Abraham Lincoln is such an iconic figure in American history it is easy to forget he was human and like all humans needed to eat.
During the nearly 154 years since Lincoln’s assassination, historians have searched for every scrap of information trying to understand this complex man. The consensus is Lincoln was not an epicure, and was largely indifferent to food. He ate to fuel the body rather than delighting in food and the social enjoyment of the table.
Much of the information comes from after the fact sources who claimed some connection with Lincoln and therefore able to talk about the president’s preferences. These sources don’t always agree.
Col. William H. Crook was Lincoln’s last bodyguard, and he is credited with saying Lincoln was a hearty eater and was especially fond of bacon for breakfast. Not so according to John Hay. As one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, Hay had an intimate look at life inside the White House.
Hay acknowledged Lincoln enjoyed a good cup of coffee, which often was the president’s breakfast, occasionally augmented with one egg to accompany the hot beverage. A common lunch was a biscuit, some fruit and a glass of milk. Another meal might be fruit, nuts, crackers and water.
Hay claimed Lincoln ate less food than anyone he knew.
The strain of the presidency sometimes robbed Lincoln of his appetite, and on one occasion Mary Lincoln asked a White House cook if she knew how to prepare chicken fricassee with gravy and biscuits, one of his favorite meals, in hopes of tempting her husband to eat.
It is important to remember 19th century food terms are not always consistent with the 21st century. The bacon Crook claimed Lincoln consumed was not a specific cut from the hog such as the packaged bacon sold in modern grocery stores. People in the 19th century referred to any cut of pork that was salted and smoked for preservation as bacon.
Fricassee is more a type of cooking than it is a specific dish or recipe. It generally involves cooking cut up meat, braising it and serving with a white sauce. All kinds of meat can be prepared as fricassee, including game.
The waste not want not situation on the frontier of Lincoln’s youth converted tough old roosters and hens that stopped producing eggs into chicken fricassee.
Lincoln was fond of apples and his wife tried to keep the White House well stocked with the fruit. The apples Lincoln ate were not the red delicious, golden delicious and Granny Smiths that dominate supermarket produce sections. Modern American consumers have approximately 90 apple varieties, if they can find that many, to purchase. According to the U.S. Apple Association, there were more 600 registered apple varieties in 1859. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden puts the number of 19th century American apple varieties at 14,000.
It isn’t known if Lincoln had a favorite variety but some options available had names like New York Pippin, Kentucky Red Streak, Illinois Red and Funkhouser. Apples also came in a variety of shapes, colors and textures.
The foods people eat as a child growing up sets their tastes and preferences for life. It is possible to expand the palate beyond that experience for those willing to be adventurous but the foods of youth still bring comfort and satisfaction.
Lincoln grew up poor in the backwoods and frontier areas of Kentucky and Indiana. As an adult, he struck out on his own in New Salem, another crude frontier hamlet. Game and freshwater fish were likely some of the foods he ate in those places, although there is scant evidence Lincoln actually hunted or fished.
These experiences developed a preference for simple dishes, which is echoed by a rare statement Lincoln made about food. He expressed such a fondness for corncakes that he could eat them as fast as two women could cook them.
Simple dishes were on the menu for Lincoln’s first inaugural dinner: mock turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage, parsley potatoes, blackberry pie and coffee. The second inaugural was a much different and French-influenced affair consisting of about 64 separate dishes, including the option for calf’s foot and wine jellies.
The 210th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth is Tuesday, Feb. 12. If anybody wants to honor the memory of the 16th president, replicating the first inaugural meal is probably a doable project. The basic meal can be augmented by adding some other things Lincoln liked, such as his mother’s gingerbread men, Mary Lincoln’s white almond cake and throw in some of his other favorites like corncakes and pickled oysters.