What Abe ate


You are what you eat. If this is true, does appetite determine character, or is it the other way around?

With President's Day fast approaching, I pondered this question while reading several books about Abraham Lincoln. It seems that America's 16th president was particularly fond of corn, cheese, crackers and fruit. His favorite entree was chicken fricassee. And his preferred dessert, other than fruit pie, was an almond cake made by his wife, Mary Todd.

"In his personal habits, Mr. Lincoln is as simple as a child," wrote David W. Bartlett in Life and Public Services of Honorable Abraham Lincoln, a biography penned on the occasion of Lincoln's inauguration.

"He loves a good dinner, and eats with the appetite which goes with a great brain; but his food is plain and nutritious. He never drinks intoxicating liquors of any sort, not even a glass of wine. He is not addicted to tobacco in any of its shapes. He never was accused of a licentious act in all his life. He never uses profane language."

With his famously trim silhouette, I'd hardly imagined Lincoln was a gourmand. Still, Bartlett's equation of spice with vice was startling. Was this merely a biographer's gloss, or did Honest Abe himself believe that someone who enjoyed a fine table was perhaps prone to drunkenness or profanity? Living as Lincoln did through a period of considerable change in the American kitchen, his appetites tell us much about the flavor of his times.

Until the last decades of the 19th century, for instance, the primitive conditions of frontier life dictated a no-nonsense approach to cooking and domesticity. Even though preparing food was tremendously time-consuming, it was hastily eaten with little fanfare. Indeed, few farmhouses or working-class homes included dining rooms as a separate architectural feature.

"We tend to think of pre-Civil War America in oversimplified terms -- the industrial North versus the agrarian South," said Anne Sarah Rubin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Actually, the vast majority of the country was agrarian at this time. Mostly, people ate what they grew."

This was certainly the case with Abraham Lincoln, who was raised in such mythic poverty that historians sometimes joke that Lincoln was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands. Michael Katz, chief ranger at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Ind., (then called Little Pigeon Creek) said that the Lincolns, like nearly all pioneers, planted the "Holy Trinity" of crops: beans, squash and corn. Of dishes derived from these, Lincoln maintained a lifelong affection for squash pie and never tired of baked goods such as corn pones and corn muffins.

"The Lincolns also had a few scrawny chickens, not the full-breasted beauties that Purdue produces today," said Katz. "It wasn't like they were raising them to eat, anyway. Chickens were around for eggs."

Meaning, when the bird finally became dinner, it wasn't a spring chicken anymore, but of such advanced age that slow cooking was required to make it palatable. Hence, a fricassee, in which a cut-up bird is sauteed in fat before a lengthy braising.

In the standard recipe, there are no exotic herbs or delicate components: just onions, carrots, celery and thyme. It tastes like a chicken potpie, without the crust. As with a coq au vin, chicken fricassee is better served on the second day. Unlike coq au vin, it contains no wine -- which was just fine by the abstemious Lincoln.

He developed his aversion to strong drink, in fact, when he finally left home at age 21. After making his way to New Salem, Ill., he obtained his first paying job as a clerk in a grocery store -- "groceries" being the name then given to dry-good stores that also sold liquor. Lincoln quickly became disgusted by the immense quantities of alcohol he saw consumed (whiskey back then was sold by the barrel, not a bottle), and vowed to avoid such sodden follies.

Doubtless, he also was shocked by the quality of edibles for sale, as before the early 20th century, there were no laws whatsoever to govern tampering with food products. Consequently, storekeepers on the frontier would frequently "stretch" their supplies by adding sawdust to the cornmeal, plaster to the flour and even small pebbles to the coffee beans. Seeing these shenanigans, Lincoln probably learned that simple food was good, simplest was best.

"He was so tall and skinny, though, that the ladies of New Salem probably tried to fatten him up a little," said Jan Longone, curator of American Culinary History in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

When they learned he was fond of fruit, the women introduced Lincoln to the pleasures of baked fruit pies: cherry, peach and sour apple. He must have been an enthusiastic recipient, for many years later, these ladies were still sending pies to him in Washington, D.C.

"Usually, they were done with lattice pastry tops," Longone said, "but for shipping east, they made pies with double crusts, and cut steam gashes in the shape of an L for Lincoln."

Such fancy baking was made possible by culinary technologies that were emerging in the mid-19th century. First, the local blacksmith's wares were replaced by standardized baking tins and tools that were mass-produced in factories. And, instead of cooking in the fireplace, by 1830, a movable, factory-made iron range was beginning to appear in many kitchens.

These contraptions were easy enough to use that even a pampered and wealthy young woman like Mary Todd could feign some facility in the domestic arts. When Lincoln and she began courting, she wooed him with a Todd family recipe.

On first tasting, Lincoln proclaimed this white almond cake to be the "best I ever ate." Though Mary was famous for her sweet tooth, her dessert isn't overly saccharine, but surprisingly subtle given its modest ingredients. (There's no icing and, truthfully, it doesn't need one.) With this cake, as with the fricassee, you get the impression that Lincoln preferred things plain -- be it the cuisine he ate or the advice he was given.

Lincoln, alas, was not a popular president. Even before he got to the White House, there were foiled assassination attempts, including one in Baltimore. Among Lincoln's papers at the Library of Congress are many letters he received throughout 1860 from supporters urging him to be careful about poisoned food once he took up residence at the White House. Such paranoia leavening his daily bread might have crippled a more gluttonous man.

"Lincoln traded politically on his humble origins, yet there was a large element of truth to this, too," said Rubin. "In contrast to someone like Thomas Jefferson, who pretended to be a man of the people, but was actually quite accustomed to luxurious food and fine wines, Lincoln was completely unaffected in his tastes."

So, while he was always thrilled if Mary made her famous cake or a chicken went into the pot for a fricassee, Lincoln didn't complain when he was served humbler fare. At least, up to a point.

An oft-told story has him riding the circuit as a young lawyer, and seeking refreshment at a roadside tavern. After taking a sip of what he was served, Lincoln was said to have pleasantly replied, "If this is coffee, may I please have tea? Or, if this is tea, may I please have coffee?"

Now that's a politician.

Mary Todd Lincoln's White Almond Cake

Serves 8 to 10

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup milk

1 cup chopped blanched almonds

6 egg whites

1 teaspoon vanilla

Grease and flour fluted tube or bundt pan with at least a 10-cup capacity. Cream butter and sugar until thoroughly blended and smooth.

Sift flour and baking powder together 3 times. Blend this into butter and sugar, alternating with milk. This batter will feel surprisingly thick.

Stir in almonds and beat well. Beat egg whites together with vanilla until mixture forms stiff peaks. Fold this into cake batter. Pour into prepared cake pan.

Bake in 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until cake tests done. Turn out on cake rack and cool.

Cake is delicious served plain, but also could be topped with a fresh fruit compote -- say, raspberries or strawberries.

-- From www.abeusa16.com

Per serving: 537 calories; 9 grams protein; 24 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 72 grams carbohydrate; 50 milligrams cholesterol; 324 milligrams sodium

Chicken Fricassee

Serves 4 to 5

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

one 4-pound chicken (cut up -- separate legs from thighs, slice each breast in half horizontally, through the bone)

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

3 3/4 cups chicken stock

1 cup chopped carrots

1 cup chopped celery

3 cups sliced mushrooms

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

salt and pepper to taste


In a heavy covered frypan, or Dutch oven, heat butter and olive oil until mixture is melted and golden. Add chicken pieces and cook, turning once, about 4 minutes on each side. (Don't crowd pan. Do 2 batches if necessary.)

After browning, remove chicken to a plate. Add onions to the accumulated fat in the pan, and saute about 5 minutes, or until onions are softened, but not browned. Sprinkle flour over the cooked onions, and stir. Turn off heat under pan, and slowly pour in chicken stock, stirring constantly so lumps don't form.

Once all liquid is combined with onion, turn up heat again, and bring this mixture to a boil. Add carrots, celery, mushrooms, thyme, chicken pieces (including whatever liquid has formed on plate), salt and pepper.

Bring this mixture to a simmer. Cover tightly, and turn heat to low, so liquid barely bubbles. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until juices run clear when chicken is pricked with a fork.

Serve immediately, sprinkled with a bit of chopped parsley. Or, let chicken cool, refrigerate, and serve anytime for next 3 days.

-- Adapted from "Joy of Cooking"

Per serving: 611 calories; 52 grams protein; 37 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 17 grams carbohydrate;155 milligrams cholesterol; 792 milligrams sodium

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