Monday, June 2, 2008

Lady Washington

Martha, Martha, Martha. A long, long, long time ago, I was involved with a theatre group in Lindenhurst, NY called The Studio Theatre. It was there that I was first introduced to a live performance of Edward Albee's play from which these opening words were spoken. As property master, it was my responsibility to make sure the set was furnished with the necessary decor to afford the audience the feeling that they were the invited guests of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe is far and away one of the most personal plays that I have ever been involved with in my short career as property master. (I then went onto performing:) But today, we are not celebrating that Martha. Today, we are celebrating Martha Dandridge [Custis Washington,] wife of George Washington our first President.

Martha Dandridge

The oldest daughter of Baptist parents, Martha Dandridge was born on June 2, 1731 on her parent's Chestnut Grove Plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. Both her father and mother came from established New England families and in Virginia, John Dandridge was a wealthy tobacco land owner. As most young girls in an 18th century family, Martha had an informal education. She was not sent to school. However, she was taught to read, write and count and trained at home in music, sewing, and household management. She was taught how to be a good wife, housekeeper and a lady with impeccable manners. Some say she may have been tutored in plantation management, crop sales, homeopathic medicine, animal husbandry by indentured family Thomas Leonard. From The First Ladies of the United States by John T. Marck:

Martha Dandridge, eldest child of Colonel and Mrs. John Dandridge, was born at Chestnut Grove Plantation, not far from Williamsburg in the British colony of Virginia. Growing up in a select society of English families, she was much the same kind of person as a daughter of the rural gentry in England. At the age of sixteen, she was quite popular; petite with brown hair, with lively flirtatious eyes, who knew all the steps in the figure dances of the time and much about social diplomacy. The husband that her family had chosen for her was Captain Daniel Parke Custis; however, there was a possibility that he might be disinherited by his father. As soon as the fear of this was allayed, the wedding was celebrated in 1749, Martha being eighteen and her husband more than twice her age. The marriage was happy, however brief, as Captain Custis died at the age of forty-five, from probably a heart attack, leaving Martha a widow at twenty-six. The death of her husband left Martha quite rich, with a magnificent plantation called the White House, (later called Mount Vernon) and two children, Jack and Patsy.

Martha Dandridge Custis

Martha's marriage to Colonel Daniel Parke Custis, albeit short lived, was a happy one. Her husband adored his young, pretty bride and pampered her with the finest clothes and gifts imported from England. Their life in Virginia was rich and colorful especially for those of their statue. Martha and Daniel Custis had four children in their Pamunkey River mansion. Soon Martha was a busy mother caring for the couple's four children. A son and a daughter, Daniel and Frances, died in childhood, but two other children, John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Martha ("Patsy") Parke Custis survived to young adulthood. Among the couple's many wedding gifts was a cherished gift from the groom's mother. It was a small leather bound book with brittle yellow pages stained, seared and crossed with child like scribbles. It's fading leaves rich with quill penned Virginia recipes would later become one of America's most cherished cookbooks; The Custis Family Cookbook. "There is evidence the recipe book had been in the Custis family for generations. It is quite likely this was a family heirloom dating back to the early 1600s. In all, there were over five hundred classic recipes, dating largely from Elizabethan and Jacobean times. In 1799, Martha presented the book to her granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis as a wedding gift when she married Lawrence Lewis. The cookbook was handed down from mother to daughter until 1892 when the Lewis family presented it to The Historical Society of Pennsylvania where it still resides today. In 1940, the Society gave special permission to renowned historian Marie Kimball to study the manuscript and prepare a cookbook entitled, "The Martha Washington Cook Book." source

I wanted to make sure the above information was accurate so I decided to hit a few of my books. First, I found this in America's Collectible Cookbooks by Mary Anna DuSablon published in 1994. Below that is a quote from The Taste of America by John and Karen Hess published in 1977.

Although the origin of the "Martha Washington" cookbook is in question, there are two undisputed facts concerning this beguiling document: Martha Washington used it while she was First Lady and her family brought the cookbook from England to America. It is a small volume bound in brown leather and divided into two parts: "A Book of Cookery" with 205 recipes and "A Book of Sweetmeats" containing 326 recipes. Belonging to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, the legible, hand written pages have been studied by many, but never so assiduously until historian Karen Hess commenced her research. She titled her interpretation, with historical notes and copious annotations Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweatmeats, being a Family Manuscript, curiously copied by an unknown Hand, sometime in the seventeenth century, which was in her Keeping from 1749, the time of her [first} marriage to Daniel Custis, to 1799, at which time she gave it to Eleanor Parke Custis, her granddaughter, on the occasion of her marriage to Lawrence Lewis.
Proper English housewives of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries kept manuscript books of recipes, which were handed down from mother to daughter; one of the duties of girlhood, along with sewing fine seams for a trousseau, appears to have been copying these recipes and learning how to make them. While daughters may have made certain deletions, they tended to make fair copies, adding recipes as they themselves set up housekeeping. In the great houses, the manuscript belonged to the family, with each new mistress bringing her own addition...Printed cookbooks addressed to housewives did not appear until the end of the sixteenth century, when publishers discovered this gold mine. All cookbooks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are based on family manuscripts, and even those households affluent enough to buy such books still treasured their own, and brought them to the New World. Two of these, which may be presumed to have helped shape our cooking, survive in the keeping of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. One is the so-called Martha Washington cookbook, which has long been attributed to Frances Custis, the First Lady's first mother-in-law. The other is that of the William Penn family...In a general way, the two collections resemble each other, as well they might, both having come from upper calss English families of roughly the same period...There is, incidentally, virtually no herb or spice in use in our "gourmet" cookery of today that did not appear in these seventeenth-century manuscripts.

Lady Washington

"I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, not upon circumstances."
Martha Washington

After the untimely death of her husband, Martha Custis, only 26 years old, was suddenly a rich widow with independent control over her inheritance and that of her children's. Charming and vivacious, she was now one of the wealthiest widows in Virginia and an excellent "catch" for the right suitor. At age 27, the "Widow Custis" selected George Washington from a host of those suitors. Martha had met George Washington at a cotillion in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is said she immediately fell in love with him while he found her quite attractive with a gentle and kind disposition. (Her inherited wealth was an added bonus) There are those who say Washington proposed to Martha while "munching on hard boiled eggs during a picnic as they overlooked the Potomac River." Whether this is true or not, there is a tone of romanticism associated unlike that of the George and Martha we "met" at the beginning of this post. There is also speculation as to whether Washington was actually in love with Martha when they first became engaged. It is said he had had a crush on a woman by the name of Sally Fairfax who may or may not have been the wife of one of his friends. (the other thought is she was a pretty neighbor, but when she married another, he knew he must find a suitable wife for himself.) Whatever the circumstances, it is widely agreed that the partnership was mutually beneficial. On January 6, 1759, George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis were married. The marriage changed Washington to a substantially wealthy landowner. (lots of laws & politics involved here) Three months later, George, Martha, Jacky (4), and Patsy (2) moved into Mt. Vernon, which George had had acquired by lease from the widow of his half-brother Lawrence in 1754. (He inherited the plantation upon the widow's death in 1761.) It is doubtful that Washington could ever have imagined that Mt. Vernon would one day grow into a world wide shrine and a symbol of the American way of life. There is so much information at the Mt. Vernon website, I have only left but a few for you to begin your exploration. If I were you, I would begin with "Who was Martha Washington" the link is provided below.

With her extremely large inheritance of land from the Custis estate and the vast farming enterprise at Mount Vernon, Martha Washington spent considerable time directing the large staff of slaves and servants, while George Washington oversaw all financial transactions related to the plantation, Martha Washington was responsible for the not insubstantial process of harvesting, preparing, and preserving herbs, vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy for medicines, household products and foods needed for those who lived at Mount Vernon, relatives, slaves and servants - as well as long-staying visitors.

Martha and George Washington had no children together, but they did raise Martha's two surviving children which were adopted by George. George was a loving stepfather to Patsy and Jacky and a devoted husband to his wife. The next years at Mount Vernon were happy. The Washingtons owned many pets including dogs and parrots. And then, of course, there were horses used for hunting by George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Martha was careful and conscientious in running her home, although she and her husband did not pinch pennies when it came to caring for their home. She spent considerable time directing the large staff of slaves and servants, while George Washington oversaw all financial transactions related to the plantation. Her large inheritance of land and the vast farming enterprise at Mt. Vernon were demanding jobs which Martha tackled from morning till night. Her children were denied nothing. She pampered and lavished attention and expensive gifts on them. Her only anxiety at the time was over how badly spoiled her children had become. They frolicked over the great sweeping lawns of Mount Vernon, they snuck into the spice fragrant kitchens where Washington's "negro cooks" were planning dishes for the multitude of guests who visited. All in all, the family had a prosperous and apparently happy life at Washington's Mount Vernon estate until, once again, tragedy fell upon Martha Washington. On June 19, 1773, Martha Washington's daughter, Patsy, died during an epileptic seizure at the age of seventeen. Left with only one living child, Martha was devastated.

George and Martha were happily married for 40 years. Although they spent much time elsewhere during the war and presidential years, Mount Vernon remained George and Martha's home until their respective deaths. It is said that the "White House" on the Pamunkey, where Martha first lived, was the inspirational name given to the official residence of the Presidents of the United States, in honor of the wife of the first President. Once again, an unthinkable tragedy, Jacky died in his mid 20's from camp fever probably typhus, which he contracted at Yorktown at the end of the Revolutionary War. Jack had married early, and after his death, two of his four children Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly) and George Washington Parke Custis (Washy), were taken to Mount Vernon to be raised, by the Washingtons. This offered a tiny bit of comfort to Martha. She followed Washington into the battlefield when he served as Commander in Chief of the American Army. She spent the infamous winter at Valley Forge with the General where she helped care for the wounded soldiers and was instrumental in maintaining some level of morale among officers and enlisted troops. She opposed Washington's election as President of the newly formed United States of America, but, gave money to poor American Revolution veterans and lobbied on their behalf for presidential pardons. In appreciation, American servicemen addressed her as "Lady Washington. "She refused to attend the inauguration but gracefully fulfilled her duties as the official state hostess during their two terms in what was called the "President's House," located first in New York City and later in Philadelphia, the temporary U.S. capitals. Martha was not cut out for public life. When the eight years of the Presidency were over, the Washingtons returned to living a quiet, private life at Mount Vernon.

Martha Washington is referred to as the first First Lady, she was actually called by a variety of titles, including Mrs. President or Lady Washington (her husband's nickname for her was Patsy). It wasn't until 1877, during the presidency of Rutherford B Hayes, that his wife, Lucy Hayes was referred to as the First Lady. Although, Dolley Madison is often referred to as the first lady of the white house because of her graciousness and style, Martha was a very good hostess and gave elegant receptions and dinner parties after George Washington became President. As First Lady, entertaining became even more important in Martha Washington's life. She held open receptions every Friday for both men and women who wanted to chat with the wife of the President. George passed away only two years later. Has hostess of this country, she gave lavish parties to match those given by the established governments of Europe. Martha Washington was responsible process of harvesting, preparing, and preserving herbs, vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy for medicines, household products and foods needed for those who lived at Mount Vernon, as well as long-staying visitors. Between 1768 and 1775, the Washingtons hosted more than 2,000 guests. Guests at the Washington home sipped straw stemmed glasses of wine and were duly assembled on the broad flagged column shaded piazza over looking the Potomac River which "the Squire of Mount Vernon" had added on only years before.

Martha Washington's eight years as the first First Lady were extremely unpleasant to her personally, but she viewed it as duty to her husband and her country. By the time she arrived at the capital, her husband's secretary, who had lived in Europe, created a series of rigid protocol rules that she found especially limiting of her, particularly the one which forbade her and the President from accepting invitations to dine in private homes. Despite the company of her two grandchildren, she expressed a sense of loneliness in New York, the first capital, where she had fewer personal friends than she would find in the next capital of Philadelphia. She also discovered that even her mundane activities like shopping or taking her grandchildren to the circus, were recorded by the press. source

On December 14, 1799, George Washington died. After George died, Martha closed the bedroom they shared and didn't enter either their bedroom or George's study. Avoiding memories, Martha then spent her time in a room on the third floor of their estate until she died, only two years later. She is buried in a modest tomb on the Mount Vernon estate with her husband.

Upon his death on December 14, 1799, the slaves owned by the Washingtons were promised their freedom upon Martha Washington's death. Making clear the tremendous personal sacrifice that the federal government asked of her in requesting that she permit the remains of the first president to be eventually interned at the U.S. Capitol Building, she wrote to President John Adams that she would acquiesce with her sense of public duty. Although she curtailed her life to Mount Vernon, once the new capital city was established in what was first called, "The Federal City," and then named for her late husband, Martha Washington welcomed political figures who came to pay their respects to her and visit what was then thought to be the temporary burial place of the late president. She expressed her loneliness for her late husband frequently and her desire to soon join him in death.

Martha made sure every dish served at Mount Vernon… as well as in the first Presidential "White Houses" in New York and Philadelphia… was prepared exactly as called for in her personal cookbook. At least three generous meals were served daily at Mount Vernon. Breakfast was served promptly at 7:00; dinner at 3:00; and tea at 6:00.Sometimes a light supper was served at 9:00. The Great Cake was served during the Christmas holidays and for other special occasions. The hoe cakes were George Washington's breakfast of choice.

Nelly Custis's Recipe for Hoecakes: General Washington's typical breakfast has been described by members of his immediate family and several guests. His step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis Lewis, who was raised at Mount Vernon wrote...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, drank three cups of tea without cream..."...The bread business is as follows if you wish to make 2 1/2 quarts of flour up-take at night one quart of flour, five table spoonfuls of yeast & as much lukewoarm water as will make it the consistency of pancake batter, mix it in a large stone pot & set it near a warm hearth (or a moderate fire) make it at candlelight & let it remain until the next morning then add the remaining quart & a half by degrees with a spoon when well mixed let it stand 15 or 20 minutes & then bake it - of this dough in the morning, beat up a white & half of the yilk of an egg - add as much lukewarm water as will make it like pancake batter, drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south). When done on one side turn the other - the griddle must be rubbed in the first instance with a piece of beef suet or the fat of cold corned beef..." source

I discovered a review for The Martha, Washington Cook Book in the New York Times published on February 11, 1894. The article also had a promotion that stated you could get the book for $1.00 with a subscription to The Weekly Times for one year. It's a PDF file but, if you would like to view it, here is the link. I also included a recipe for French Fritters from the booklet titled Leaves From The Table of George and Martha Washington back in February for President's Day. This is a direct link to the scanned recipe. Leaves From The Table of George and Martha Washington, is a revised edition of the heirloom recipe book. The revised 1948 edition put out by Taylor Wine has a few of the original scripted recipes and Taylor Wine adaptations. The original recipes are classic recipes of Colonial Virginia. All of the pictures posted today are from this small booklet. They can all be enlarged for easier viewing by clicking on them. I know it is sometimes difficult to translate recipes so I have included a scan of words which Taylor Wine editors shrewdly deciphered. I have also included two additional recipes below. One "To Stew Duck the French Way; Stewed Duck and Rolled Roast of Beef. Enjoy!

1. Martha Washington @ Virginia Historical Society
2. Martha Dandridge Custis Washington by John T. Marck
3. Who was Martha Washington?
4. First Lady Biography: Martha Washington
5. The Women of the American Revolution/Martha Washington
6. Martha Washington @ Valley Forge
7. George & Martha Marriage Profile
8. Rare Letter from Martha to George Washington Returns to Mount Vernon
1. Greek, American and French Style Picnics
2. Martha Washington's Great Cake and Birthday celebration
3. Martha Washington's Sweet and Sour Sauce @ Farmer's Almanac
4. Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats By Karen Hess (google books)
5. Trout Steaks with Wine and Rosemary (I found this recipe at a blog post from 2006. It is titled "Just Like Martha Use To Make")


  1. There is such a rich legacy of Colonial food and recipes from Martha Washington. I have spent a lot of time with the Karen Hess book, and have prepared Martha Washington's Chicken Fricassee, which is a really nice dish seasoned with nutmeg. One year, on George's birthday, I also made her ale batter fritters, which were outstanding! It's amazing to see the kitchen at Mount Veron, which is really quite small given all the entertaining they did.

  2. Hi T.W.

    I was surprised at the wealth of information in The Leaves From The Table book. Although it does have a few small pictures of the additions George made, it doesn't have any of the kitchen.

    The Fricassee and Fritters sound delectable.

    Mount Vernon is another place I hope to visit someday.

  3. A wonderfulad informative post, as always...I wonder what srt of cookbook the Martha of Albee's play would have? :)

  4. Hi Lidian,

    You are too kind.

    You know, I was wondering that myself today. For the life of me I can't remember what, if any, food was on the set. I know there was an awful lot of imitation alcohol. I'll have to see if Albee is mentioned in my Literary Gourmet cookbook which, of course, is in PA:(

  5. How fascinating. We are distantly "connected" to the Custis line through General Robert E Lee( not blood wise, but he was married to the the grand daughter, and ironically they say we took the name Curtis from the Custis plantation, again all hearsay) , who we are rumored to be desended from. But that's another story! Hahaha.


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