Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

What did George and Martha eat?

July 5, 2011 by Beth A. Twiss Houting


As you consider a diet to shed the excess pounds packed on at the picnics and barbeques of the July 4th weekend, you might consult a cookbook owned by Martha Washington when our nation was new. 

Martha Washington. Credit: Flickr photo by Marion Doss

The treasured book is in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Happily, it doesn't include hot dogs, burgers, corn on the cob, and S‘mores.  Instead, it contains recipes for “calues [calves] head pie” and “calues foot pie” served perhaps with cowcumbers, pease, and candy marry goulds.   

The cookbook is two-in-one:  The Art of Cookery and A Book of Sweetmeats.  Reading from one cover, you encounter 205 recipes for meat and vegetables as well as planting instructions. Flip the book over, and you begin to read the sweetmeat section with 326 recipes for sugared foods (candy, cakes, and preserved fruits), as well as medicinal preparations. 

Reading the names of the recipes not only gives us a taste (no pun intended) of what was on the dinner plate but also a sense of dialect.  Unfortunately, what the cookbook may not tell us is what Martha and George actually ate or how they spoke. 

According to transcriber Karen Hess, Martha’s book was a family heirloom that she received at her wedding when she married her first husband Daniel Custis in 1747. It documents food ways of the 1600s and 1700s. She may or may not have actually used it. 

Hess, who studied the hand-written book at the Historical Society, looked for clues about when the book was written.  For example, it does not include ingredients that became popular during the 1700s, such as the love apple (tomato), white potato, or ice cream.  The recipes also do not include New World ingredients like turkey and pumpkin.  Instead, the recipes are similar to those of older medieval cookbooks used by English nobles and royalty.  Eating habits were based both on available produce—home-grown asparagus and locally fished eels— and on Middle-Eastern influences, that incorporated almonds, nutmeg, and raisins.

She also examined the handwriting and inscriptions in the book.   A note on one page claims that Martha’s first mother-in-law, Francis Parke Custis, created the book.  Hess thinks it is more likely that the book was arranged and written in the 1600s, perhaps by Lady Berkely, the great-grandmother of Daniel Custis.

A family heirloom

Already stained with food and slightly charred on one side, the book was a family heirloom, a connection from one generation of women to another.  Martha continued that tradition when she gave the book to her grand-daughter Nelly Custis upon Nelly’s marriage to Lawrence Lewis in 1799.

We do know that Martha also owned a copy of Hannah Glasse’s 1747 Art of Cookery, which did include ice cream and tomatoes.  As for preparing that calves head pie this holiday weekend, be sure you have on hand white wine, butter, lemon,  nutmeg, salt, pepper, and “raysons of ye sun.”  Now that doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Martha’s cookbook will be on display free to the public on August 3 from 12:30-7:30 p.m. at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust St., Philadelphia.  The display coincides with the National Constitution Center's presentation of Discover the Real George Washinton: New Views from Mount Vernon, on view through September 5. For the complete transcription of Martha Washington's cookbook, see Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats by Karen Hess (Columbia University Press, 1981).  Beth A. Twiss Houting is Senior Director of Programs and Services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which houses a number of historic cookbooks. A facsimile of Ellen Emlens’s 1865 cookbook is currently for sale on

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