Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Favorite of George Washington: The Salt Fish Dinner

When I discovered this article in the February 1936 issue of American Cookery magazine, I knew I just had to share it with you today in honor of George Washington's birthday. The article was written by Louisa Pryor Skilton.

That George Washington had a fondness for fish is well known. From his own estate bordering the Potomac he had an ample supply of spring shad, herring, bass, carp, and sturgeon. And that fish appeared often on the table of the Washington family is borne out by the fact that Benson J. Lossing, in his Mary and Martha Washington mentions a breakfast guest who later commented on the absence of broiled fish from the menu "as is the general custom."

Then George Washington came to New England, home of the salt fish dinner. As Commander of the Continental Army he lived in Cambridge where Harvard students were demanding salt fish in preference to fresh fish in the college dormitories! As President he made a triumphal visit to New Hampshire and was royally entertained in Portsmouth. In that most interesting chronicle of his visit, "George Washington in New Hampshire," the author, Judge Elwin L. Page, referring to a dinner in his house at Brewster's Tavern says, "One would like to know what was the table talk, but neither Washington nor any of his guests has left a trace of it. We may be reasonably certain, however, that an important part of the bill of fare was codfish, not prepared in the present day fashion but in the form then known as "dumb fish." The superior spring catch of fish was used for this dish. The fish were first salted and then dried, then kept alternately above and below ground until thoroughly mellowed. The resultant dumb fish, when boiled, was in color red and was served on Saturdays at the best tables in New England.

After these New England visits, Washington retained his fondness for this particular kind of dinner. His friends knew of it and Peter Leicester Ford in his True George Washington tells of the concern of Richard Varick who wrote to a friend requesting the loan of enough salt codfish to entertain Washington at dinner because his own supply had been delayed in arrival. When Washington himself entertained no less distinguished guest than Archibald Robertson, the Scotch artist who came to this country to present to him a box made of celebrated oak tree which sheltered Sir William Wallace after the battle of Falkirk, the dinner was served at three o'clock. "It being on Saturday, the first course was mostly eastern cod and fresh fish."

At this point Tobias Lear enters the story. He lived in Portsmouth and after he graduated from Harvard became private secretary to Washington. Among other duties he kept the household accounts, and recently when these were found in an old trunk inherited by Stephen Decatur, Jr., he published them as a part of the Private Affairs of George Washington. Here we read, Salt codfish was one of the staple articles of food of the age and was looked upon almost as a necessity. Washington was extremely fond of fish, and knowing this the New England members of Congress usually kept him supplied with cod. He regularly dined on Saturday on a salt fish dinner consisting of boiled beets, potatoes and onions mixed with the boiled fish and covered with pork scraps and egg sauce..."

So here you have the menu for the dinner peculiarly connected with Washington. If you are entertaining for Washington's Birthday, why not serve to your guests as nearly as you can reproduce it the favorite of Washington-the salt fish dinner. Ed Note: Colonel Brewster's Tavern burned down in 1813. It was replaced by the Treadwell Jenness House built in 1818.

"The Sacred Cod"

"We should regard it as somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order."

When there was no chance of procuring fresh meat or fish due to in-climate weather in New England, two time honored ways of curing food for preservation were followed. The first was dry-salting where the fish was buried in a bed of salt layer upon layer. The other method used was brine-curing in which the fish, or meat, was immersed in a strong solution of salt and water. By choosing raw salts from different sources assorted "effects" could be had. (ie, rock salt, sea salt)

Traditionally, salted fish was sun-dried on rocks or hung to dry. It may sound like an arduous task, however, once you get the hang of How to Salt Fish, you may be surprised to discover not only how rewarding it is but also how economical it is.

Once the fish is desalted and re-hydrated it is delicately plump and tender.

The salt fish is cut in serving pieces, freshened in cold water for two or three hours, then drained, covered with cold water and brought to a boil, then drained again. Fat salt pork is diced and fried until golden brown, but never the least bit burned. Small beets and potatoes are cooked until tender. White sauce called by most State-of-Mainers "butter gravy" is made, and cubed hard-cooked eggs are added to it. The salt fish, arranged on a platter with its blanket of egg sauce, is surrounded by the vegetables, and pork scraps act as a garnish. Usually there's a big plate of johnnycake, too, and steamed apple pudding with nutmeg sauce. It is always common procedure to cook enough fish and potatoes to have plenty left over for another meal. These are chopped lightly together and mixed with the cold egg sauce and pork scraps, then cooked in the spider until a golden-brown crust is formed. Served with pickled beets or cole slaw, hot biscuits, and warm apple pie, it's a meal good enough for anyone.

It might look something like this one as found in American Cooking: New England published in the Foods of World Series by Time-Life Books in 1970.

Cape Cod Boiled Dinner
2 pounds salt cod
3 tbs. butter
2 tbs. flour
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 cup milk
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. ground white pepper
6 thin 1-by-3-inch slices lean salt pork
3 hard cooked eggs, cut crosswise into 1/4 inch thick slices
6 medium potatoes, peeled and boiled
6 medium beets, boiled and peeled
12 small carrots, scraped and boiled
1 rutabaga peeled, quartered, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices and boiled.
Starting a day ahead, place the cod in a glass, enameled or stainless steel bowl, cover it with cold water and soak for at least 12 hours, changing the water 3 or 4 times. Drain the cod in a saucepan and add enough fresh water to cover it by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. (Taste the water. If it seems very salty, drain, cover the cod with fresh water, and bring to boil.) Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork. Drain and cut the fish into 2-by-4 inch pieces. In a heavy 1-to-2 quart saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat. When the foam begins to subside, stir in the flour and mustard and mix thoroughly. Pour in the milk and, stirring constantly with a whisk, cook over high heat until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens heavily. reduce the heat and simmer for about 3 minutes to remove the raw taste of flour. Then add the salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning.

In a heavy 8-to-10 inch skillet, fry the salt pork over moderate heat, turning the slices frequently until the pork is crisp and brown on both sides. Transfer it to a paper towel to drain and discard the fat in the skillet. Mound the cod on a heated platter and pour the sauce over it. Place the hard-cooked egg slices on top of the fish, arrange the pork slices, potatoes, beets, carrots and rutabaga pieces around it and serve at once.

In late April or early May the melting snow and spring rains caused the rivers in Virginia to flow with fish. In the 18th century vast numbers of shad and herring would come up the Potomac from the ocean to spawn. During these runs, the river was so thick with fish, citizens could gather enough to last the rest of the year. After the customary dinner of fresh fish, they would get ready for the task of preserving. At George Washington's landing, fish was gathered and sent to the Salt House at Mount Vernon where it was cured "to feed family, guests, servants, and slaves throughout the year. Washington also shipped and sold it to markets along the east coast of America and in the West Indies."

from The Diaries of George Washington @ the Library of Congress

February 3, 1770:

"Agreed with Mr. Robt. Adam for the Fish catchd at the Fishing Landing...on the following terms--to wit He is obligd to take all I catch at that place provided the quantity does not exceed 500 Barls. And will take more than this qty. If he can get Cask to put them in. He is to take them as fast as they are catchd with out giving any interruption to my people; and is to have the use of the Fish House for his Salt, fish, &ca. taking care to have the House clear at least before the next Fishing Season. In consideration of which he is to pay me Ten pounds for the use of the House, give 3/ a thousd. for the Herring (Virg. Money) and 8/4 a hundred (Maryland Curry.) for the whitefish."

The History of Salt Fish began long before the colonists arrived. European fishermen were harvesting cod off the coast before Columbus. Dried salted cod and the dishes made from it are known by many different names. For example, it is known as bacalhau in Portugal where it is said there are more than 365 ways to serve it, one for every day of the year. Bacalao is the Spanish term for dried salt cod. As a child, baccalà, the Italian term for salted cod, was reserved for two special meals during the year, Good Friday and Christmas Eve. On rare occasions, my father would make his "famous" codfish balls for Friday night dinner when fish was still the obligatory dish to eat on Fridays in Catholic homes. However, Easter and Christmas was truly its time to shine.

I don't have my father's recipe for Codfish Balls but I did find one in The White House Cookbook published in 1887.

Codfish Balls
Take a pint bowl of codfish picked very fine, two pint bowls of whole raw peeled potatoes, sliced thickly; put them together in plenty of cold water and boil until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked; remove from the fire, and drain off all the water. Mash them with the potato masher, add a piece of butter the size of an egg, one well-beaten egg, and three spoonfuls of cream or rich milk. Flour your hands and make into balls or cakes. Put an ounce each of butter and lard into a frying pan; when hot, put in the balls and fry a nice brown. Do not freshen the fish before boiling with the potatoes. Many cooks fry them in a quantity of lard similar to boiled doughnuts.

A Massachusetts Fish Story:

Massachusetts affection for cod is such that a wooden replica of the fish is enshrined in the state legislature, and in the nineteenth century its economic importance was the source of status and fortunes for families who belonged to what was known as the "codfish aristocracy." In those days in every home there was a box containing hard, whitish slabs in the back pantry, and in many cracker-barrel stores a long, dried fillet of salt cod hung next to the rum barrel as a kind of free lunch to whet the thirst. Cod was considered a must for Saturday dinner for generations of seagoing New Englanders and was known as "Cape Cod Turkey" when it was cooked with pork scraps and served with an egg sauce, boiled potatoes, and boiled beets decorating each side of the platter. Another garnish for salt fish consisted of sliced parsnips, a much loved New England root, parboiled and sauteed in butter so slowly that all the butter is absorbed and the parsnips turn yellow slightly flecked with brown. American Food; The Gastronomic Story Evan Jones, p.71

1. Americana: the library of the late Benson J. Lossing, American historian (online)
2. George Washington in New Hampshire (available from the Portsmouth Marine Society)
3. George Washington's Walking Tour through Portsmouth
4. The True George Washington © 1896 By Paul Leicester Ford available @ google books
5. George Washington's Household in Philadelphia, 1790-1792
6. The Weekly Salt Fish Dinner in New-England. NYT July 16, 1869
7. Islands Of New England (1954) Hazel Young (available online @ The Universal Library Project)
8. George Washington and the Potomac River
1. Salt Fish Recipes (all over the globe)
2. Salted Fish in the Mediterranean-Clifford A. Wright
3. How to Prep Salt Cod
4. Salt Cod Leghorn-Style
5. Baccala Meatballs: Polpette di Musillo-Mario Batali
6. Spanish Basque Salt Cod Casserole (Bacalao a la Vizcaina)
7. Portuguese Salt Cod Stew (Bacalhoada)
8. Fried Salt Cod with Garlic Sauce and Artichoke Soup
9. Plantains and Serenata de Bacalao (Saltcod Salad)
10. Thank God for Cod-The East Hampton Star
Further Reading
Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World by Sue Shepard


  1. I have visited Mount Vernon numerous times, and I believe I've been to "fish landing" on the Potomac. Great post, Louise! Mr. Washington was the ultimate entertainer (the collection of dishes and glassware is huge) but I might not have come up with salt cod as his favorite. On a personal note, I learned how to make a salt cod dish with mashed potatoes called brandade which I love. Nice to know that I have something in common with the Father of our Country!

  2. What fun! History, cooking and cod. I'm just coming to appreciate cod, but since the Knight hates fish, I doubt I'll be cooking it at home.

  3. Thanks T.W. It was a fun post to research. I haven't been to Mount Vernon in years. I'm hoping to get there this year when the kids come to visit. It's funny that you should mention brandade, I came {this close} to including my favorite recipe. It too is a dish that I adore in its simplicity.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed this post Channon. It did lead me on a leisurely stroll down your neck of the woods. Tell the Knight he doesn't know what he's missing!!!

  4. Great post Louise! Salt cod is one of my husband's favourite things; SO happy you have a new recipe for me. I will surely keep this recipe to surprise him one day.

  5. Another good source: Mark Kurlansky's book "Cod."

  6. Louise, salt cod...I miss it so much, we used to eat very often back in Brazil...the Cape Cod boiled Dinner sure sounds and looks very yummie!

  7. I loved the historical background, and what a fabulous dish! A great one to celebrate George Washington's birthday!

  8. Louise, this was fascinating. My mother was from New England so I am no stranger to salted fish, but I had no idea of the history behind it or its importance in colonial America. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  9. I've never had salt fish before... I bet it's delicious.

  10. I love salt cod and smoked cod! That english dish looks so delicious despite the old-fashioned presentation... ;-P A wonderful produce.



  11. Love this post, Louise. You always do such a fabulous research job!
    And I've never had salt cod, do you believe?
    Also like the old boiled dinner done with cod instead of corned beef. I'd much prefer it.

  12. Well, my youngest Presidential scholar is pretty certain that George Washington ate a lot of ham (which happens to be my boy's favorite meat), and so that's what we eat on George Washington's birthday. What Southern dinner would be complete without corn bread, or Corn Bears, as we do it? Happy Day-After, Louise!

    And Thor appreciates the reminder of Dog Biscuit Day!

  13. Always so much interesting info. at your blog ;)

  14. Hi Louise, welcome back! I know it's been awhile. Thanks for hopping by. It's truely nice to see you in action again. I have to tell you your cake of kisses looks amazing. I am totally attracted to it. Btw, I'm not sure is Asian salted fish are the same as yours. Well, that is how the fishermen kept their fishes in older days when there is not refrigerator. Thanks for sharing & hope you're having a lovely day.
    Blessings, Kristy

  15. You really dig into your subjects. As always a very interesting story and info.

  16. fact: i hate fish.
    fact: i love salt.
    i think it might be worth trying salted fish to see if my love of all things salty outweighs my distaste for all things fishy. :)

  17. I never had salt fish before Louise! I would like to try it - the big platter looks good - although I think it could use a modern makeover with some fresh herbs or spices! The taters and beets look so bland. Thank you for sharing - hope you have a great weekend!

  18. Dear Louise love your histories and this dish look delicious!! gloria

  19. My very own salt cod recipe! Thank you! But not even a note? Of course, there could only be one person sending me a recipe for salt cod this week ...

  20. Enjoy the recipe Rita. And, have a wonderful vaca!!!

    GREAT resource, Mae. Thanks for sharing...

    Indulge, Juliana. I'm sure salt cod is available somewhere by you!

    Thanks Natasha! It was a fun post!!! I must tell you, your Bacon & Egg Makeover Round-Up is truly inspiring!

  21. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post Mary. It was quite an eye-opener for me as well.

    It is Pam. Let us know when you give it a try.

    It is a rather out-dated presentation Rosa. I suppose meals needed to be hearty in those days. After all, a nation was being built:)

    Thank you Barbara. It was a fun post to research even if it did leave me craving the baccalà of my youth:)

    Sounds good to me Marjie. Especially those Corn Bears. Do tell...

    I'm so glad you enjoyed your visit tigerfish.

    Thanks for the warm welcome Kristy. It's GREAT to be back. I get the feeling Asian salted fish is the same as ours. It seems, cod fish salting made its rounds in history and Asia was one of its most popular lay overs:)

    But does Ben; duckie?

    Sometimes I'm so filled from digging Sidney my appetite vanishes. Not all the time thank goodness:)

    Grace, try as you may, I don't think it will change your mind. Salted fish is after all, still fish covered in salt:)

    Are you volunteering, Reeni? I absolutely agree this colonial meal does need to be brought into the 21st century. I can only imagine what feast of goodness you would prepare. GO FOR IT!!! Visitors: Reeni has a Pillsbury Give-A-Way going on over at her blog. Go see how you can enter.

    Thank you Gloria. It's always so nice to "see" you.

  22. What a wonderful and informative read. I've read Mark Kulansky's Cod and thought it terrific, but feel it should be paired with this post for a complete overview. Wonderful read!

  23. That looks delicious, and simple too. I'm trying to make a conscious effort to cook more fish--maybe I'll try this one.

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Through this wide opened gate,
none came too early,
none returned too late.

Thanks for dropping in...Louise