Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gingerbread Men

In all his writings Lincoln didn’t say much about food, but his evocation of gingerbread men may well have set his national political career on the right path.

At the first debate with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, Abraham Lincoln used a childhood incident to partially diffuse the very ugly senate campaign. Douglas had misrepresented Lincoln’s stance on slavery, suggesting that he would “set the states at war with one another” over the issue. Rather than counterattack, Lincoln, feigned bewilderment that the well-regarded Douglas would so misstate his positions, and allowed as how he was blind-sided by the unctuous compliments Judge Douglas had heaped upon him. “I was not very accustomed to flattery and it came the sweeter to me. I was rather like the Hoosier, with the gingerbread, when he said he reckoned he loved it better than any other man, and got less of it.”

Lincoln’s story reportedly charmed the audience, both those at the debate in Ottawa, Illinois and readers of the widely published newspaper accounts. Years later he repeated the story in the White House, giving some details of the recipe his mother used. “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.”

This recipe fits Lincoln’s description of a gingerbread man sturdy enough to stuff into a pocket and soft enough for the poor Hoosier lad to “cram into his mouth in two bites.”

Abe Lincoln’s Gingerbread Men
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sorghum
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
3 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ginger
1/4 pound (1 stick) cold butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Pour the milk into a glass measuring cup. Add the sorghum and stir the two together. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the brown sugar, flour, baking soda and ginger. Slice the butter into small pieces and using a pastry cutter or two knives cut into the flour mixture until the mixture looks like cornmeal. Add the milk and sorghum mixture and stir well with a fork or spoon. The dough should be like children's play-clay. If it is too sticky, add small amounts of flour (no more than 2 tablespoons) or refrigerate until it can be worked easily. To make men about 4 inches high, break off a piece of dough a little larger than a golf ball. Place it on a counter or cutting board and roll it lightly under your palms forming a pencil-like piece of dough 12 inches long. Break off 4 inches and set aside. This will become the arms. Fold the remaining dough in half to from a narrow, upside down “v.” Grasp at the folded top, pinch together 1 inch down from the top and twist, forming the head and neck. Place the arm piece across the back under the head. Gently press to secure. Place on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake until men are lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Watch closely as dough or batter with sorghum or molasses burns quickly. Makes about 18 men 4-inches tall.
Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Abe Lincoln and Kentucky Pumpkins

Abraham Lincoln was born and lived in Kentucky until he was almost eight years old. He went to school there and, as an adult, shared memories of his time on the northern Kentucky farm saying, “My earliest recollection is of the Knob Creek place.” He told of planting pumpkin seeds among the hills of corn seed. One year rain deluged the sloping field, washing out the entire young crop. In spite of that failure and other pioneering challenges, the Lincoln’s 230-acre farm was a success. Thomas Lincoln, Abe’s father who was also a skilled carpenter, had at least three horses and a cow. In addition to corn, pumpkins and kitchen vegetables, they probably raised hogs and chickens. When the Lincolns moved to Indian in 1816, they left behind a surplus 40 bushes of corn in a neighbor’s care.

Pumpkins were valued as food for both farm animals and people. John Woods, an Englishman traveling along the Ohio River in 1820, wrote, “Pompions are another highly-prized production of this country. Cattle of all descriptions, pigs and poultry are fond of them.” He also described how much people enjoyed them. “They are much eaten here. They are excellent . . . . and are sliced and dried for winter use, for pies and sauce.” Abe’s mother Nancy could have made a sauce like this pumpkin butter from fresh or reconstituted dried pumpkin using spices she purchased in nearby Elizabethtown stores.

Pumpkin Butter
1 16-ounce can pumpkin
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Using modern ingredients such as canned pumpkin and pre-ground spices today’s cooks can make this sauce in about 30 minutes or less. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized saucepan. Cook over low heat until the mixture has thickened. Stir frequently to keep from scorching. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Birthday Cake for Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy, died in October 1818. The following fall his father Thomas left Abe and his sister Sarah in Indiana to travel back to Elizabethtown, Kentucky. There he renewed his friendship with Sally Johnston a widow with three children. They were married on December 2, 1820 and returned to the Hoosier pioneering cabin. Sally brought a number of goods and furnishings to improve their life on the rapidly civilizing frontier. Abe always described her as his “good and kind mother.” She may have made a special cake like this one for his twelfth birthday, just a few weeks after the families combined and crowded into the 22-foot by 14-foot log cabin.

Sally would have brought stick cinnamon and nutmegs from the shops in Elizabethtown. Flour was scarce, but cornmeal plentiful. She would have replaced the expensive sugar called for in the original recipe with the honey from the “bees that were all over the forest,” as Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks described. She most likely served it with a sauce made stewed dried apples, another common food in the towns of Kentucky but rare in the Hoosier Pigeon Creek community just being settled one hundred miles north.

Pioneer Cake with Dried Apples
4 eggs, separated
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Using grease-free beaters and a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and set aside. In a second bowl, cream the butter and egg yolks then add honey and mix well. Combine the flour, cornmeal and spices and add to the butter mixture. Gently fold in the beaten egg whites. Pour batter into a greased and floured 7-by-11-inch pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Top with stewed dried apples.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey All rights reserved

Abraham Lincoln – Recipes and Reflections

The truth is no one knows what Abraham Lincoln really enjoyed eating. In the White House he often had just an apple and a glass of milk for lunch. During his Indiana boyhood, Abe read under a tree munching corn bread "dodgers." We know Mary owned a copy of Miss Leslie's Complete Cookbook. We don't know too much more. Yet years of researching foods of the 1800s coupled with even more years of just plain cooking do bring an avenue to considering the foods Lincoln might have enjoyed. 
    This blog presents authentic recipes from Lincoln's life and times over the next ten weeks, between the celebration of his February 12, 1809 birthday and the anniversary of his death on April 14, 1865. They reflect economic conditions and social settings of Lincoln's pioneer days and the changes in his midwestern region as settlements grew into towns while Lincoln grew from inquisitive child to an accomplished man. These recipes are adapted for modern kitchens. Recreating them is a lesson in cooking and the past. But be warned: Eating these delicious foods may increase an appetite for history.