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ExhibitionLabored Meals

Slavery put in place social and culinary boundaries that could separate those who ate from those who worked.

The preparation of food is often described as a labor of love, capable of strengthening family ties. For all slaves—regardless of gender, age, or health—the preparation of food meant work.

In the fields, women and men killed hogs, shelled corn, planted and gathered crops, dug holes for fence poles, and performed other seasonal agrarian duties. There was a hierarchy among domestic slaves. Scullions handled the menial tasks in the kitchen. Maids and houseboys assisted the butler, who guaranteed that meal times were coordinated.

  • White man and woman with two girls around a table as an African American man stands off to the side.

    The Washington Family/La Famille de Washington, Edward Savage, David Elkin, 1798

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Precision and exactitude

    Servants’ skills were invaluable, as they worked as the conduits between dining rooms and kitchens in wealthy homes. At Mount Vernon, under the watchful eyes of Martha Washington, Frank Lee, the enslaved butler, supervised the maids and the waiters to ensure the table was properly set, and the house meticulously cleaned.

  • Black and white illustration of a chicken flapping its wings.

    Chicken, ca. 2010

    Image courtesy of Lori Dean Dyment

    From bloody chicken to chicken dinner

    A slave would chase, catch, and chop off the head of a chicken. Sometimes the animal would jump around without a head, spurting blood everywhere. After pulling pinfeathers, the chicken would be dressed—gizzards and liver removed—and either trussed (tied) so it cooked evenly over a spit, or the carcass cut into pieces for frying.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    The Prudent Housewife, Or compleat English Cook; ..., Lydia Fisher, 1800

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Blended cooking styles leaves a legacy

    In contrast to a single cooking method, Lucy Lee, one of several enslaved cooks at Mount Vernon, most likely blended African, Native American, and European styles of preparation and cooking, thereby leaving her imprint on Washington family meals.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    The Complete English Cook; or, Prudent Housewife. . . ., Ann Peckham, 1767

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    When the cookbook is not enough

    Lucy was skilled in preparing chicken for meals at Mount Vernon. She would use popular cookbooks or her own methods to fricassee or fry cut-up chickens. One of Martha Washington’s recipes required a half pound of butter.

  • White plate with gold rim, viewed from straight above.

    Dinner plate, ca. 1778–1788

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    The house servant’s responsibility

    Frank Lee, the enslaved butler, brought invaluable management skills to Mount Vernon. More than making sure the costly porcelain was well maintained, Frank helped safeguard the Washingtons’ ability to entertain in genteel society.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    The Director: or, Young Woman’s best Companion. ..., Sarah Jackson, 1770

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    The Southern groaning board

    Among privileged plantation owners, a sideboard weighted with an array of meats would be served along with an arrangement of vegetable side dishes. Formal dinners would use fine porcelain, crystal, and silver.

  • Drawing showing a table setting, with plates with descriptions of food written inside them.

    “A Second Course thus” from The Complete Practical Cook: or, new System of the Whole Art and Mystery of Cookery, Charles Carter, 1730

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Managing the dining room

    Frank Lee, the butler, orchestrated meals at Mount Vernon with symmetry and exactitude. At the conclusion of each course, he removed soiled napery to reveal a new tablecloth.