Today is the birthday (1809) of Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. Lincoln led the United States through its Civil War—its bloodiest war and its greatest moral, constitutional, and political crisis. In doing so, he preserved the Union, abolished slavery, strengthened the federal government, and modernized the economy. Contemporary GOP politicians like to tout Lincoln as one of the founders of the Republican party, but this rhetoric is hopelessly misleading. Lincoln is as far from the modern Republican party as you could ever imagine. Lincoln must be turning in his grave at the sight of what his party has become.
Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and grew up on the western frontier in Kentucky and Indiana. He was largely self-educated, became a lawyer in Illinois, a Whig Party leader, and then a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, in which he served for twelve years. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846, where he promoted rapid modernization of the economy through banks, tariffs, and railroads. Because he had originally agreed not to run for a second term in Congress, and because his opposition to the Mexican–American War was unpopular among Illinois voters, Lincoln returned to Springfield and resumed his law practice. He reentered politics in 1854 and became a leader in building the new Republican Party, which had a statewide majority in Illinois. In 1858, while taking part in a series of highly publicized debates with his opponent and rival, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln spoke out against the expansion of slavery, but lost the U.S. Senate race to Douglas.
In 1860, Lincoln secured the Republican Party presidential nomination as a moderate from a swing state. With very little support in the slave-holding states of the South, he swept the North and was elected president in 1860. His victory prompted seven southern slave states to form the Confederate States of America before he moved into the White House — no compromise or reconciliation was possible regarding slavery and secession. Subsequently, on April 12, 1861, a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter inspired the North to enthusiastically rally behind the Union in a declaration of war. As the leader of the moderate faction of the Republican Party, Lincoln confronted Radical Republicans, who demanded harsher treatment of the South, War Democrats, who called for more compromise, anti-war Democrats (called Copperheads), who despised him, and irreconcilable secessionists, who plotted his assassination. Politically, Lincoln fought back by pitting his opponents against each other, by carefully planned political patronage, and by appealing to the people with his powers of oratory. His Gettysburg Address became an iconic endorsement of the principles of nationalism, republicanism, equal rights, liberty, and democracy.
Lincoln initially concentrated on the military and political dimensions of the war. His primary goal was to reunite the nation. He suspended habeas corpus, leading to the controversial ex parte Merryman decision, and he averted potential British intervention in the war by defusing the Trent Affair in late 1861. Lincoln closely supervised the war effort, especially the selection of top generals, including his most successful general, Ulysses S. Grant. He also made major decisions on Union war strategy, including a naval blockade that shut down the South’s normal trade, moves to take control of Kentucky and Tennessee, and using gunboats to gain control of the southern river system. Lincoln tried repeatedly to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond; each time a general failed, Lincoln substituted another, until finally Grant succeeded. As the war progressed, his complex moves toward ending slavery included the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; Lincoln used the U.S. Army to protect escaped slaves, encouraged the border states to outlaw slavery, and pushed through Congress the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which permanently outlawed slavery.
Lincoln reached out to the War Democrats as part of his effort and unifying the nation and managed his own re-election campaign in the 1864 presidential election. Anticipating the war’s conclusion, Lincoln pushed a moderate view of Reconstruction, seeking to reunite the nation speedily through a policy of generous reconciliation in the face of lingering and bitter divisiveness, which, I am sad to say, lingers to this day. In some quarters in the South, the Civil War is still referred to as the War of Northern Aggression. On April 14, 1865, five days after the April 9th surrender of Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. Here is my post on the assassination https://www.bookofdaystales.com/assassination-of-abraham-lincoln/ . You’ll find a wealth of primary source material here.
Lincoln is an easy shot for a foodie blogger because there’s a wealth of material on his eating habits, his wife’s cooking, meals at the White House, and whatnot. I rather went to town on this stuff when I posted about Lincoln’s assassination, and you can review it, if you care to, in the link above. There’s also quite a few recipes there including Mary’s Courting Cake (and frosting), and terrapin stew. Here’s some more primary references included in secondary sources:
During several years of collecting material for The Presidents’Cookbook…we ran into all sorts of controversy concerning President Lincoln’s habits, his likes and dislikes, when it came to food. Judging from menus of the state balls and banquets given at the White House during Lincoln’s Administration–some of the most elaborate in our history–one might conclude that Honest Abe was a gourmet to end all gourmets. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Giving the opposite side of the picture, certain observers of the times…said flatly that Lincoln was almost entirely indifferent to food, ‘Except that he liked apples and hot coffee.’ The President’s bodyguard wrote, however, ‘Mr. Lincoln was a hearty eater. Her never lost his taste for things that a growing farmer’s boy would like. He was particularly fond of bacon.’ Probably like most of our strongest Presidents (excepting Jefferson), Lincoln relied on food to feed the furnace. Undoubtedly he ate well when served a tasty meal but was usually so preoccupied that he gave little thought to food. One thing seems certain: hew was a gentle man at the table and uncritical. His stepmother said, ‘He ate what was before him, making no complaint.’ A companion of his lawyer days, Leonard Sweet, wrote, ‘I never in the 10 years of circuit life I knew him heard him complain of a hard bed or a bad meal of victuals.
“Fast Gourmet: Honest Abe’s favorite Food,” Poppy Cannon, Chicago Daily Defender, (February 8, 1968, p. 22)
Just as so much about [Abraham Lincoln’s] life has been shrouded in latter-day myth and legend, making it difficult to assess the truth about the man, so, too, have his food habits and tastes been the subject of controversy…It seems to us that the food truth about Lincoln must lie somewhere between these extreme points of view…One aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s characteristically gentle nature was apparent in his approach to food… Temperamentally…Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were totally unlike…This was strikingly apparent when it came to food and food history. Although both came originally from Kentucky, they reflected two completely different Kentucky traditions. Mary had been raised in the lush bluegrass region of the state, where gracious, comfortable living and rich, elaborate cooking were legendary. Abe grew up on the frontier, where he ate very plain food, partly for economic reasons, partly because of the frontier tradition. Corn dodgers, cakes made of coarse cornmeal, were a staple. Wild game provided the protein a growing boy needed. During the days of young manhood, where he boarded at the Rutledge Tavern in New Salem, his diet consisted largely of cornbread, mush, bacon, eggs, and milk. Several friends of that period recalled later that if Abe was partial to any one food it was honey, a great delicacy for him at the time.
The Presidents’ Cookbook, Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks (1968: 236-7)
Family meals at the Lincolns’ were routine. Early in the morning the President liked a “good hot cup of coffee.” But often he would forget about breakfast until 9 or 10A.M. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, occasionally ate with the President. He noted that the frugal repast might consist of “an egg, a piece of toast, coffee, etc.” On occasion breakfast was a single egg. For lunch, Hay reported, Lincoln “took a little lunch–a biscuit, a glass of milk in winter, some fruit or grapes in summer…He ate less than anyone I know.” Lunch was usually eaten irregularly.
The Presidents’ Cookbook, Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks (1968: 239)
Abraham Lincoln dined in a spartan fashion…He would rather nibble fruit. His wife Mary tried everything to make Abe eat but was frustrated time and time again to see the finest foods left all but untouched on his plate. One of the few entrees that would tempt Lincoln was Chicken Fricassee. He liked the chicken cut up in small pieces, fried with seasonings of nutmeg and mace and served with a gravy made of the chicken drippings. Mary Lincoln set a table at the White House, which included such food as Aspic of Tongue, Pate de Foie Gras, Turkey stuffed with Truffles, and all sorts of wild game, such as venison, pheasant, or canvasback duck. But all too often the President merely picked at his food.
(A Treasury of White House Cooking, Francois Rysavy (1972: 250)
The ‘gingerbread story,’ which [Lincoln] had mentioned . . . in one of the debates with Douglas, touched young and old. …’When we lived in Indiana,’ he said, ‘once in a while my mother used to get some sorghum and ginger and make some gingerbread. It wasn’t often, and it was our biggest treat. One day I smelled the gingerbread and came into the house to get my share while it was still hot. My mother had baked me three gingerbread men. I took them out under a hickory tree to eat them. There was a family near us poorer than we were, and their boy came along as I sat down. ‘Abe,’ he said, ‘gimme a man?’ I gave him one. He crammed it into his mouth in two bites and looked at me while I was biting the legs off my first one. ‘Abe,’ he said, ‘gimme the onter’n.’ I said to him, ‘You seem to like gingerbread.’ ‘Abe,’ he says, ‘I don’t s’pose anybody on earth likes gingerbread better’n I do–and gets less’n I do.’
(Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Carl Sandburg, (1926:2, 290)
So there you have it. The bacon mentioned here could have been any manner of pork salted or cured. Corn cakes, mush, etc., are all standard frontier fare that you’ll still find on Southern tables. Corn cakes are much like some styles of cornbread, only they are cooked on a griddle instead of baked. This recipe is serviceable although I am not sure how “authentic” it is. The mix of cornmeal and flour makes them light. If you want you can just use 2 cups of cornmeal and eliminate the flour.
Kentucky Corn Cakes
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 tbsp sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups buttermilk
1 tbsp corn oil
2 cups fresh corn kernels
1 tsp salt
Place the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, bicarbonate, and salt in a bowl and mix together. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk, corn oil, and fresh corn and mix together. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ones without beating too much.
Pour a ladleful of the mixture on to a hot greased griddle. Cook on medium-high heat for 4 minutes on each side, until cooked through. Serve the cakes warm with butter and honey.