As you might expect, the Junior League of Springfield, Illinois‘s cookbook, Honest to Goodness, makes much its most famous historical resident (it was the only place the Lincolns ever owned a home), even including as its cover image a rendering of the great President in foodstuffs.
The creative team executed the portrait using brown rice and red lentils for the skin (admitting that without the latter, Lincoln looked “quite anemic”), plum slices sprinkled with paprika for his mouth, apple, black olive, and paella rice for the eye, black beans and coffee beans for the coat and hat, and a tasteful Chinese cabbage leaf collar with leek ascot.
The cookbook also includes photos of artifacts from the Illinois State Historical Society used by the Lincolns, as well as by other historic Springfield residents.
The Junior League of Springfield’s thoughtful dedication to local history is matched only by their thoughtful dedication to local food. Food styling and photographs aside, this is simply one of the best Junior League cookbooks I’ve encountered when it comes to great recipes. Usually, when I’m trying to figure out what to cook each week, a likely menu almost presents itself. With Honest to Goodness, I came up with about half a dozen combinations of local fare that both represented the region, and sounded delicious.
But back to Lincoln for a moment (as I’ve decided that my menu this week will have nothing to do with him since the man didn’t even really like food).
It probably comes as no surprise that I celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama this year by preparing a dish served at his Inaugural Luncheon, Molasses Whipped Sweet Potatoes (all the recipes from the luncheon are handily available here).
As far as sweet potatoes go, I’ve had better (if you’re trying this at home, I’ll just say, go easy on the cumin). But I was rather surprised to learn that Obama’s luncheon menu was inspired by Lincoln’s. As inspirations go, this one is a little bit of a stretch.
While the Obamas and their guests dined on seafood stew, duck breast with cherry chutney, herb-roasted pheasant with wild rice stuffing, molasses whipped sweet potatoes, winter vegetables, and cinnamon apple sponge cake, the Lincoln luncheon was decidedly more austere (and reportedly planned by Lincoln himself):
While Lincoln might have preferred seafood stew and a “brace of American birds,” the times called for frugality (a few months later, Mary Todd Lincoln’s $26,000 revamp of the White House would ignite the people’s ire).
As for the Mock Turtle Soup, The Old Foodie writes,
Turtle, particularly in the form of soup, became an indispensable and inevitable part of every important dinner – public or private or state – by the nineteenth century. So unthinkable was it to have a dinner without it, that it was preferable (and quite proper) to have Mock Turtle Soup rather than No Turtle Soup. As turtle became more scarce, the substitute became more common, accumulating status in its own right until it became the norm.
And as for food, well, Lincoln didn’t care much about it. William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, said that Lincoln “filled up and that is all.”
He was, however, a fan of Mary Todd’s White Cake. The recipe was created by a Lexington, Kentucky confectioner to celebrate a visit by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, and shared with the Todd family. According to Honest to Goodness, the cake was served for special occasions in Springfield and at the White House, and that every time he ate it, Lincoln always remarked, “Mary’s White Cake is the best I have ever eaten.”
Mrs. Lincoln’s White Cake
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup chopped blanched almonds
6 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Sift together flour and baking powder; remove 2 tablespoons and set aside. Add sifted ingredients, alternating with milk, to creamed mixture. Stir in vanilla and almond extract. Combine almonds with reserved flour and add to batter.
Beat egg whites until stiff; add in salt. Fold into batter. Pour into 3 greased and floured 8- or 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 350 until cake tester comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes; remove from pans and cool on racks.
(Though Honest to Goodness does include a recipe for an accompanying frosting, they admit that Lincoln historians agree the cake was always served without).
There’s a wonderful article on the Washington Post‘s food blog, A Mighty Appetite, about the cake’s history. Here, Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary, a historical novel about Mary Todd Lincoln, says, “I wrote the book in the first person, so I could better understand what she was thinking and feeling. She was a shopaholic, her son committed her to a lunatic asylum. I wanted to know what was going through this woman’s mind. So as a way to channel her, I’d say, ‘I’m gonna go make this cake.’ Baking the same thing that she would that would create the same smells in the house allowed me to be in touch with her.”
On her reading tour for the book, Newman served Mary’s cake to her audiences so “that readers would better understand Mary’s story, with their mouths filled with the sweetness of her cake.”
When I lived in Wisconsin, I noticed something of a malicious rivalry between the Sconnies and the Illinoisians, who were often referred to simply as “FIBs,” an acronym too vulgar to reveal here. And though I’m not really a fan of the non-Chicago parts of the state, I do rather like their recipes. The menu this week is yummy, very bad for you, and features what is quite possibly the best baked beans recipe I have ever tasted. You’ll love it.