The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 28 Jul 2018

George Washington's Breakfast

When I was a kid I enjoyed a story called George Washington's Breakfast, which I have since learned was written in 1969 by Jean Fritz. The protagonist is a boy named George Washington Allen who is fascinated by all things related to his namesake. One morning at breakfast he wonders what George Washington ate for his own breakfast. He has read all the books in his school library about George Washington, but does not know this important detail. His grandmother promises him that when he finds out what George Washington had for breakfast, she will cook it for him, whatever it is.

This launches the whole family on an odyssey that takes them as far as Mount Vernon, but even the people at Mount Vernon don't know. In the end George gets lucky: he finds an old book in the attic that authoritatively states that George Washington

breakfasts about seven o'clock on three small Indian hoecakes, and as many dishes of tea.

George is thrilled, and, having looked up hoecake in the dictionary to find out what it is (a corn cake cooked in the fireplace, on a hoe), jumps up from the table. His grandmother asks him where he is going, and of course he is going to the basement to get the hoe. Grandma refuses to cook on a hoe; George objects.

“When you were in George Washington's kitchen in Mount Vernon, did you see any hoes?”

“Well no, but…”

“Did you see any black iron griddles?”


“Then that's what I'll use.”

This stuck with me for many years, and thinking back on it one day as an adult, I was suddenly certain that George Allen and his family were black, notwithstanding the plump white kid in the illustrations. At some point I even looked up the original publication to see if the kid was black in the 1969 illustrations. Nope, they are by Paul Galdone and he has made George white. A new edition was published in 1998 with new illustrations by Tomie dePaola, again with a white kid. Ms. Fritz died last year at the age of 102, so it is too late to ask her what she had in mind. But it doesn't matter to me; I am sure George is black. There was a trend in the 1960s for white authors of children’s books to make an effort to depict black kids. (For example: The Snowy Day (1962) and its sequels (through 1968); Corduroy (1968); and many others less well-known.)

Anyway, chalk this up as another story that could not happen in 2018. George's family would search on the Internet, and immediately find out about the hoecakes. I don't recall exactly what book it was that George found in the attic, but in a minute’s searching I was able to find out that it was probably Paul Leicester Ford’s George Washington (1896), and the authoritative statement about Washington's hoecake-and-tea breakfast, on page 193, is quoted from Samuel Stearns, a contemporary of Washington's.

The Stearns quotation definitely appeared in Fritz's story; I remember the wording, and even Samuel Stearns rings a bell now that I see his name again.

For oddballs like me and George Washington Allen, who become obsessed by trivial questions, the Internet is a magnificent and glorious boon. I often think that for me, one of the best results of the rise of the Internet is that I can now track down all the books from my childhood that I liked but only half-remember, find out who wrote them and read them again.

[ Addendum 20230807: The “hoe” in hoecake is apparently not a literal garden hoe, but a regional Virginia term for a skillet, as George's grandmother surmised. It was sometimes called a “bread hoe” to distinguish it from a garden hoe. ]

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