Review of “The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine” by Dave DeWitt

This incredibly interesting and fun book combines three of my favorite subjects: American history, food, and trivia. The author tells the story of how Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, among others, influenced the course of American food. In the process, the reader learns fascinating information about how the colonists learned to produce their sustenance. A large number of recipes are included as well.

Just to share but a few of the many absorbing bits of history: In the Founding Fathers’ time, meats were roasted using spits turned over the fire by dogs in circular cages. The “turnspit” dogs were specially bred with short legs and a long body to run in the dog wheel. These dogs were also known as “kitchen dogs.”

Turnspit dog (upper center) at work

Thomas Jefferson was always touting the virtues of living like the “common man,” but he had no desire to include himself in that category. While in France living the good life, he wrote back home to a friend in America, “I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage, with my books, my family, and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked.” In fact, this demonstrates the historian’s problem of taking the letters of famous men at their words. In 1789, on his way back to his “modest cottage” at Monticello, Jefferson took back to America eighty-six crates of European art, silver, porcelain, cookware, exotic food items not available in America, and 680 bottles of wine. What’s more, he thought he would only be gone from France for six months, so these were just sort of “emergency” supplies.

Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream , now housed at the Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream , now housed at the Library of Congress.

The colonists drank huge amounts of alcohol. As one historian noted:

“…most colonists avoided water, which could be fatal…as a result, most drinks were alcoholic, because no bacteria known to be harmful to man can survive in them.”

And in fact, colonists regarded water as “better suited to barnyard animals than humans.” Rum, wine, hard cider and brandy were consumed in great quantities. Drunkenness was frowned upon. Yet if you read about the amounts of alcohol the colonists had each day, you have to marvel at the tolerance they developed, and wonder how much you actually had to have to become drunk! [Full disclosure: in the interest of research for this review, I procured some Madeira and tried a glass. Holy smokes! If I had had a bottle of wine, a bottle of ale or two, and then Madeira, as was common during a dinner with the Founders, I would have been way way under the table!] It is amazing to me all they managed to accomplish, given their “spirited” lives!

In 1797 George Washington established the largest whiskey distillery in America (interior view of reconstructed building)

Evaluation: This is a tremendously entertaining book that combines history with food facts and quite a few recipes. The recipes look surprisingly good – or not so surprising, considering that colonists were big on adding butter and cream to almost everything. Highly recommended for enthusiasts of both food and American history!

Rating: 5/5

Note: This would make a great Christmas gift for your favorite foodie. I picked this up at the Mount Vernon gift shop, one of my favorite gift shops in the whole country!

Published by Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010


One Response

  1. Interesting review of a fascinating book

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