At the Table Of Presidents


As Presidents Day approached, I found myself wondering: What did George and Abe like to eat?

George and Abe were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, our first and 16th presidents, who, in addition to being responsible for this three-day weekend, also get credit for founding and preserving the United States of America.

Historians have dealt with the minds and motives of these men. I was interested in their palates. I wanted to know what they ate for breakfast, lunch and state occasions. I called researchers familiar with the lives and dietary habits of these men.

I learned that Washington was a fan of hoecakes, hominy and home-brewed beer.

I learned that Lincoln was a great man, but a light eater. When his wife, Mary Todd, chided him about his diet, she wanted him to eat more, not less.

I started with our first president. A typical breakfast for Washington was hoecakes -- pancakes made of cornmeal -- cooked on a griddle and served swimming in butter and honey. After polishing off a plate of hoecakes and a cup of unsweetened tea, Washington would usually hop on his horse and survey his Virginia plantation, an undertaking that meant he ended up logging about 14 miles a day on horseback.

I found this out by talking with Mary Thompson, a researcher at Mount Vernon, Washington's plantation, which sits on the Potomac River. Thompson told me she developed a sense of Washington's favorite foods by reading correspondence, by looking at Mount Vernon menus, and by examining bookkeeping records of the estate.

In addition to his yen for hoecakes, Washington had a soft spot for hominy, she said. In Washington's time, the dish of dried, pTC hulled corn kernels was often served to servants and slaves. But at Mount Vernon, hominy also showed up on the menu for the main meal, served at 3 o'clock in the afternoon to family and guests.

Washington also liked to eat a variety of fish caught in the Potomac, Thompson said. The river serves as the border between Maryland and Virginia. Although there seems to be scant historical evidence to back me up, I have little doubt that the fish Washington found so tasty came from the Maryland part of the river.

Like many men of his time, Washington brewed his own beer. The actual brewing was probably done by the servants and slaves who worked at Mount Vernon, Thompson said.

A house recipe for a so-called "small beer" has survived. It calls for hops, molasses and yeast, and a week's worth of patience -- waiting as the beer "works," or ferments.

If it were sold today, the brew probably would be called Big George's Small Beer.

While Washington seemed to enjoy good food and drink, Lincoln did not seem to care.

"He was a real Spartan when it came to food," said Michael Maione, site historian at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

The few times in his writings that Lincoln mentions meals, the fare was a boiled egg, tea and fruit, Maione said.

Menus from Lincoln's years in the White House describe elaborate meals, however. A menu for a White House feast in February 1862, for example, promised "stewed and scalloped oysters, stuffed turkey, aspic of tongue, canvas back duck, beef, ham, venison, pheasant, terrapin, jellies and ices."

But according to historians, Lincoln paid little notice to such spreads. "Food could be falling off the table, but he was not interested," Maione said.

Accounts from friends and relatives reported Lincoln would often forget to eat, said Linda Norbert Suits, curator of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill.

Burdened by the responsibilities of his office and troubled by digestive problems, Lincoln lost weight during his years in the White House. He was about 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds when he took office in 1861, and was down to about 160 pounds when he was assassinated in 1865.

My glance into the eating habits of the two presidents did not yield profound insights into their character. But learning about Washington's weakness for hominy and Lincoln's inability to enjoy food reminded me that these towering visages of history had small, human moments.

Washington was not only the founder of our country, he was also a man who appreciated a good corn cake. Lincoln, on the other hand, was so devoted to the duties of office that he ended up missing the simple pleasures of eating good food.

My inquiry ended up reinforcing what major historians have been saying for years. These were two good men. We were lucky to have them.

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