happy birthday, abe!

“My dream is of a place and a time where America will be seen as the last best hope of earth.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln with his son, Tad, as photographed by Matthew B. Brady (February, 1864)

Our greatest President is 200 years young today. 

Wherever he is, he’s probably thrilled about who’s occupying his former digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lincoln would be especially pleased to see Malia and Sasha living there, since he was the first President to bring his own small children to live in the White House.

Abe was an indulgent parent, who loved to wrestle with his sons. They provided much needed relief from the tensions of the war, sometimes throwing strawberries around at Cabinet meetings, climbing on furniture, and scattering papers.

Strawberries? Hmmm. What else did our 16th President like to eat? He was our tallest at 6’4″, so it seems he would have had a large appetite, but most historians disagree.

His usual breakfast was hot coffee and an egg, sometimes with toast. For lunch, perhaps a biscuit, a glass of milk and some fruit. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s private secretaries, said, “he ate less than anyone I know,” and Lincoln’s law partner, Billy Herndon, said, “Abe can sit and think longer without food than any man I ever met.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was often exasperated with Lincoln’s eating habits. She loved to host levees and set a fine table, but Lincoln was just as happy with fruit salad, perhaps with cheese and crackers, for dinner. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy food; he was just very often too preoccupied with his duties to remember to eat. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who was a true gourmand, fascinated by every aspect of food production and preparation, Abe ate to fuel the furnace, and preferred simple fare.


Mock Turtle Soup
Corned Beef and Cabbage
Parsley Potatoes
Blackberry Pie
(he planned the menu himself)

Some of his favorites? Apples, eaten out of hand or baked in pies or cakes. Chicken fricasse and oyster stew. He also retained his appetite for the frontier foods he was raised on — corn dodgers, wild game, eggs, and bacon. Cornbread with honey was a special treat, and he loved sweets in general, especially the gingerbread men cookies from childhood, and the pecan pie procured at a Washington, D.C., bakery.

Mary was quite eccentric, and a certified shop-a-holic.

But there was one special dessert that figured even more prominently in Abe’s personal life, and that was Mary Todd Lincoln’s Vanilla Almond Cake. As the story goes, she baked this family favorite for him while they were courting, and he pronounced it, “the best in Kentucky.” That sealed the deal, and they were married a few years later. It is believed the cake remained a staple in the Todd-Lincoln home in Springfield (where Mary did her own cooking because they couldn’t afford help), and later when they moved into the White House.

Some cake! There are several modernized versions of Mary’s recipe floating around, most requiring lots of egg whites and a cooked syrup frosting. I decided to try the recipe found in Lincoln’s Table, by Donna D. McCready (Lincoln’s Presentations, 2008), which calls for powdered sugar instead of frosting. It’s not overly sweet at all — more like a nice coffee cake. It’s really the perfect way to celebrate Abe’s Bicentennial, Presidents’ Day and Valentine’s Day. But watch out — someone might fall in love with you!

(makes about 12 slices)

1 cup blanched almonds
2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups all purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
6 eggs, separated (best when eggs are cold)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar

Using a food processor or spice grinder, pulverize almonds until they resemble coarse flour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt cake pan.

With an electric beater or stand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light yellow in color and fluffy.

Sift flour and baking powder three times. Fold flour mix into creamed butter and sugar, alternating with milk, until well blended. Stir in almonds and beat well.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until they have stiff, firm peaks. Beaters must be washed and dried thoroughly before whipping egg whites or they will not stiffen properly. Fold egg whites gently into butter with rubber spatula. Add vanilla extract.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for one hour, or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.

Cool for at least 20 minutes before inverting, then allow to cool completely before serving. Sift confectioners’ sugar on top.


Check this out:

Contains 130 recipes chronicling Lincoln’s life from boyhood to Presidency.
What foods shaped our greatest President?

More more more:

If you’d like to try the Vanilla Almond Cake recipe with frosting, click here.

*President Obama’s Inaugural Luncheon Menu was created to honor Lincoln and his culinary preferences. The recipes for all the dishes served on January 20, 2009, can be found here.

Elaine at Wild Rose Reader has posted an awesome list of books and other resources related to the Lincoln Bicentennial here.

An avalanche of new children’s books about Lincoln were published in 2008 and more are still to come in 2009. See some of them here.

Click here to see my Poetry Friday post about Lincoln’s favorite poem.

If you’re hungry for more mouth watering, fascinating tidbits about Presidents and their favorite foods, click here.

One Final Tasty Tidbit:

*One of our earliest recipes for jelly roll, or jelly cake (sometimes called Lincoln Log), came from Laura Keene, an actress performing in Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was shot. It was published in The American House Wife Cook Book, by T.S. Shute (1878).

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