While most of us wait to score tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway or on tour, we can get a bit more familiar with his world by reading Ron Chernow’s lively Alexander Hamilton biography—or by heading straight for the dining room, by way of The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, by Laura Kumin and published by Post Hill Press late last fall. There’s a tendency to think of the Founding Fathers are either remotely antique or, alternatively, just like us, possibly in a powdered wig. But many of the differences are in the details of daily life. Such as the fact that children didn’t routinely drink milk unless their family kept a cow out back. Or that the American home of the period was only recently dedicating a room just for eating. (Of course, the formal dining room has faded away again in our recent era, replaced by a family room or an expanded less-formal kitchen. But that’s another book.) As part of the Landmark Society lecture series, author Kumin will discuss these Federalist folkways next Tuesday, March 13, at 6pm at Tudor Place, 1644 31st Street NW, Washington DC. (Admission is free or pay what you can.)
Dinner With the Family
BEFORE DISCUSSING the food, it is worth noting that dining rooms are a relatively new feature of houses. When Hamilton’s in-laws, the Schuylers, moved into their home in 1765, there was no such thing as a dining room. Dining chambers became popular in the U.S. only after the Revolutionary War. Before that time, the Schuylers and families such as theirs dined in any available spaces. For the Schuylers, that was in the central hallway in summer and in one of the parlors during other months. Once Alexander and Elizabeth married, they presumably would have taken to the then-new custom of creating a special space for dining. And when Hamilton designed The Grange just after 1800, it did contain a dining room.
Breakfast in Hamilton’s world was typically not elaborate; it was often leftovers from the previous day’s larger meals. Those of Dutch ancestry, such as Elizabeth and her family, frequently ate bread and butter for breakfast with slices of dried beef or bread and butter with cheese and milk. Some, especially among the Dutch, also liked hot cereal, one type being a cornmeal and milk porridge called “suppawn.” Shoofly (or shoo-fly) pie, made with molasses from the West Indies, was popular in Pennsylvania, where Hamilton spent much time. A dry
version of the pie, like a coffee cake inside a pie crust, was a common breakfast food in that region. Hamilton would have been familiar with molasses from his childhood in the West Indies, so it makes sense that he would have known of, and perhaps enjoyed, the shoo-fly pie “coffee cake.”
While the most popular beverages for breakfast were beer and hard cider, there is at least some evidence suggesting that Hamilton may have preferred coffee. Tea and hot chocolate were also popular. Of course, the drink an individual chose depended on availability and personal preference.
Although the Hamiltons had access to fresh milk when they stayed with Elizabeth’s family in Albany, that was not the case when they lived in lower Manhattan or Philadelphia. Because milk spoils quickly without refrigeration, those who lived far from dairies and did not own a cow typically did not drink milk or give it to children. Cheese, which is easier to safely store, was more readily available.
The Hamilton’s third son, James, reminisced about breakfast with his family, describing his mother seated, as was her wont, at the head of the table with a napkin in her lap, cutting slices of bread and spreading them with butter for the younger boys, who standing at her side, read in turn a chapter in the Bible or a portion of Goldsmith’s Rome. When the lessons were finished, the father and the elder children were called to breakfast, after which the boys were packed off to school.
A British traveler described breakfast with George and Martha Washington in Philadelphia as follows: “Mrs. Washington herself made tea and coffee for us. On the table were two small plates of sliced tongue, dry toast, bread and butter, etc., but no broiled fish as is the general custom.” This description could have applied to Hamilton’s breakfast as well.
The largest meal of the day was the dinner meal at midday, at least until the end of the 1700s. It might have had a number of courses, including soup, several types of meats, fish, stews, and sweets. The meal at the end of the day, supper, was typically lighter and with fewer courses than dinner. Toward the end of the 1700s, those following the English style moved the dinner meal to the late afternoon.
With many children to feed and sometimes-strained finances, the Hamiltons’ large midday meals at home may not have been elegant affairs, but they likely would have included ample food. Along with the several meats customarily served, they enjoyed potatoes and turnips (root vegetables that can stay fresh in root cellars or other cool storage for considerable periods), as well as apples and pears. While entertaining would have likely involved a number of courses and different dishes, when they ate as a family, the Hamiltons might well have enjoyed a large, one-pot meal such as a stew with vegetables.
Supper would have been a meal of leftovers, porridge, or similar foods. This light meal could be similar to breakfast or more of what we might eat for lunch today.
Hamilton as a Dinner Guest
Elaborate dinners were part of the social scene that Hamilton enjoyed so much. Those meals could last for hours and included many dishes, prepared and served by slaves, indentured, or “free” servants.
The Hamiltons dined with George and Martha Washington at numerous points during their decades-long relationship. They also socialized with numerous other luminaries of their time, such as John Jay, James Madison (with whom Hamilton was friendly at the time they wrote The Federalist Papers, even though they later became estranged), local political figures, and society figures such as William and Ann Willing Bingham in Philadelphia. Such dinners would have been opulent affairs, including many more courses and a greater variety of dishes than one would normally find at a 21st-century dinner party.
One example was the dinner that George Washington hosted at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York on July 10, 1790, for members of his new administration. The eighteen guests included the Secretaries of Treasury (Hamilton), War (Henry Knox), State (Thomas Jefferson), and Vice-President John Adams, along with their wives. The party spent a full day touring the ruins of a Revolutionary War battlefield later called Fort Washington, and then went to the house that had been Washington’s military headquarters. A cook hired by Washington prepared a large dinner for the guests, which they ate outside because there was no room large enough to seat them all for a meal.
Men also dined socially without their wives. An example of Washington’s hospitality “for men only” was a dinner Hamilton attended in Philadelphia on February 20, 1792, a few days before Washington’s sixtieth birthday. The guests were Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson, and President Washington’s private secretary, Tobias Lear. The dinner included “soups, broiled pork, goose, roast beef, mutton chops, hominy, cabbage, potatoes, fried tripe, onions, fish, mince pies, tarts, cheese and a variety of vegetables.” The President and his guests washed down their food with beer and cider. Dessert was “chocolate pudding, cream trifle, macarons, and apple pie.” After dinner they sampled several wines, including nonsparkling or still champagne. Jefferson explained to the assembled group that the still variety was considered in France to be preferable to the more common sparkling champagne. According to the diary of William Maclay, this was typical of the dinners served by President Washington.
Another dinner Washington served had a similarly large menu. One guest, Joshua Brooks, remembered: ” . . . leg of boiled pork at the head of the table, a goose at the foot and in between roast beef, round cold boiled beef, mutton chops, hominy, cabbage, potatoes, pickles, fried tripe and onions. Beverages offered during dinner, wine, porter and beer. The table cloth was wiped off before the second course of mince pies, tarts, cheese. The cloth was removed and port and Madeira served along with nuts, raisins, apples.”
Excerpted from The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, by Laura Kumin. Copyright © 2017 by Post Hill Press. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.