Every schoolchild knows that Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room cabin. Minnesota food historian Rae Katherine Eighmey takes that fact to the next logical point in her seventh book, “Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times” (Smithsonian Books, $21.95).
Lincoln, she points out, was raised in a kitchen.
Fascination with the nation’s 16th president appears bottomless. More books have been written about Lincoln than any single individual other than Jesus Christ. At the Ford Theatre Center, in Washington, D.C., across the street from where Lincoln was assassinated, selected titles from the 15,000 books written about Lincoln have been built into a tower that stands 3 ½ stories tall. In Chicago, the Abraham Lincoln Book Store has been in business since 1938, satisfying the reading demands of historians, collectors and Lincoln enthusiasts.
Despite the volumes that have reviewed every significant event in the Great Emancipator’s life, there was no book devoted specifically to what he did every day — eat.
“A lot of the papers have been around for more than a century and the biographies quote the same sources, but nobody has approached it with a cook’s eye,” Eighmey said in an interview. “I use food to interpret history and history to interpret food.”
She builds her biography by seizing on details, asides and hints. A mention from Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, that young Abraham liked to “fill his pockets with corn dodgers” before he worked in the fields sent her in search not only of a recipe, but details of the tools and processes that would have been used to turn pioneer corn into cornmeal.
“Hanks’ description provided some recipe guidance as well,” she wrote in the book. “The dodgers had to be sturdy enough to withstand being tucked into a pants pocket … tender cornbread would not do the trick.”
While Eighmey spent five years researching the text and finding (and adapting and testing) 55 recipes, her interest in Lincoln dates to her Midwestern girlhood. Now in her 60s, the St. Paul author grew up in the era when students memorized the Gettysburg Address. She was raised in Gary, Ind., adjacent to Lincoln’s Illinois; family car trips to Springfield and especially to the re-created New Salem village of Lincoln’s youth left vivid impressions.
“I remember how small the cottages were, how damp it was, the smell of wood smoke,” she recalled. “Very strong sensory memories.”
To unravel historical clues, Eighmey not only revisited Lincoln landmarks. She read newspapers of the day and pored over letters, ledgers and diaries of Lincoln, his neighbors and contemporaries. She reviewed ladies’ magazines, farm dockets and agricultural journals to determine what seeds were available for orchards and gardens of Lincoln’s day. At the same time, she was sorting through stories and recipes, trying to match food to events. Then she assembled recipes with updated ingredients — and measurements.
“Some old cookbooks do ingredients by weight. Or they are handwritten with homemade measuring tools — instructions that say, use a ‘large spoonful,’ ” she said. “All cooking is ratios and they developed their own ratios. I had to figure them out.”
Throughout the narrative, she often puts herself in Lincoln’s XXL shoes. She gamely swings an 8-pound sledgehammer to whack hominy into pieces when her food processor can’t properly shatter the hard kernels to the authentic size. She schemes over roasting a turkey on an open hearth. She measures Lincoln’s 1860 Royal Oak cast-iron stove, then fashions iron plates from a camping supply store and wire racks into a makeshift oven of the same dimensions. Setting the contraption atop her outdoor grill, she builds a wood fire and cooks first doughnuts and then a small beef roast with it.
Part of Lincoln’s lasting power to intrigue may be a result of his various personae: In his 56 years he was a pioneer child, a country lawyer, an astute politician, a humorist, a military strategist as well as a husband and father. Lincoln’s culinary life is equally diverse. Eighmey divides it into three parts: his youth on the frontier, his domestic life and early political career in Springfield, Ill., and his presidency in Washington, D.C.
Zeroing in on the Lincolns as they began their family in Springfield, Eighmey got her hands on accounting pages from stores that listed their grocery purchases. She studied period advertisements for food and scrutinized the 1845 cookbook that Mary Todd Lincoln was known to have owned. She even dug into a record of the family’s garbage, detailing the 1985 excavation of the area beneath the Springfield house by an archaeologist and a historical architect. The pay dirt from the Lincoln era revealed household discards, shards of broken crockery and “ … an eggshell, peach pits and 57 pieces of animal bones.” The bones show the Lincolns dined on “beef sirloin, short loin pork, chicken, turkey and pigs’ feet.”
Eighmey suspects readers will be most surprised by what Lincoln, his family and their contemporaries consumed while living in the Illinois capital.
“Springfield was much more sophisticated than the average person might suppose. There was a tremendous desire for goods from the East Coast, and the railroad and riverboats were bringing oysters, tropical fruit, canned tomatoes. They made fancy molded puddings,” she said. “People were traveling and wanted what they’d experienced at home and when they entertained.”
Although historians have differed in their regard for Mary Todd Lincoln, Eighmey’s research left her sympathetic to the First Lady. “I read their letters. They had a deep and complex relationship,” she said. “She worked hard to make a home for him and was a very savvy sounding board.”
Eighmey found the work for the book to be so satisfying that completing it was bittersweet.
“Some books, you’re glad when they’re done. I was sorry when this one was over,” she said. “I have a hard time being done with it because I lived with these people for so long. This was about a family when my other books were about an era or a place. They became part of me.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.