Like most of us, you probably woke up this Monday – hopefully, without an alarm clock, since it was the Presidents' Day holiday – and asked yourself, “What would George Washington eat for breakfast?”
George’s step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis, who grew up at Mount Vernon, is a reliable source. According to her written account, he ate hoecakes – that is, corn meal pancakes – for breakfast every morning. "He rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready – he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream."
Thomas Jefferson is the more famous President for being the brilliant polymath: diplomat, Francophile, architect and agricultural and viticultural innovator. Washington, by contrast, is remembered as a military leader. His house was less grand than Jefferson’s Monticello. He cut down a cherry tree, never told a lie, and crossed the Delaware River. But he was no slouch. In fact, Washington had a lot in common with the stereotypical Portlander of the early 21st century. He was practical and creative, a DIY entrepreneur and farmer. On his riverside plantation he built a stone gristmill (so he could produce flour and cornmeal for export to the West Indies, England and Europe). He also built a whiskey distillery – “the largest in America, producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey in 1799, making it one of the most successful economic enterprises at Mount Vernon.”
The yeasted griddlecakes Nelly Custis describes require planning ahead (and it's pretty likely George himself wasn't the one doing the planning, DIY though he may have been). She writes that you start “the bread business” the night before: “mix it in a large stone pot and set it near a warm hearth (or a moderate fire) make it at candlelight and let it remain until the next morning...” when you finish it off and bake the batter into pancakes on the griddle. That is, Nelly tells us, you “drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south).” Other details? “The griddle must be rubbed in the first instance with a piece of beef suet or the fat of cold corned beef...”
How to adapt the breakfast fit for our first President to a modern morning in Portland? Try this white cornmeal hoecakes recipe from the folks at Mount Vernon.
George Washington's Hoecakes
8 3/4 cups white cornmeal
1/4 teaspoons dry yeast
Shortening or other cooking grease
Honey & Butter
In a large container, mix together 4 cups white cornmeal, 1 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast, and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter (probably 3-4 cups). Cover and set on the stove or counter overnight.
In the morning, gradually add remaining cornmeal, egg and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter (3-4 cups). Cover and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes.
Add cooking grease to a griddle or skillet and heat until water sprinkled onto it will bead up.
Pour batter, by the spoonful, onto the hot griddle. (Note: since the batter has a tendency to separate, you will need to stir it well before pouring each batch.)