George Washington is most famous for the military leadership and political prowess that led to him becoming our nation’s first president. But as you learn at his reconstructed gristmill near Mount Vernon, the Virginia native also had a pretty good head for business.
After leaving the military following the first stages of the French and Indian War, Washington became a successful farmer at his now-famous plantation 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. Tobacco grew well and sold profitably in England, and Washington — married in 1759 to the wealthy Martha Custis — was only too happy to devote himself to the care and development of his vast land holdings along the Potomac River. Farming was in his blood: his father, Augustine, who built Mount Vernon in 1735 (then known as Little Hunting Creek Plantation), was a planter until his death at age 48 in 1743.
Upon inheriting the 2,000-acre estate from his half-brother, Lawrence, in 1754, the young Washington soon discovered that producing tobacco was a labor-intensive occupation that’s as hard on the dirt as it was on the backs of those growing it. Not only was the crop subject to disease and insects, but also the plants eventually sucked all the micronutrients out of the soil, leaving it useless for anything but grazing. Some years he made a good profit, but in others, his revenue fell short of his expenses.
So in 1766, Washington was among the first Virginia farmers to switch from tobacco farming to growing grain for merchant trade. Wheat was a more dependable source of income than tobacco. And customers from as far away as England and the West Indies were happy to pay top dollar for the high-quality flour he was producing by the 1770s, after replacing the deteriorated gristmill of his father’s with a larger, more efficient operation.
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The mill fell into disrepair in the decades after Washington’s death and was dismantled by the 1850s. In 1932, the Commonwealth of Virginia purchased the property and after carrying out archaeological research, decided to reconstruct it. After acquiring the mill in 1997, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association – which owns and operates the estate – embarked on a five-year renovation culminating with the site being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Open daily to tourists from April through October, The Gristmill at Mount Vernon is a meticulously reconstructed version of the mill Washington built three miles west of his house on Dogue Run Creek in 1797. History comes noisily alive in this 2 1/2-story stone structure, with millers in early-American attire giving demonstrations of Colonial milling, a process in which cleaned wheat and corn are ground into flour, grits or cornmeal between a pair of 4-foot millstones.
Exposed masonry walls with heavy timber framing and pine floors add to the mill’s rustic charm. But it’s the swoosh of moving water and bang, bang, bang of wooden gears that truly transports you to Colonial times. The heart of the operation is a 16-foot wooden pitchback wheel that uses the force of water to turn wooden gearing, in turn driving the millstones. It rotates between four and eight revolutions a minute.
It took workers more than a year to build a mill dam and hand dig the mile-long, 8-foot-deep millrace (canal) that would divert water, via gravity, from Dogue Run to the mill. The water turned two sets of millstones with upper “runner” stones that could rotate at more than 100 times a minute. The pair made from high-quality, super-hard French burrstone ground the “superfine”-quality flour for export; the other set, thought to be less-choice German imports known as “cullin” stones, were used to grind the corn to feed the paid staff, enslaved community and livestock.
Washington was something of an innovator when it came to farming methods and new technologies. In 1791, after learning of a Delaware inventor’s new design for an automated grain mill, he became only the third person in America to buy the rights to Oliver Evans’ patent. His invention, in which all the work was done by a variety of machines geared to the same water wheel, would go on to revolutionize the milling industry in the young nation and also worldwide.
Using the Evans automated system, which featured bucket elevators to move the grains between floors, the mill flourished. Records show that in 1797, the mill ground more than 5,000 bushels (275,000 pounds) of wheat into flour and another 3,200 bushels (178,000 pounds) of corn into grits and cornmeal.
Yet it wasn’t turning all of the wheat and corn into flour and cornmeal. Some of the barley, wheat and rye grown by Washington’s slaves was turned into alcohol at his nearby whiskey distillery, which was recreated in 2007 following extensive archaeological research. It also is open to the public for tours (April-Oct.).
Most of the flour and cornmeal bought today is produced in large-scale factories, away from human eyes and ears, so it’s fun to watch the gristmill’s costumed millers practice the lost art of stone-ground milling. Yet the best part may be that visitors can take a piece of Washington’s history home with them, in the form of the cornmeal, flour and pancake mix produced on site and sold in the gift shop. Packaged in 2-pound muslin bags printed with a picture of the mill, it’s a great way to discover Washington via the food he ate.
Word is, he loved hoecakes for breakfast with butter and honey.
The batter for these cornmeal cakes has to rest overnight in the fridge. George Washington reputedly ate them with butter and honey.
George Washington’s Gristmill & Distillery
Where: 3 miles south of his Mount Vernon estate at 5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Alexandria, Va.
When: The Gristmill is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 1 to Oct. 31. More info: mountvernon.org or 1-703-780-2000.
Tickets: Entrance to the site is included in general admission to Mount Vernon ($20, or $17 online for adults) or separately for $5 per adult and $3 for children 6-11.) A complimentary shuttle departs from the estate every hour from noon to 4 p.m.
George Washington’s Hoecakes
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups white cornmeal, divided
3 to 4 cups lukewarm water, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Lard or shortening to grease the pan
Melted butter for drizzling and serving
Honey or maple syrup for serving
Mix the yeast and 1 1/4 cups of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the lukewarm water, stirring to combine thoroughly. Mix in 1/2 cup more of the water, if needed, to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
When ready to finish the hoecakes, begin by adding 1/2 to 1 cup of the remaining water to the batter. Stir in the salt and the egg, blending thoroughly.
Gradually add the remaining 1 1/4 cups of cornmeal, alternating with enough additional lukewarm water to make a mixture that is the consistency of waffle batter. Cover with a towel, and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat a griddle on medium-high heat, and lightly grease it with lard or vegetable shortening. Preparing 1 hoecake at a time, drop a scant 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle and cook on one side for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. With a spatula, turn the hoecake over and continue cooking another 4 to 5 minutes, until browned.
Place the hoecake on a platter, and set it in the oven to keep warm while making the rest of the batch. Drizzle each batch with melted butter.
Serve the hoecakes warm, drizzled with melted butter and honey or maple syrup.
SOUTHERN SKILLET CORNBREAD
A Southern staple that works just as well for breakfast as it does dinner.
4 tablespoons lard or melted bacon fat, divided
2 cups good-quality coarse-ground yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
1 1 / 2 cups buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put 2 tablespoons of the lard or grease in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Put the skillet in the oven to preheat.
In large bowl, combine cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In separate bowl, whisk eggs, buttermilk and remaining 2 tablespoons lard or grease, mixing well to combine. Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients, stirring just until incorporated. Do not overmix.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and swirl the melted fat to cover the bottom and sides. Pour the batter into the pan and return it to the oven to bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until bread is golden on the top and has pulled away from the sides of the pan slightly. Slice and serve.
Serves 8 to 12.
SHRIMP AND GRITS
The key to creamy grits is to stir, stir, stir and use some sort of dairy component. This classic recipe pairs white grits from George Washington’s Gristmill at Mount Vernon with garlicky shrimp and bacon.
2 to 3 cups milk
2 cups water
1 cup uncooked grits
2 chopped garlic cloves, divided
1 / 2 cup (1 stick) butter, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound raw shrimp, shelled
Chopped parsley, cilantro, basil or thyme, for garnish
In a heavy saucepan, preferably nonstick, bring the milk and water to a simmer. Add the grits and 1 chopped garlic clove to simmering liquid and cook as package directs, stirring constantly. Do not let the grits “blurp” loudly, and watch the evaporation of liquid. Add more if necessary. When fully cooked to the texture desired, remove from heat and add 2 tablespoons butter and season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, heat 4 tablespoons butter in a frying pan and add the shrimp and remaining clove chopped garlic. Cook until the shrimp turn pink. Add the rest of the butter to pan and melt. Top the grits with the shrimp and pour butter on top.
Garnish with chopped herbs.
Serves 4 to 6.
PEACH AND GRITS PARFAIT
Who knew you could eat grits for dessert? It’s delicious when cooked with sugar and vanilla, and paired with fresh fruit and berries. Peaches aren’t yet in season so I substituted strawberries and blueberries.
2 cups milk
1 vanilla bean
1 / 2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup stone-ground grits
4 cups hot water
6 ripe peaches, or 4 cups fresh berries or sliced soft-flesh fruit
For raspberry sauce
1 pint fresh raspberries or strawberries
1 / 4 cup sugar
1 / 2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Put the milk in a heavy-bottom saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half and scrape the seeds into the milk. Add the vanilla bean and sugar. Stir and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and let stand 30 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottom pan over medium-high heat. Add the grits and stir for 5 minutes. Whisk in hot water. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the grits have thickened, 20 to 30 minutes. Reheat the milk and whisk into grits. Cook the grits over low heat, stirring frequently, until they thicken, about 20 to 30 more minutes. Remove from heat, pour into a bowl, cool to room temperature and refrigerate until chilled.
To make the sauce, heat the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pan, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat, until the berry juices flow and the mixture thickens. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature and refrigerate until chilled.
Slice the peaches or other fruit right before assembling parfait. Layer fresh peach slices, grits, raspberry sauce into parfait or wine glasses, and serve.