Four Score and Seven Meals Ago ...

Maya Silver |
Culinary Personalities

“My childhood’s home I see again,

            And sadden with the view …

The very spot where grew the bread

            That formed my bones, I see.

How strange, old field, on thee to tread,

            And feel I’m part of thee!”

                        —Abraham Lincoln, 1846

It all began in a one-room cabin in Indiana that served as a kitchen, dining room, and bedroom for the Lincoln family. You could say that Lincoln was basically raised in the kitchen. Take a seat at the dinner table with him through the culinary vignettes crafted by award-winning author and cook Rae Katherine Eighmey in her new book, “Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times.”

 

Corn, In All Its Many Forms

Under a tree, with a book in hand, Lincoln often snacked upon corn dodgers—small corn cakes. He also likely enjoyed hominy—grits made from stone-ground corn—and many other corn products due to its ease of cultivation.

You, too, can enjoy this historical presidential snack with this recipe for corn dodgers.  

 

The Gingerbread Boy

Lincoln’s mother once gave him three homemade gingerbread men—a beloved snack of his—which he took to eat beneath a hickory tree. A neighbor boy approached and said, “Gimme a man.” Lincoln gave him one and, as he slowly continued to eat his first, watched the boy gobble his up in two big bites.

“Abe,” said the neighbor boy. “Gimme that other’n.” I want it myself, thought Lincoln, but he gave it to him anyway and watched as the boy devoured it speedily.

“You seem to like gingerbread,” Lincoln observed.

“I don’t suppose there’s anybody on this earth likes gingerbread better’n I do,” the boy responded. “And I don’t suppose there’s anybody on this earth gets less’n I do.”

 

Professional Bites

Before his election to the Illinois General Assembly, Lincoln dabbled professionally in the culinary world, filling the shoes of a corn and wheat mill overseer, flatboat trip cook, and general store manager. During his service in the Black Hawk War, Captain Lincoln likely drank whiskey and ate generous amounts of bacon with his troops.

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law practice partner, noted that he frequently ate a breakfast of charcuterie, cheese, and crackers at work. Herndon also described Lincoln’s unique consumption of apples: “He would grasp it around the equatorial part, holding it thus until his thumb and forefinger met, sink his teeth into it, and … begin eating at the blossom end … I never saw an apple thus disposed of by anyone else.”

 

The Sweet Life

During Lincoln’s courtship with Mary Todd, she made him an almond cake that he deemed, “the best cake I ever ate.” Whether or not this was a significant factor in their eventual betrothal, it certainly kept Lincoln close to the kitchen. He was even reputed to don a large blue apron himself and help Mary with the cooking on occasion.

According to charge accounts the Lincoln family kept at stores, one of their most popular purchases was sugar. They consumed a whopping gallon of sweet syrup every 10 to 12 days and approximately 11 pounds of sugar every two weeks. Perhaps Lincoln’s sweet tooth kept his wife busy preparing almond cakes and other baked goods by the basketful, or maybe their three sons had enormous appetites for syrup on their pancakes.

 

Food for Presidential Thought

In political office, Lincoln sustained the generosity he exhibited as a boy during the gingerbread incident. During a political barbecue, Lincoln relinquished his seat at the head of a table for an older waitress and dishwasher known as Granny. After her repeated refusals, he vacated his chair, taking his turkey leg and biscuit to eat beneath a tree.

Aside from being able to afford turkey, pork, and other meats, Lincoln developed an appetite for oysters—but only when cooked. He once refused raw oysters, noting, “If I should eat a raw oyster with you, it would be the first time I had ever eaten one.”

The dinners surrounding Lincoln’s presidential election were equally memorable. Prior to his inauguration, he feasted upon mock turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage, parsley potatoes, and blackberry pie. After his inauguration, the party dined on a fussier meal of Potomac shad—a river herring—which gave everyone a nasty bout of food poisoning.