Our Founding Foodies

It’s not surprising that our American Founding Fathers were also our Founding Foodies. After all they were well-traveled and lived in Europe, returning to America with the roots of our American culinary history.

Living in Philadelphia, I am immersed daily in colonial history — with the Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall, and the new Museum of the American Revolution, all just up the street as is one of the oldest restaurants in the U.S. I have come to realize that our Founding Fathers not only set the course of our democracy but also greatly influenced the course of American food.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was the first to introduce pasta to the new country. And Ben Franklin and George Washington are credited with bringing European food and wine to our shores.They also brought the first ice cream makers to the U.S. Wow! Who knew? They even had the good sense to bring barbecue to our shores from Mexico and the Caribbean! And they notably experimented to make food from around the world American.

As these were three of the most traveled of the new Americans as they journeyed back and forth to Europe, they came home with food, seeds, wine and inventions to begin our culinary history. As foodies, they wanted to learn everything there was to know about food.

Jefferson influenced American wine and wine making. Great lessons were learned through successes and failures. Washington’s Mount Vernon boasted a gristmill and distillery. Spirits and beers were of great importance in our country’s early years. Interestingly, the early Americans drank twice as much as we do today. In fact, John Hancock was not only a patriot but was also a well-known smuggler of beer and rum!

Native Americans taught the early agricultural lessons to the colonists, and importantly, are credited with inventing popcorn, cultivating the brewing of corn beer, and smoking meat. The early Americans are responsible for inventing the solar salt maker, cod fishing and the automated wheat mill. The colonists and early Americans knew the importance of kitchen gardens. And many of the crops – Washington grew 60 different crops and, like Jefferson, planted a large vineyard – became commercial successes, such as tobacco and rum, both of which were exported all over the world.

Washington was a notable fisherman and has been dubbed the First Angler. Not only did he fish for sport, but as a business he was responsible for more than 100,000 herring being caught a day along the Potomac.

The Founding Fathers not only introduced and help create American food, but also were responsible for modern agriculture, improving methods to reduce soil erosion and increase crop rotation.

But it wasn’t all work and no play. While our Founding Fathers spent long days writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they often indulged themselves with overwhelmingly huge dinners – prepared at home by their French-trained chefs as well as local Philly restaurants, such as the City Tavern. Dating from 1773, the City Tavern is one of the oldest eateries in the US.

(It is interesting to note that women could not dine in public until the late 1800s! Some of us seem to be making up for lost time!)

Founding Fathers, Founding Foodies, and…between 1768 and 1775, Martha and George Washington hosted more than 2,000 guests, many of whom stayed overnight – not surprising after all that rum and beer! So perhaps our Founding Fathers and Founding Foodies were also our Founding Innkeepers!


Note: If you are interested in learning more about our Founding Foodies, there is much literature available on the topic, notably The Founding Foodies, by Dave DeWitt, which includes some of the earliest recipes, such as Martha Washington’s Fruit Cake. Enjoy!

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