J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

What Henry Knox Would Not Eat

The Westbrook (Maine) Historical Society preserves this story about Henry Knox and Martha Washington, apparently first published in the Narragansett Sun newspaper of Portland on 12 Dec 1895 (P.D.F. download):
An anecdote that is vouched for as true by high authority is worth recording. At one of those elegant dinners given by Washington after he had come to the presidency, and which were presided over by his estimable wife, the pickled olives, now so common, but at that time almost unknown, were passed to Gen. Knox. The first trial of the new relish was quite enough for the valiant Secretary of War, who quickly taking the obnoxious fruit from his mouth, thus addressed himself to his hostess, “Please, Madam, may I put this d___ thing on the floor?”
I can easily fit this anecdote in with what lots of other sources describe as Knox’s easy friendship with the Washingtons. But is there any way to test its authenticity?

One question is whether pickled olives were still unfamiliar by the 1790s. A 1749 London edition of A Treatise on Foreign Vegetables, by Dr. Ralph Thicknesse (1719-1790), includes this entry:
Pickled Olives, being eaten before Meals, says Schroder, provoke an Appetite, raise and comfort a moist Stomach, and move the Belly.
Richard Bradley’s Treatise on Husbandry and Gardening, as published in 1723, discusses cherries treated “to imitate pickled olives,” suggesting that the latter had become popular somewhere.

But that was in Britain. Had pickled olives made their way to the colonies? In 1759, George Washington sent an invoice to his London merchant that included: “1 Case of Pickles to consist of Anchovies—Capers, Olives—Salid Oyl & 1 Bottle India Mangoes…” That’s the closest match to the phrase “pickled olive(s)” that I found in all of the Founders’ papers digitized at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. But Washington ordered “French olives” regularly in the 1750s. Was pickling taken for granted?

TOMORROW: Evidence from newspapers.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

I think I can see another vintage example of apocrypha on the horizon with this one, John...

J. L. Bell said...

It turned out this story is hard to refute. It also doesn't portray Knox in the most favorable light, especially per Victorian manners, making it more likely to have been preserved because it's actually true. But the provenance is so thin we can't be sure.

Yoni said...

The French tariff schedule of 1715 listed two varieties of olives - both dried - at 2 sous per hundredweight; pickled olives aren't listed at all. Americans don't tend to eat dried olives anymore, but there are a variety of methods, including heat and salt, that produce a palatably savory article. Dried olives would also weigh considerably less than pickled olives shipped in their brine, and might well have endured ocean voyages more easily.

So I find the notion that pickled olives might have been something of a novelty on this side of the Atlantic perfectly plausible. And Knox's reaction may well have been informed by the dissonance between his expectations of what an olive should be - dried, perhaps salted, chewy - and his first experience of a pickled olive, which is a very different article.

J. L. Bell said...

The fact that I heartily dislike pickled olives probably makes me inclined to credit Knox with the good taste suggested by this story.