Recipe: Martha Washington’s Preserved Cherries (1749)

Preserved Cherries

Anyone who grew up in the United States was likely taught the apocryphal story of the child George Washington who chopped down a cherry tree, and when confronted by his father, he confessed “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped it down with my little hatchet.” While this childhood lesson of honesty is undoubtedly a myth, it is true that Washington was something of a cherry fanatic.

Kitchen at Mount VernonThere is little doubt that Martha and her household were capable of making the grandest of cuisines. But her husband grew up in relative poverty, and never grew accustomed to the fancier foreign foods served at wealthier estates. Future presidents like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had distinctly French tastes in food and wine. If you are what you eat, Washington was a Virginian, through and through. The Mount Vernon estate where the Washingtons lived was entirely self sufficient, producing all the food and beverage they would need for the year, with the remainder sold to market.

The Washingtons did not have children together, but Martha had four children with her first husband. According to her grandson Custis, the first president “ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet, with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond. He partook sparingly of dessert, drank a home-made beverage, and from four to five glasses of Madeira wine.”

Martha Washington Portrait by Gilbert StuartWe are remarkably fortunate that the family cookbook survived all these years. It likely dates to the 17th century, and many of the recipes are English – her mother being of English and Welsh decent. Martha received the cookbook in 1749 on the occasion of her first marriage to Daniel Custis at the age of 18. Custis was a wealthy farmer and land owner twenty years her senior, who died when Martha was 25. Widowed and wealthy, she married General Washington at 27 in a lavish ceremony and became Lady Martha Custis Washington. She had and used the cookbook for much of her life until 1799 when she passed it along to her only granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis when the young girl married Lawrence Lewis. The manuscript has since been printed in various editions, most notably by Karen Hess who edited and annotated the collection.


You can leave the cherries whole or pit them. Personally, I prefer to pit them first so they don’t have to be dealt with later.

If you happen to have a long-handled metal spoon, so much the better. Otherwise, a regular spoon will be fine – just be careful you don’t burn yourself scraping the foam from the edges of the pan.

If you do plan on keeping these cherries for some time, I would recommend pressure canning them for safety. Granted, this is not what the Washingtons would have done, but then again there were quite a lot of food-borne illnesses back then too. Save yourself the botulism and pressure can them, or eat them within a few weeks and keep it in the refrigerator.


Before refrigeration and pressure cookers, you pickled, salted, or sugared your foods to preserve them. This recipe for preserved cherries is simple and exemplifies the technique. Though home preserving has diminished in the age of canned goods, you still often see fruit canned in syrup. This homemade version using sugar is leaps and bounds better than the stuff you buy steeped in high fructose corn syrup.

As you can imagine, the end result is remarkably sweet. These cherries would likely have been eaten by themselves, but you could also use them for the base of a cherry pie or as a topping for ice cream or shortcake. You can bring some tartness back to them by adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. The remaining syrup could also be used as a flavoring to club soda or cocktails.

Like most recipes prior to the 20th century, the instructions are brief and assume basic knowledge of the cook. As such, I offer a more detailed version after presenting the original.

The Recipe
“To Preserue Cheries” from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats (1749), Transcribed by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press (1996)

Take 2 pound of faire cherries & clip of the stalks in ye midst. then wash them clean, but bruise them not. then take 2 pound of double refined sugar, & set it over ye fire with a quart of faire water in ye broadest preserving pan or silver basen as you can get. Let it seeth till it be some what thick, yn put in yr cherries, & let them boyle. keepe allwayes scumming & turning them gently with a silver spoon till they be enough. when they are cold, you may glass them up & keep them all the year.


2 lbs of fresh cherries, stemmed
2 lbs sugar (4 cups)
1 quart water (4 cups)

Wash cherries, and pit them if desired. In a large saucepan or pot, make a syrup by adding sugar to boiling water. When sugar is completely dissolved, add cherries to the pot and return to a boil. Using a metal spoon, stir occasionally and remove as much foam that appears as possible. When cherries are soft and liquid has been reduced by about half, remove from heat and let cool.

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