What Abe ate

An honest look at what Lincoln preferred to have on his table

February 11, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

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.

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