In the hope that readers might enjoy some additional information about Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, herewith the following. A family portrait with Eleanor and her brother George Washington Parke Custis on the left.
He rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready—he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream.
Dubbed “hoecakes,” the Indian meal pancakes were so named because they were made on a griddle or hoe. Nelly even included the recipe in a letter she wrote.
The bread business is as follows if you wish to make 2 1/2 quarts of flour up-take at night one quart of flour, five table spoonfuls of yeast & as much lukewoarm water as will make it the consistency of pancake batter, mix it in a large stone pot & set it near a warm hearth (or a moderate fire) make it at candlelight & let it remain until the next morning then add the remaining quart & a half by degrees with a spoon when well mixed let it stand 15 or 20 minutes & then bake it – of this dough in the morning, beat up a white & half of the yolk of an egg – add as much lukewarm water as will make it like pancake batter, drop a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the south). When done on one side turn the other – the griddle must be rubbed in the first instance with a piece of beef suet or the fat of cold corned beef …
A modern adaptation of this recipe can be found here.
Nelly was a well educated young lady, taught mostly by tutors, although she did attend a fashionable school for a time in New York City when the family resided there during George Washington’s presidency. She received lessons in music and art and was expected to play this harpsichord for guests at Mount Vernon. She wrote to Elizabeth Bordley in 1797:
When my Harpsichord comes, I shall practice a great deal, & and make my Sister sing your parts of our Duetts. I think you had better come here to sing them with me. I do not despair of seeing you, & I shall be very much disappointed if you do not visit us.
When Nelly married Lawrence Lewis, Washington gave the couple some property on the grounds of Mount Vernon on which their home Woodlawn was built. Expanded to more than 2,000 acres, the plantation at one point had 100 workers of whom at least 90 were slaves. In 1952, the house and 126 acres became the first historic site owned by the National Trust.
Washington at Home lithograph, 1867, engraved by Henry Bryan after painting by Alonzo Chappel in the George Washington Collection of Washington College; recipe and photograph for hoecakes is at Mount Vernon; Nelly Custis’s harpsichord can be seen at Mount Vernon; the photograph of Woodlawn can be found here.