In honor of President’s Day (and because I am a total history nerd), I decided to pay tribute to our first president by adding cherries and bittersweet chocolate chips to my latest batch of scones.
You remember why we associate cherries with Washington, right? In 1800 author Parson Weems spread the tale to America’s youth that a hatchet-happy young George chopped down his father’s cherry tree (which was bad), but then confessed to it (which was good) and was rewarded for his honesty.
The story is total baloney…but it turns out Washington actually did enjoy cherries, so I stand by calling it a tribute.
If you think scones are dry and tasteless…my dear, you haven’t had a proper one. Slathered in butter, with a mug of sweet, milky Earl Grey tea on the side.
I don’t know if Washington ate scones, but I do know that he was a man of simple tastes in a job that required him to entertain like he was eternally hosting the Ghost of Christmas Past. It must have been quite an adjustment. His home at Mount Vernon was entirely self-sufficient with traditional crops, vegetables, orchards, and animals.
We know a lot about what was served in the Washington household, thanks to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, which you can still purchase and cook from today. Her special-occasion ”Great Cake” recipe calls for 40 eggs, 4 pounds of butter, and a half pint of wine.
Modern interpretation of Martha Washington’s “Great Cake”
Image from Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens
Excuse me? How big was this thing? Did it take up the entire hearth?
Washington was exceedingly private, so he remains very much a man of mystery. It is widely accepted that no credible likeness of him exists. The most famous portrait we all know, the one by Gilbert Stuart that graces the dollar bill (and my living room wall), is especially rude. Stuart and Washington didn’t get along very well, and there is speculation that Stuart purposefully made Washington’s mouth look like “a postage slot” by stuffing the president’s mouth with cotton in place of his ill-fitting dentures.
The dentures are another myth. They were not made of wood, but initially of cow’s teeth. When he became president another set was made, this time of classier hippopotamus tusk. This second set had a special hole drilled to fit over Washington’s one remaining real tooth, but he was in constant pain from the clunky dentures rubbing up against the tooth.
Taking this into consideration, I suspect puddings were also on the menu quite a bit.
Without getting too serious, I do feel it’s important to note how very lucky we are as a nation to have had Washington as our first president. He remains the only president to receive 100% of the electoral college vote, and he stepped into the role with no precedent to follow. He could have taken the job in a drastically different direction than we know today, but instead, he did it exactly right.
Richard Norton Smith sums it up beautifully when he says:
To his everlasting credit, George Washington was ambiguous about power. The man who could have been king insisted that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, however imperfect their judgment. At the end of the war, and again at the end of his presidency, he calmly walked away from power. This genius for renunciation prompted the dying Napoleon in his windswept exile to remark, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”
We only have to look to Egypt in today’s news to see how modern men in positions of power continue to struggle with knowing when to walk away.
As many of you enjoy your long weekend thanks to our past presidents…take a moment to remember and celebrate those newly minted Americans that placed George Washington at the head of the line in 1789, and the man himself for redefining greatness.
Just please, not with a new car.
“The Surprising George Washington” by Richard Norton Smith
For the scones I used the cream scone mix from King Arthur Flour (my all-time favorite for any mix) and just added a handful of dried sweet cherries and another handful of Ghiradelli bittersweet chocolate chips.