Cook these 12 favorite foods of America’s Founding Fathers for the Fourth of July
Happy birthday America! No matter your political persuasion, we can bet that you’ll be spending your day today in red, white and blue outfits, watching the fireworks, and digging in to a platter of hot dogs (or other cookout fare). But while we think of these things as ultra-patriotic today, they weren’t necessarily what early American colonists were doing.
For a small taste of what folks were eating around the time of the Constitutional Convention, we looked back at some of the Founding Fathers’ favorite foods. Yes, even 200-plus years later, we know what these men were eating and drinking while they were drafting the Constitution and working in the Oval Office.
The Founding Fathers were from various parts of the East Coast and lived everywhere from New England to Virginia, and in some cases other countries, which meant their favorite foods varied greatly. Some ate mostly regional favorites, while others brought the influence of different cultures into their kitchens. Of course, many of America’s founders and their wives weren’t doing much of the cooking themselves. Far more than half of the founders enslaved Africans to work in their kitchens, their fields and more. These enslaved peoples deserve all credit for popularizing the founders’ favorite foods.
The eating habits of the founders weren’t terribly different from the ways many Americans eat today. In fact, while the preparation and cooking techniques may vary, we were able to find modern versions of almost every one of their favorite foods, so you can eat just like they did at your Fourth of July celebration.
As a world traveler, Franklin was able to eat some of the best food of the time period, whether he was in France, Italy or the United States. Franklin preferred snacking on apples and cranberries, and his all-time favorite food was turkey. In fact, he “loved turkey so much that he suggested it should be our national symbol,” according to The Daily Meal. Even though the bald eagle was chosen instead, turkey still holds a special place in our hearts, especially during Thanksgiving, and even more when it is deep-fried. If you’ve never fried a turkey before, you’re in for a treat. In a matter of an hour or so, this method yields tender meat and crisp, crackling skin that Ben Franklin would surely approve of.
As one of the most prominent figures of the Revolutionary War and one of the richest landowners in Virginia, Washington lived on a large estate with access to the best food in the country at the time; however, his health limited his eating options. As Washington wore dentures, “he preferred to eat soft things, such as cornmeal hoecakes, puddings and soups,” according to PBS.
Hercules, one of the men whom George Washington enslaved, worked as the head chef at Washington’s Mount Vernon and later in Philadelphia. He was most likely trained by Martha Washinton and became known for his impeccable cooking skills mastering everything from souffles to fricassee chicken.
We all know the famous myth about Washington chopping down a cherry tree in his backyard as a child, but, regardless of its truth, Washington is known to have enjoyed the fruit as an adult, and he grew the trees in an orchard at Mount Vernon.
As Mount Vernon is located on the Potomac River, the many enslaved cooks on the estate were able to prepare many types of seafood, including oysters. To drink, Washington is said to have loved beer. He is said to have experimented with brewing his own using a recipe that is still available from his estate.
A New Englander through and through, President John Adams preferred a diet of a New England farmer. He is said to have enjoyed dining on “a humble boiled dinner,” according to PBS. While Adams like this almost-boring fare, his wife Abigail cooked with more flavor and flair. One of her specialties was an apple pandowdy, which she created from the apple harvest of their orchard each year. As far as his preferred drink, Adams loved sipping on a good hard cider, which he made from his own apple orchard. According to The Daily Mail, each day “he drank at least one pint of cider before nine in the morning.”
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Along with running a country, Jefferson also ran a large estate in Virginia. The many enslaved peoples at Monticello maintained various gardens including a vegetable garden, complete with over 300 different types of vegetables, including one of his favorite, green beans.
After his travels around the world, Jefferson picked up a refined taste for food. According to PBS, “He personally made sure his [enslaved] cooks were trained in French methods and could make technically difficult dishes, such as French sauces, creamy entrees, crème brulee and ice cream. Jefferson introduced many new edible crops into America, including tomatoes, rice, soybeans and a recipe for tofu.” Jefferson also loved to eat crabs, oysters and pineapple.
James and Robert Hemings became Jefferson’s personal enslaved attendants after he was elected as “the wartime governor of Virginia in 1779. They were obviously trusted for when British troops under Benedict Arnold threatened to attack Richmond in 1781, the Hemings brothers were charged with taking Jefferson’s wife and children to safety,” according to the Monticello estate.
Jefferson chose James Hemings to travel with him overseas. The Monticello estate noted: “Correspondence indicates that it was Jefferson’s idea that Hemings travel with him to France for the primary purpose of his training in ‘the art of cookery.‘” Hemings went on to train in Paris with some of France’s best chefs and eventually became a cook in the household of the Prince de Condé. Three years later, Hemings served as the head chef at Jefferson’s French residence, Hotel de Langeac, where he cooked for diplomats, European aristocrats and international guests.
Later, when Jefferson served as secretary of state, Hemings continued to cook for him until Jefferson granted his freedom in 1793. One caveat of Hemings departure was he had to train a “good cook” to replace him in the kitchen. Hemings trained his brother Peter to follow in his footsteps and he officially left Monticello in 1796 as a free man.
At the White House and at their home in Virginia, the Madisons were known for entertaining. While not much is known about James Madison’s exact preferences in food, the overall assumption is Dolley Madison tailored the menus, prepared by enslaved cooks, to his desires. The menu in the Madison household consisted of many classic Southern dishes like Hoppin’ John, Virginia ham and oysters, according to PBS.
Some other dishes that could be found on the table include buttered rolls, apple pie and ice cream. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, ice cream was introduced to the New World in 1744 by a guest of Maryland Governor William Bladen. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were big fans of the expensive frozen treat, which was really only accessible to the wealthy until the mid-to-late 1800s when technological advance like refrigeration and electric power were invented. We mention ice cream here because Dolley Madison famously served “a magnificent strawberry ice cream creation at President Madison’s second inaugural banquet at the White House” in 1812, noted the IDFA.
While there is not much documentation about Hamilton’s day-to-day diet, it’s safe to say Hamilton’s life led him to many interesting places with cuisines to which not many 18th century Americans had access. Hamilton grew up in St. Croix and, according to National Public Radio, his mother opened a bodega, which “supplied local planters with salted codfish and pork, apples, butter and flour.” As he grew up and made it to the continental United States, he was introduced to other foods, like ice cream, at a dinner with George and Martha Washington, according to NPR. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, was of Dutch descent, so it’s possible there was a Dutch influence at the dinner table when she cooked.
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Unfortunately, there is little documentation about the eating habits of Founding Fathers James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States (1817-1825), and John Jay, who served as the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
So while you’re decked out in red, white, and blue watching fireworks exploding in the sky, we hope you’re also snacking on one of these modern takes of the founders’ favorite foods.