Martha Washington’s Preserved Cherries

Credit line: From Dinner with the President by Alex Prud’homme. Copyright © 2023 by Alex Prud’homme. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Food myths have always helped cohere America’s immigrant population, and one of the most enduring fables is about a young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree with his “little hatchet,” then confessing his sin, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” The story was apocryphal and did not appear until the fifth edition of Parson Weems’s fanciful biography The Life of Washington, in 1806. Despite this caveat, there is no question that Washington was extremely fond of cherries.

Thanks to Martha Washington’s recipe books, which she was given as a young bride in 1749 and bequeathed to her granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis in 1799, we have many of the recipes prepared by the first president’s kitchens in New York, Philadelphia, and Mount Vernon, Virginia.

This is a delicious, adaptable recipe for cherry preserves, which can be used as a condiment for savory dishes or in desserts such as cherry cobbler or as a topping for ice cream. It requires only three ingredients: cherries, sugar, and water. I give two versions of the recipe here: the original version, which calls for two pounds of sugar and two pounds of cherries, drawn from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats (edited by the food historian Karen Hess and published in 1981). Just reading that made my teeth ache, so I updated the recipe for modern eaters.

Martha Washington’s Seventeenth-Century Recipe
“To Preserve Cherries”

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.


Alex Prud’homme’s Adaptation

— tools —
Cherry pitter
(optional but recommended)
Medium saucepan
Measuring cup

Long- handled cooking spoon Bowl or jar to hold your preserves

— Ingredients —
2 pounds fresh cherries
4 cups of water

¼ to ½ cup white sugar (adjust to personal taste)

— Preparation —

Wash the cherries in a colander. Stem and pit them (not necessary, but worth-while).

Boil the water in a medium saucepan; then add the sugar.

When the sugar has dissolved, add the cherries to the pot and boil again. Lower the heat to a simmer. Using a long- handled spoon, stir the cherries occasionally, skimming foam from the surface and discarding it as necessary. When the liquid has been reduced by half and is syrupy, remove the pan from the heat and let the cherries cool.