Making history and heritage bread at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Special events are a common occurrence at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, but during the final week of October, a particularly historic event transpired — for the first time in around 221 years, grain was grown, milled and baked into bread on-site.
One of the key players in the historic event was Justin Cherry, the owner of Half Crown Bakehouse in Summerville, South Carolina and the official baker in residence at Mount Vernon since February 2022.
Cherry, whose passion for history and food led him to a career in 18th century baking, made his initial connections with George Washington’s home in 2018 as a Mount Vernon Fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. There, he researched the “Impact of George Washington’s Mount Vernon in 18th-Century Foodways” and specifically the types of grains that were grown there. Two years later, Cherry was back at Mount Vernon to help build a clay oven — typically used in 18th century colonies — on the grounds of the estate’s pioneer farm. And in 2021, he joined a heritage grain grower and Mount Vernon’s horticultural staff in planting a small plot of purple straw wheat on the grounds of the estate.
According to Cherry, purple straw wheat is only grown at five or six locations nationwide but was a popular crop during the colonial period, including at Mount Vernon. This past June, horticulturists harvested the first crop of wheat using laborious hand threshing and separating techniques. While many of the seeds were saved for replanting, the rest was brought to George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill for grinding and blending with other grains like barley, corn and rye. The resulting powders were then hand-mixed by Cherry and fired in the clay oven, yielding around 13 loaves of multi-grain bread for a special event for donors at the gristmill.
“The last time that purple straw wheat was known to be grown on the estate was 1801 or 1802,” said Cherry, who said he felt “honored and lucky to take part in such an event.”
The good news for Mount Vernon area residents is that Cherry still has around 150 lbs. of the special flour blend and will be back at the estate Nov. 17-20 to bake around 45 to 50 loaves per day. Those loaves will inevitably sell out quickly. Typically, Cherry runs out of inventory within 15 to 30 minutes after the bread gets out of the oven, which is at around 11:30 a.m. and again between 12:30 and 1 p.m.
Cherry will wrap up the calendar year with two more baking residencies at Mount Vernon from Dec. 1-4 and Dec. 16-18, and then will take some well-deserved time off in January. Making the eight-hour haul from his hometown in South Carolina to northern Virginia can be tiring, though Cherry often schedules his trips around other events in the area, such as a Dec. 11 reenactment of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.
With the holidays coming up, Cherry has other special treats in store for Mount Vernon area residents. While cookie-like butter biscuits were his focus last year, gingerbread is becoming the priority this year — specifically “until people eat it more than once a year,” he joked.
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According to Cherry, gingerbread was a common dessert in colonial times, and Washington himself ordered large amounts from the Continental Army’s baker general Christopher Ludwig. The ingredients used at that time will be replicated in Cherry’s recipe.
Half Crown Bakehouse’s 2023 schedule at Mount Vernon will be published toward the end of December on the bakery’s website. Cherry sets up shop on the 12-acre field and can be seen making bread from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Bread is available for purchase until sold out.