What Did the Founding Fathers Eat? | Historical Recipes | PBS Food

What Did the Founding Fathers Eat?

By Chef Walter Staib, host of the PBS series “A Taste of History” and Proprietor of City Tavern

Walter Staib at White House
Chef Walter Staib of A Taste of History at the White House

For President’s Day this year, I am reflecting on the first five presidents of our nation. They created the executive branch of government and sculpted the role of president. It took great courage to step into this office that no one had ever filled before and each of the first five men left us with a lasting effect.

I believe people understand each other much better when we begin to think of them as fellow people instead of figureheads. We all gather around the table with family and friends, and so did the first few leaders of our nation. That’s why I cook the founding fathers’ favorite recipes on my show A Taste of History. It’s been a privilege to bring a closer look at the presidents in their homes.

Taste of History
George Washington would have caught sturgeon from the nearby Potomac River near his estate, Mount Vernon.

Recreating the recipes that these great people ate allow us to eat like they did, but it also lets us understand a bit more about their preferences and personalities. For instance, George Washington was one of the only founding fathers to run an estate with financial success. He was a general, diplomat, farmer, distiller, and much more. He enjoyed the varied tastes of his many careers, from porter made in the battlefield to cherries from his orchards at Mount Vernon. As one of the richest landowners in Virginia, and in the nation, for that matter, he had access to exquisite delicacies, but his health limited enjoying some of them. As many people know, George Washington wore dentures, and he preferred to eat soft things, such as cornmeal “hoecakes,” puddings and soups.

John Adams preferred simpler food, the cuisine of a New England farmer. Even when working in Philadelphia to establish our nation, he preferred a humble boiled dinner and hard cider. His wife, Abigail remained on the farm for most of the time Adams was away, and she managed her children and the crops. She made apple pandowdy and other treats from this New England harvest.

Ham and Oysters
This ham and oysters dish was served all over Virginia as a combination. Oysters traveled very well, especially in cooler months.

Thomas Jefferson is my most favorite president because he was America’s first epicurean! He inspires me to this day with his vast curiosity of cuisine and how it led him to eat incredible dinners at home in the White House and at Monticello! He personally made sure his 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!

James Madison is perhaps most famous in culinary terms because of his wife, Dolley. She held parties in Washington and at their home, Montpelier, with great displays of food, tea, wine and refreshments. James was a quiet politician who fastidiously studied the law and contributed much to America’s establishment, but not as much is known on his preferences at the dinner table. Perhaps his wife’s notes on cooking and hosting parties overshadowed James, but I prefer to believe that she tailored them to his desires. They dined on southern classics, such as Hoppin’ John and Virginia Ham and Potomoc River oysters mixed with more elegant and worldly dishes, such as vol au vent pastries and veal fricassee.

Fried Lake Perch
Lake perch was a common fish in the lakes near James Monroe's home.

James Monroe, another Virginian, preferred simpler cuisine and often ate what was grown on his plantation that neighbors Monticello. His mansion was much smaller than Montpelier or Monticello. Madison had a taste for sophisticated cuisine that he tasted while working abroad as a diplomat, but sadly, his family was often nearly bankrupt. He started the tradition of Presidential china — because he ordered it on the government’s dime. He wanted to impress guests with high-quality dishes, but couldn’t supply them from his own wages, so the federal government picked up the bill and the custom.

Watch a Video

Get the Recipes

Meet the Author

Chef Walter Staib

Walter Staib has made numerous appearances on local and national cooking shows, such as the Today show and the Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate and Iron Chef. He is the host of the Emmy Award winning show A Taste of History, which received the 2012 James Beard Foundation nomination for Best TV Show On Location. The show is a vehicle for Staib to share 18th century cuisine with a growing audience. Currently, he can be seen nationwide for the fourth season on PBS and on national cable on RLTV. The show was awarded three Emmy awards in its first two seasons.

Click here to see the recipes!


Getting Hungry?

Sign up for weekly recipes