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Happy birthday, George! February 22, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Today is the birthday of America’s first and greatest President, George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799). We now know that the famous story of the young Washington’s chopping down his father’s cherry tree, then confessing it with the statement “I cannot tell a lie,” was actually an allegory created by his early biographer, Mason Locke “Parson” Weems in his book A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), to inspire future generations. But we also know that the General really did love cherries (and all fresh fruit and nuts).

So we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have prevailed on our resident culinary historian, Silence Dogood, to provide one authentic and one more modern cherry-based recipe so you can celebrate Washington’s birthday in style. And for those of you who aren’t especially interested in recipes but are interested in the life and times of George Washington, we suggest that you head to our search bar at upper right and type in “Happy birthday, big guy,” to find one of our fellow blog contributors, Richard Saunders’s, George Washington quiz. Take it, and see how you well you really know the Father of Our Country!

Silence Dogood here. Big George loved his cherries, but he wasn’t too big on dessert. So what sorts of cherry treats did Martha make for him at Mount Vernon? Turning to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, containing her handwritten collection of recipes (called “receipts” back in her day), I found a recipe that was sure to sit well with George: cherry wine.

Washington, like all his contemporaries, was a heavy drinker, often polishing off four glasses of madeira after downing homebrew throughout dinner. And drinking beer with breakfast was considered par for the course in his day, followed by an assortment of alcoholic beverages, from hard cider to claret and port, not to mention gin and rum among members of the navy, as the day wore on.

Why? Was America founded by a bunch of alcoholics? Hardly, nor were the Colonists alone in their drinking habits: All Europe shared them, with good reason. With no knowledge of sanitation, and sewage being dumped in the streets and into the water supply, drinking water was—and was widely recognized as—dangerous. Encounters with E. coli and other contagious diseases usually proved fatal in the days when bleeding and purging were the recommended treatments for pretty much everything and antibiotics were unknown.

Fermentation was an easy way to destroy most of the bad bacteria, so drinking fermented (i.e., alcoholic) beverages was strongly recommended and pretty much universally practiced. Only one voice was raised against the practice, that of the youthful visionary Benjamin Franklin, who was both a teetotaler and a vegetarian, centuries ahead of his time, and recommended water as the universal beverage. Spending time in the polluted cities of London and Paris eventually cured Franklin of his idealism—fresh water was nowhere to be found in either locale—and he came to appreciate a glass of wine or a mug of beer; his vegetarianism also eventually fell by the wayside.

But even in an era of universal drinking, public drunkenness was condemned as vulgar and appalling; a gentleman (or lady, for that matter) was supposed to be able to hold his (or her) liquor. I have no idea how the people of the time managed to walk that tightrope; I’m just glad we moderns have a lot more options when it comes to choosing a thirst-quenching beverage.

But to get back to Martha’s cherry wine, which we would probably consider more of a cherry cordial, let’s just say I’m providing the recipe as a matter of historical interest rather than urging you to try it. We’ll get to a cherry recipe next that would probably have pleased George and will certainly please you.

           Martha Washington’s Cherry Wine

Take a good quantety of spring water & let it boyle halfe an houre. then beat 4 pounds of raysons, clean pickt & washed, & beat them in a mortar to paste. then put them in an earthen pot, & pour on ym 12 quarts of this water boyling hot, & put to it 6 quarts of ye Juice of cheries, & put in the pulp & scins of ye cheries after they are strayned. & let all these steep together, close covered, 3 days, then strayn all out & let it stand 3 or 4 hours to settle. take of ye cleerest, & run ye rest thorough a Jelley bagg, then put ye Juice up into bottles & stop them up close, & set them in sand.

Mmm, mmm, good! Well, maybe it was good. But I don’t think I’ll try it and see! Instead, I set myself to thinking about what our First President, a man of hearty appetite but plain tastes, who was known to leave the fancy dishes and desserts to his guests, would have enjoyed in the way of cherry recipes.

Clafouti sprang to mind, a simple, warm dish that is half-pancake, half pudding, full of fruit and flavor, but not too sweet. It would have made a great breakfast dish for George, served with his eggs, a variety of meats (including ham, bacon, sausage, and possibly fish), hominy, and biscuits before he headed out to ride over his plantations. If you’d like to make it as a dessert, whipped cream adds a lovely touch; for breakfast, you, like George, would probably prefer heavy cream poured over your portion of hot clafouti. This recipe is courtesy of Anna Thomas’s wonderful The Vegetarian Epicure Book Two (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979). Ben Franklin would be proud!

             Clafouti of Cherries

4 eggs

1 cup flour

2 cups warm milk

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons kirsch

pinch of salt

1 to 2 tablespoons soft butter

1 pound sweet, dark cherries, washed, stemmed, and pitted

Beat the eggs lightly and gradually stir in the flour. When the mixture is smooth, beat in the milk, sugar, melted butter, and kirsch, along with a tiny pinch of salt.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Very generously butter a large, shallow baking dish and pour a very thin layer of the batter across the bottom of it. Put it in the hot oven for 2 to 3 minutes, or just long enough for the batter to begin to set.

Arrange the pitted cherries evenly over the layer of batter and pour the remaining batter carefully over them. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and bake the clafouti for about 30 to 35 minutes. It should be golden brown and slightly puffed. It’s a good idea to check it once or twice during the baking, and if it is starting to puff unevenly in large bubbles, pierce it with a skewer or fork.

Sprinkle the hot clafouti with sieved confectioners’ sugar and serve it hot or warm, topped with cold heavy cream or whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8. (Probably more like two if one of you is George Washington!)

So there you have it, a breakfast dish fit for, if not a king, at least a president! From all of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, Happy Birthday, George!!!