Washingtons held an official dinner at four P.M. The president, seeking geographic diversity, often tried to balance northern and southern legislators on his guest list. If guests were even five minutes late by the hall clock, they found the president and his company already seated. Washington would then explain curtly that the cook was governed by the clock and not by the company. In his diary, [senator William] Maclay described a dinner on August 27, 1789 in which George and Martha Washington sat in the middle of the table, facing each other, while [Washington's personal secretary] Tobias Lear and [nephew] Robert Lewis sat on either end. John Adams, John Jay and George Clinton were among the assembled guests. Maclay described a table bursting with a rich assortment of dishes—roasted fish, boiled meat, bacon and poultry for the main course, followed by ice cream, jellies, pies, puddings and melons for dessert. Washington usually downed a pint of beer and two or three glasses of wine, and his demeanor grew livelier once he had consumed them.
However, the mechanics of eating were a constant sore spot for the president. By the time he was elected, Washington only had one tooth remaining and had to rely on dentures, which not only restricted his diet to soft foods, but made public speaking extremely difficult. And the network of pins, wires and springs that kept the prosthetics in place were quite painful, sometimes to the point where toothaches would confine him to bed. Indeed, looking at a pair from Mount Vernon’s collections, Washington’s dentures are so ungainly by modern standards that they look more like something you’d wind up and expect to hop across a tabletop. Nevertheless, the perpetually self-aware Washington was indebted to dentist John Greenwood, who did his best to alleviate the president’s dental woes. Chernow writes:
During his two terms Washington chomped his way through several pairs of dentures, and his letters to Greenwood explain why they so often wore out. Bars holding the teeth together were either too wide on the side or too long in the front, leading Washington to complain that they “bulge my lips out in such a manner as to make them appear considerably swelled.” To relieve this discomfort, he often filed down the dentures but ended up loosening the teeth in the process. So embarrassed was he by the way the dentures distorted his facial appearance that he pleaded with Greenwood to refrain from anything that “will in the least degree force the lips out more than [they] now do, as it does this too much already.” In the portrait of Washington done by Christian Güllager in 1789, Washington’s lower lip juts out rather grotesquely. Apparently the president undertook some amateur dentistry of his own, telling Greenwood to send a foot of spiral spring and two feet of gold wire that he could shape himself.
And to add insult to injury, the ivory and animal teeth—not wood, as some stories might have you believe—used in the dentures were prone to staining and the president’s penchant for port wine turned his pearly whites pitch black.
Perhaps to get an even clearer vision of what dishes were placed before the first President of the United States, we should turn our attentions to The Martha Washington Cookbook. Though the book doesn’t point out specific dishes that were served during Washington’s administration, it does provide a wonderful look at early American cookery. And if anyone has ever wondered how to boil a pigeon or make a pigeon pie—especially you urban dwellers out there—this is your one-stop resource.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.