Compared to the merriment of Christmas, the glitz of New Year’s Eve, and the romance of Valentine’s Day, George Washington’s birthday is rarely the height of anyone’s social calendar. Each year, this humble holiday rolls around on the third Monday of February with minimal pomp and circumstance, and to most, it means little more than an extra day off or good sales at your local department store. Admittedly, I’ve never decorated my mantle, or been invited to a cookie swap honor of the occasion … and I rarely miss opportunities in which either activity is concerned.
Nevertheless, as Washington’s Birthday approaches, I’ve wondered more and more about the man often referred to as the father of our country. Of course, we all know about George Washington the president, the statesman, and the general — but who was he as person? Who was the real man with the impressively coiffed and powdered wig whose image appears on the one-dollar bill? How did he live? What did he like to eat?
After researching these questions, I concluded that Washington would have been very much at home in Mississippi. According to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the non-profit organization which has owned and operated the Mount Vernon estate since 1860, George Washington was an avid fisherman, farmer, and great lover of his varying breeds of dogs, including canines that boasted names such Sweetlips, Truelove, and Madame Moose. Although he operated what was, at one time, the largest whiskey distillery in the colonies, reports characterized him as a quiet, religious man who maintained a strict regimen of daily prayer and devotion.
According to some sources, Washington began farming and overseeing the management of Mount Vernon in 1754. The breadth of crops that Washington cultivated in order to make his home a self-sustaining estate demonstrate the passion he held for both until his death in 1799.
Washington’s love of farming may have been apparent from the foods upon his table. In his book, The Founding Foodies, Dave DeWitt notes that Mount Vernon yielded an array of produce, including root vegetables, beans, peas, apples, pears, and of course, cherries. In 1968, Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks published The President’s Cookbook: Practical Recipes from George Washington to the Present. Within this collection of recipes, the authors proffer a quote in which the George and Martha Washington’s grandson described his grandfather’s food preferences: “He ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond.” Washington once stated, “My manner of living is plain, and I do not mean to be put out by it. A glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of them are always welcome.”
The Washington family’s recipes were collected by Martha Washington, and preserved within the family for generations. Marie Kimball, author of The Martha Washington Cookbook, first published a selection of these recipes in 1940. Among other things, this cookbook includes instructions for preparing a baked shoulder of lamb, which inspired the following recipe. This dish is perfect for lazy Sunday afternoon or day off at home.
Visitors to Mount Vernon reportedly noted that Washington had a custom of making a toast, not only to each of the guests at his table, but also to an absent friend. Why not create a new tradition this year on Washington’s Birthday? Prepare a bit of mutton, pour a glass of wine, and raise a toast to a great patriot and father of American history.
Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks
4 lamb shanks
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
1 stalk celery
3 cloves fresh garlic
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Zest of a large orange
2½ cups red wine
28-ounce can tomatoes, crushed or diced
2 cups chicken stock (use beef stock if you substitute beef for lamb meat)
5 sprigs fresh thyme (approximately 2 teaspoons chopped)
2 dried bay leaves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle meat with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot (cast iron Dutch oven is ideal) and sear meat in batches until brown on all sides.. Remove meat and set aside. In the same pot, reduce heat to medium-low and add onion, carrots, and celery. Sauté until onion is translucent, (approximately 8-10 minutes). Then add garlic and sauté for an additional minute. Add tomato paste and orange zest and stir until incorporated. Add wine, tomatoes, broth, thyme, and bay leaves. Return meat to the pot and submerge in broth and vegetables. *Bake 2½-3 hours in Dutch oven until meat is falling off the bone and serve with mashed potatoes, grits, or pasta. (If you are not a fan of lamb, substitute beef short ribs, ground chuck, or brisket.)
*Note: Crock-Pot® may be substituted for oven baking on last step. After searing the meat, sauté the vegetables and incorporate the tomato paste and orange zest in the pan. Combine the contents of pan, meat, and remaining ingredients in the slow cooker. Cook on low for 6-7 hours or high for 4 hours.