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Vintage Cookbooks: A sampling of presidents' favorites

Thursday, November 02, 2000

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

George Washington, a soldier used to the harsh privations of field life, was a down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy who enjoyed traditional English dishes: beefsteak and kidney pie, for instance, and trifle (brandy-dampened plain cake layered with fresh fruit and whipped cream).

How do I know? The editors of Parents' Magazine Press told me in "The First Ladies Cook Book."

Due in large part to Martha Washington's warm personality and knowledge of the art of entertaining, the Washingtons (1789-1797) set the pattern of protocol and hospitality for later administrations.

"First Ladies Cook Book" (my 1966 edition goes only as far as Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson) captures the essence of those administrations through interesting text, color portraits of presidents and their wives (only James Buchanan was unmarried), color plates of each family's state china and, of course, favorite recipes providing a bit of insight into the tastes of our nation's leaders.

It wasn't too difficult to obtain information about 20th century dinners, but for earlier administrations, researchers scoured contemporary accounts of White House menus from newspapers, letters and journals. They also studied period manuscripts and cookbooks to compile what they believed to be the "favorite recipes of ... the presidents of the United States."

For example, a favorite supper at Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, was boned and stuffed capon, green pea puree, plum pudding with hard sauce and wine jelly (a wine-flavored "jello"). Jefferson (1801-09) was intensely interested in food, enjoyed his kitchen garden and collected recipes from many places. He made French vanilla ice cream popular in this country.

James K. Polk, of North Carolina, (1845-49) had southern tastes -- Tennesee ham and hickory nut cake, while Franklin Pierce (1853-57), a New Hampshire man, preferred boiled lobster or crabs and baked clams.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-65) enjoyed fricasseed chicken, scalloped oysters and currant cake.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) ate heartily: roast suckling pig, Indian (corn meal) pudding and clove cake were his favorites while his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45), was content with crab soup, boiled salmon with egg sauce and pecan pie.

Harry S. Truman (1945-53) wanted his comfort food: tuna-noodle casserole, meat loaf and Ozark pudding (a kind of baked apple cake with whipped cream and walnuts).

The most important meal of the day for William McKinley (1897-1901) was, it seems, breakfast. His favorite dishes were bacon and eggs, fried potatoes and Johnny Cakes.

Johnny Cakes

These old-fashioned corn cakes, which were more filling than plain, white-flour pancakes, were at first called "journey cakes" since they made a good out-of-hand snack for travelers on horseback -- without the butter and syrup, of course.

1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1/2 stick butter, melted (no substitution)
3/4 cup yellow corn meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 cup sour milk (modern milk spoils, but won't "sour"; we used buttermilk.)
1 cup flour
Butter or lard for greasing the griddle

Mix sugar, egg and melted butter together.

Blend corn meal and salt together, then stir into egg mixture.

Stir soda into milk.

Add white flour alternately with the milk, a bit at a time, blending to make a smooth batter (we like to use a wire whisk for this).

Allow mixture to stand in a cool place about 30 minutes to "lighten."

Heat a greased griddle or heavy skillet until a few drops of water will "spit" and bounce off the surface. (If the butter turns too brown on the griddle, we wipe it off with a wadded-up paper towel; being careful not to burn any fingers.)

Spoon or pour the mixture onto the hot griddle, using up to 1/4 cup at a time.

Brown pancakes on each side, (turning only once), about 1 minute per side. Don't overcook.

Serve hot, with more melted butter, maple syrup, honey or jam.

-- "First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States," Parents' Magazine Press, 1965.

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