The Kitchen was used to prepare all meals served to George and Martha Washington and their many guests. Cooking in Mount Vernon’s kitchen was hot, smoky, demanding, and skilled work. Enslaved cooks like Doll, Hercules, Nathan, and Lucy, arose at four each morning to light the fire in the oven and prepare for the meals to be served in the Mansion. Their duties could continue well into the evening. The Washingtons placed great trust in their cooks, whose talent was evident in visitors’ descriptions of sumptuous meals.
Under Martha Washington’s supervision, cooks planned menus and selected ingredients for each day’s meals. Enslaved laborers on the estate grew and harvested most of the Washingtons’ food: wheat and corn from the fields, fresh vegetables from the garden, fruit from the orchards, fish caught in the Potomac, and smoked ham from hogs raised on site. Imported luxuries like tea, coffee, chocolate, olives, oranges, and wine supplemented homegrown ingredients.
Their role in the kitchen allowed enslaved cooks to shape the tastes of the household—and the region. Many iconic southern dishes bear the influence of West African cuisine, from stews like gumbo to ingredients like okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and collard greens.
The placement of the kitchen at Mount Vernon was dictated by a series of functional, social, and environmental factors. The concern for safety from potential fires, the desire to avoid kitchen heat, and the need to avoid the smell of food cooking in the household were of significant importance. In addition, there was a desire to separate domestic functions from the main house in order to reinforce the segregation of enslaved workers’ activities from those of the planter family.