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


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

  1. Beth F says:

    I have been meaning to read this one and now you’ve tipped me over the edge. I’ll buy or order it this week.

    I am ALWAYS wondering the same thing about the amount of alcohol consumed until very recent times (relatively speaking). Ale, beer, or hard cider for breakfast, and it went on from there. I always thought I might make it until lunch and then would have to sleep until dinner.

  2. TheBookGirl says:

    I knew these men contributed alot to America, but I didn’t realize their contributions extended to food as well 🙂

    I’m a real lightweight when it comes to drinking, one glass of wine is enough to make me rather silly, so I guess I wouldn’t have fit in in colonial times, that’s for sure!

  3. zibilee says:

    Oh, this sounds like a wonderful book, and I also am amazed at the amount that they drank. I didn’t know that drinking water was frowned upon, and that it could make you so sick, but imagine that their livers were just pickled! I don’t do well with alcohol at all, so I guess that I probably would have been very thirsty had I lived back then. This was a great post. I totally need this book!

  4. This sounds like a must get book! I love history also especially anything about out founding fathers and that time frame. I have such fond memories of making ice cream with my dad when I little. I’d love to try Jefferson’s recipe!

  5. Alyce says:

    That is too funny about his “cottage” – what an understatement! I love that you used the book as an opportunity for wine tasting. 🙂

  6. Barbara says:

    I can just see you drinking a glass of Madeira in the interests of research. 😀 The amount of alcohol the early Americans consumed regularly has always astounded me. I realize you can build up a tolerance over time, but since this included pregnant women, you understand why so few children survived and why women had so many miscarriages. Add in the smoke in their homes from fireplaces or poorly made woodstoves and you get the short lifespan. Still, only pure spring water was potable so I guess they had a point.

  7. Ooh, want want! I’m going to pin this book to my wishlist board right now! 🙂 So much fun — because I also love history, trivia, and food. Perfect.

  8. I am completely going to buy this book this week for me. How fascinating! Although, I must admit, I feel a wee bit bad about the turnspit dog…

  9. stacybuckeye says:

    So, all we need to do to get our politicians to fix what needs fixed and leave the rest alone is alcohol? I’d be willing to send a few bottles to Washington, how ’bout you? 😉

  10. Aarti says:

    OMG, this sounds fantastic! I love food and I love social history, and the combination of the two sounds amazing!

    Often, Thomas Jefferson makes me laugh. I feel like maybe he was a little delusional about the way he lived his life and the way he wanted people to THINK he lived his life.

  11. JoAnn says:

    History, food, and trivia works for me, too!

  12. I can totally see myself getting lost in this book!! Those poor kitchen dogs!

  13. Margot says:

    Another 5/5? You’re having a very good month. This one looks like great fun. That part about the kitchen dogs was new to me. It sounds horrid for many reasons.

  14. Care says:

    Sounds like a really fun book. How fun it would have been to hang out in Philly at a tavern during the Constitutional Congress Days. Spirited discussions the rule.

  15. Trish says:

    You read the MOST fascinating books!! Have never heard of a kitchen dog before and can’t even imagine such a thing. Have you read At Home by Bryson? I listened (can’t imagine reading) and it talked a bit about Washington and Jefferson “at home.” Definitely going to be on the lookout for this one.

  16. Julie P. says:

    WOW! I can’t believe that a book has been written on this subject. I think I might truly enjoy it!

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