Learning About Honest Abe's Life Through Food

You've read about Abraham Lincoln in the history books, but what can cookbooks tell us about Honest Abe? Host Michel Martin speaks with Rae Katherin Eighmey, author of Abraham Lincoln In The Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln's Life and Times.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It wouldn't be Presidents' Day without talking about one of this country's most significant presidents Abraham Lincoln. Now most of us know Abraham Lincoln for what he achieved as president, the Emancipation Proclamation, holding the nation together through the trauma of the Civil War, not to mention his unforgettable rhetorical gifts. But what you might not know is that Abraham Lincoln cooked.

You heard me right. The 16th president of the United States did, at least on occasion, walk home from his law office in Springfield, Illinois, tied on a blue apron and helped Mary Lincoln make dinner for their boys. We know this because Rae Katherine Eighmey is an author, cook and food historian. Now I might say food detective because she's pieced together a remarkable story of the food that shaped Abraham Lincoln's life complete with recipes for her new book, "Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln's Life and Times." And she's with us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Happy Presidents' Day to you. Welcome.

RAE KATHERINE EIGHMEY: Happy Presidents' Day to you. Thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: Now you open the book with the story of how you figured out that Lincoln cooked. So why don't you tell us that story briefly.

EIGHMEY: Well, I had done a lot of reading about Lincoln and happened cross this wonderful incident where one of the neighbor children remembered his mother talking about how Lincoln walked in from his law office, as you said, put on a blue apron and helped Mary Cook. But he also cooked at other points in his life when he built the flatboat to go down to New Orleans when he was 22. He was elected cook by his brother and step brother and cousin to go on down the river. So he cooked not only while they built the flatboat, but while they journeyed down to New Orleans.

MARTIN: Do we know whether he was a good cook?

EIGHMEY: You know, that's a really good question, but they had enough strength and stamina to pull that boat all the way down, so I think he probably did all right.

MARTIN: How do you think he learned how to cook? You write about that in the book, too. And you, again, this is some detective work on your part. It's actually kind of rooted in a sad story actually.

EIGHMEY: Well, yes, and like any pioneering child, you live in a one-room log cabin, you are essentially raised in the kitchen. And when Lincoln's mother died, when he was 10 or 11, he and his sister had to take over taking care of the house and feeding themselves and their father, who would, you know, of course, go out and run the farm and raise the animals and do hunting. So, you know, he was right there having to be part and parcel in preparing the meals, you know, that's my theory anyway.

MARTIN: Why do we care what Lincoln cooked and ate? I mentioned to one of my colleagues that I was interested in your book and I was reading your book. And I said you know, that Abraham Lincoln cooked. And I - you know, we're going - I'm going to find out what he liked to eat. And this colleague said, well, obviously he didn't eat much. Look at him. He was like, thin as a rail, you know, so.

EIGHMEY: He was thin as a rail, but he was also remarkably strong. So, you know, in those sinews, were a lot of good foods that had had built - helped build him through his life. But I think it's important - at least it was important to me and I hope readers feel the same way - that by looking at his life through the foods that he ate or may have eaten or was exposed to, you're able to build a picture of him as a human man and as a family man.

MARTIN: Why don't you just tell us a story about Lincoln and food that you think really kind of captures the man. I know the story I'm thinking of was the gingerbread man. I don't know if that's the story that comes to mind.

EIGHMEY: Well, that certainly is one that comes to the top of my mind not only because it's integral to him as a boy, it's an incident that he used to help deflate Senator Douglas during the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. Douglas was just heaping this praise on Lincoln falsely. You know, he was just flattering him up one side and down the other. And Lincoln wanted to just kind of pop that bubble, so he told this story of when he was a boy back in Indiana. That his mother had made some gingerbread men. And so he took them out to share. And the neighbor boy came up and he shared one with the neighbor boy. And the neighbor said, well, give me another one.

So Lincoln shared a second of his three gingerbread men. And the neighbor boy said there's nobody who likes gingerbread as much as I do and nobody who gets as little as I do. So Lincoln was contrasting that to how he doesn't get much flattery, and here Douglas was heaping it on him, you know, falsely. And what's critical about the way Lincoln explained the story is that he gave two ingredients. He said my mother used to get sorghum and she used to get ginger, and from those two, she would make the gingerbread. Well, that's as close as a recipe as I was able to find from, you know, Lincoln, his stepmother, his wife that he gave us the two key ingredients. And importantly, it didn't include any of the ingredients that we're used to making gingerbread out of. And he also, in describing grabbing them, putting them in his pocket, going outside, you knew they had to be sort of a sturdy thing, not a crumbly cake.

And because the young lad was able to cram them in this mouth in two bites, you had a sense of what the texture was. So that was my starting point to go back through old cookbooks and find a recipe that would have all of those elements in it.

MARTIN: Tell us some other of the stories that kind of fascinated you. I know that you were on this hunt for the wedding cake that Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln would've had, you know, at their wedding.

EIGHMEY: This, too, was kind of a mystery. You see this - Mary Todd Lincoln's white, almond cake reprinted in a lot of sources. And it was one of the first recipes that I began to unravel because the recipe that you see is one that has been modernized because it has baking powder in it. And baking powder was not something that was available when Mary Todd would have gotten this recipe back in the 1840's. So I, again, sort of looked at what the recipes could have been, looked at period sources, and came up with one that is harder to make than a cake with baking powder. But I think tastier and has a kind of an angel food-like texture to it that's lovely.

MARTIN: Do we think that he cooked when he was at the White House? Any sense of whether...

EIGHMEY: Probably - well...

MARTIN: ...He donned the blue apron and helped out once he became president?

EIGHMEY: The White House is kind of hard to understand. There were cooks, not chefs, except for one occasion Marry did bring in a French chef from New York to prepare a huge banquet meal for which she was criticized roundly. But there is one story where a man and his nephew came in to see the president, and of course, back then you could just sort of walk into the White House. And they encountered President Lincoln sitting in the dining room eating a plate of baked beans for breakfast. So he might have gone downstairs and reheated those himself. It's hard to know.

MARTIN: Well, I like the idea that he did. You know, as I think any student of American history knows, Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the surrender of the...

EIGHMEY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Confederates, I mean, within days. And in response, one of the things she pointed out it - that it was then the customs, sometimes, to bake a cake or to serve a cake or that bakeries developed a cake in honor of the martyred president. And that there were a lot of cakes named for presidents like Washington and Madison as well as other political figures on both sides of the Civil War. So what was the Lincoln cake? And do we have any idea how the Lincoln cake came to be?

EIGHMEY: Well, the one I have in the book is one that I did see it in a couple of places. And it's kind of like a large, very lightly fruited fruitcake. And there's several versions of Lincoln cakes. And I think women around the country and various media, I think, too, just kind of developed these recipes and put them forward. You would see them printed in newspapers, in the kinds of newspapers where readers would submit their own recipes for publication. So people were so moved by Lincoln's death that they hung their homes with mourning crepe as though a relative of their own had died. They just swept the nation with grief and despair. And coming out of it within six months or so to begin to savor his life through food may have been part of the healing process.

MARTIN: What should we eat today? If we want to honor Abraham Lincoln today on this Presidents' Day, what would you recommend that we fix or in these hurly-burly times, go out and buy?

EIGHMEY: Well, his favorite food was an apple. He enjoyed apples particularly. Someone asked him what his favorite food was, and he said people should eat foods that agree with them and apples agree with me. But beyond that, if you wanted to eat corn cakes, a cornmeal pancake, he was said to have eaten those as fast as two women could prepare them.

MARTIN: Thankfully, you have a recipe for that, correct?

EIGHMEY: I have a recipe for corn dodgers, which is similar to corncakes, but it's a little more refined. Again, it's the kind of thing that his cousin Dennis Hanks said that he would put in his pants pocket - Lincoln would, and go sit under a tree and eat.

MARTIN: Rae Katherine Eighmey is the author of "Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln's Life and Times. And she's with us from Minnesota Public Radio. Thank you so much for joining us.

EIGHMEY: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Michel.

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