If traveling back in time on Christmas Eve and eating like George Washington appeals to you, you couldnt live in a better place. But before you get too wrapped up in the excitement of the good old days make that the good old, old days be careful what you wish for.
At Gadsbys Tavern, which serves its 30th annual Christmas Eve dinner next week, chefs aim to use historically accurate foods that means game hen, beef, snapper, and George Washingtons favorite, duck. For starters, cream of crab soup with ham biscuits. On the side, white asparagus and more. Desserts are old-fashioned lemon curd with shortbread, an English trifle, and, chocolate cheesecake? Okay, so the menu is tweaked for modern palates.
In the 18th century, food was bulky, restaurant general manager Paul Carb says, meaning there was a lot of it. If you went into a tavern or a taproom at that time, they did not do any cooking on the premises, it was out back [of the building]. They would carry big platters of meat … they would have heaping bowls of potatoes that served an entire table. Vegetables, when one could get them, were served with heavy sauce. And as for the meat, refrigeration was lacking for many, though many taverns, including Gadsbys, had cellars to store nothing but ice for use in the warmer months. Visitors to the museum can still see the original Gadsbys cellar ice house. Meat, when not salted and preserved, felt the strain. John Trusler, author of the 1788 book, The Honours of the Table, wrote that the odor of meat was such that a diner should take care to keep the meat away from his nose while eating it.
And then there were those other meat products.
We dont usually talk about squirrel, assistant director of the museum, Liz Williams, says. The big food product [then] was pork. Through travel accounts you have a lot of notations about bacon. Carb mentioned a menu item, Gentlemans Pie, made with three types of meat. Back then, one of those types could certainly have been rodent, but we dont use that now, he said.
It could be worse. Williams mentioned Alexandrias location as a factor in bringing variety and luxury goods to Washington and his companions. They had access to a lot of things that folks farther inland wouldnt have. Sea access provided oysters, crabs, fresh fish, and fruit. When we do the Birthnight Ball [a February celebration of Washingtons birthday] we talk about pineapple. That was something a port city could easily get … it was sort of a fancy food for the tavern-keeper to show off his fancy skills.
The Christmas Eve dinner might not be completely period, but the creative liberties Gadsbys chefs take are less than one might expect. Reservations are requested for the evening meal.