I began writing the following entry more than three weeks
ago. I was prompted to do so largely because of various
articles, blog postings, and the like, as well as an array
of comments and “discussions” on Facebook, particularly
those on the page of the Informal Association of Cookbook
Collectors and Foodists (IACCF). Of course, I’m not normally
concerned with Lincoln and his early adult years or those of
his presidency, as none are really within “my” time period.
However, the times that came before certainly are. Besides,
I feel it’s my duty to dispel food-related myths no matter
when they allegedly originated.
Once I started, however, it seemed to take forever to finish.
The research, alone, was never-ending, for it led me in all
different directions. I’d read one website after another after
yet another. Then there were the numerous books I found,
both online and at my local library here in Brooklyn. And
just when I thought I’d finished my journey, I’d find even
more bits ‘n pieces of new information. I tell you, in some
ways, I suppose I’ll never REALLY finish this!
Okay. Enough of that! Now, due to its length, I’ve divided
this article into two sections. So, without further ado,
here’s Part One of “Lincoln food myths.”
This year, it seemed to me that the month of February
belonged to one person: Lincoln.
I suppose it’s because of that recent, widely well-known,
blockbuster film of the same name and its accompanying
Oscar buzz, claims of historical inaccuracies, and so on.
Then there was his “real” birthday on the 11th, and the
day-holiday-weekend one he shares with Washington
that’s known as Presidents’ Day.*
And so, with all this attention paid to Lincoln, it was only
natural that people wrote about him. ALOT. And about his
wife. And their lives together. And the food that one or the
other ate. And then the…wait. What?!? Yep, there was an
abundance of stories about the dishes that were prepared,
cooked, served, and eaten in the Lincoln household. However,
nearly all of them are just that…stories. Tall tales that suffer
from an appalling lack of documented evidence or are based
on multiple broad assumptions or that rely heavily on mere
speculation. And so, even though these Lincoln food tales
have been swirling around for decades, and have recently
gained new-found momentum, they aren’t necessarily true.
In historic-speak, they’re commonly referred to as fakelore.
One of the most ubiquitous Lincoln-related food myths is
that of Mary Todd Lincoln’s “Courtin’ Cake,” which at times
was also referred to as her “White Cake” and at others,
as an “Almond Cake” and then by some combination of
all those. The jist of the story is that Mary made this cake
for Mr. Lincoln during the time they were courting. Some
versions even imply that it was this confectionery delight
that sealed the deal. Others also claim she made it after
they were married and beyond.
So, is it fact or fiction? Let’s look at information given on
various websites that deal with Lincoln history, such as
those of the Mary Todd Lincoln House and the Lexington
History Museum, both in Lexington, Kentucky, that of The
National First Ladies‘ Library, of Canton, Ohio, and others.
Books were consulted, as well, including a fascinating little
tome found online about the newly-married Lincolns’ first
Before I go further, however, let me say that I’m always
leery of these food tales, and so I question their validity.
Hearing it from someone or seeing it on TV or reading it
in a book usually doesn’t suffice. As a culinary historian,
I want, indeed demand, to see primary documentation,
be it diary entries, letters, newspaper accounts and ads,
or some other written proof that the incidents contained
in a particular story actually took place. If there is none,
then the story is just that…a story.
Now, just for the sake of argument, let’s say written
documentation proves nothing. Besides, no one really
knows what anyone ate 50 years ago, let alone 250.
Heck, few can remember what they ate last week. So
give it up, already! Okay, I will. So now what? How do
we prove, or disprove, that something is true? Well, for
starters, let’s look at other documented evidence that
may or may not support these Lincoln food tales.
First, Mary Todd was born into a Southern “prominent
and influential,” slave-holding, “wealthy and aristocratic
family” of Lexington, Kentucky, a city which was then
known as “the Athens of the West”
and was on a par with Eastern cities
like Boston and Philadelphia. Now,
this statement, which contains
known facts, should alone put a
halt to the “Courtin’ Cake” story.
Why? Because it proves that Mary,
as a child of a well-established and
prosperous Southern family, lived
a life of tremendous privilege, and thus she would not
have done any type of household work. Nor would it’ve
been expected that she do so. Yes, she likely learned
how to manage a busy home and to supervise the
daily activities that took place therein, but she would
not’ve actually DONE the work required. It would’ve
been beneath her station in life to do so. Besides,
to be blunt, her family had slaves to do such work!
Let’s add a few more facts from Mary’s life, just in case
the above isn’t enough evidence for the conviction of this
“Cake” myth. In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois,
where she resided with her oldest sister, Elizabeth, and
her husband, Ninian Edwards, the son of a former Illinois
Governor. Certainly, seeing as the two girls had the same
upbringing, not to mention her own status in the community
at the time, Mrs. Edwards would’ve had hired help to do
any household tasks, whether it was cleaning, cooking,
washing and ironing clothes, or any other chore. It’s not
likely she would’ve done the work herself, nor would she
have expected Mary (as her sister AND as a house guest)
to do it. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that Mary, who’d
never had to cook before, would’ve suddenly taken it
up while living with her sister’s family.
Then, at some point in 1840, Mary met the struggling
young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln when both attended
a party given at the Edwards’ home. The couple soon
began courting, much to the dismay of Mary’s family.
Seems they thought he was beneath her, and that it
was a poor match. After all, Mary was well-educated,
and he was not. Mary came from
a wealthy family, he did not. While
growing up, Mary was given every
advantage in the world, he was
not. And he was nearly 10 years
older, to boot! No matter, for their
relationship was apparently a rocky
one, and the two split on the first
of January, 1841. All was not lost,
however, for they renewed their courtship 18 months
later. But when they did, it was done secretly! No one
knew about it. In fact, Mary didn’t tell Elizabeth until
November 4, 1842. Mary and Abe were then married
that same day.**
The point here is that, under the above circumstances,
Mary would not have been baking any cakes, even if
she had been cooking up a storm since before she left
Lexington. And golly, how the heck could she’ve baked
anything if she and Abe were courting secretly?!?
It does make for an intriguing scenario, though. I can
just see it now:
What are you doing, Mary?
(trying not to act suspiciously)
Baking a cake.
Why? If you want something to eat,
ask Cook to prepare you something.
Um, yes, well, uh, I’m not THAT hungry.
I’m, er, just doing this for fun?!
And then the following day, after Mary had secretly
spent time with Mr. Lincoln:
What happened to that cake you made,
Mary? It seems to have disappeared.
(again, trying not to act suspiciously)
Um, er, uh, I don’t know.
Maybe someone…stole it?!?
Yeah, sure! You bet!
Want more? Well, how about this: After Mary and Abe were
married, they lived for nearly two years at Springfield’s Globe
Tavern, where they had just one room. Their first son, Robert,
was born in that room. Many other newlyweds boarded
at the Globe, not only at that same time, but in the past
as well, including other members of Mary’s family. All meals
were taken in a common dining room, and so Mary wouldn’t
have been doing ANY cooking or baking. The couple then
purchased a small house in Springfield during 1844 and
moved there. And, according to several sources, Mary did
indeed have hired help by that time.
Now, I found another version of this “Courtin’ Cake” story
that claims it all started with a French pastry chef who ran
a bakery in Lexington. Supposedly, he’d made a cake for
the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to the City in May of 1825.
And according to this tale, the women of the Todd family
tried a few pieces of that cake, fell in love with it, asked
for the recipe, and thus, forever after, it became a part
of the Todd Family’s “culinary repertoire.”
The problems with this are too numerous to mention. One,
however, is, if such a cake was indeed made, when, where,
and why were Todd family members eating it? Again, they
had their own slave chefs and pastry cooks to do any and
all baking. Same for the recipe becoming part of their family
collection. Why? Was it THAT good? And were the ones made
at home THAT bad?! Then there’s the fact that Mary was born
on December 13, 1818; she would’ve only been six years old
when General Lafayette came through Lexington in the spring
of 1825. It seems highly unlikely that both she and the Great
Frenchman partook of the same cake, at the same time, and
at the same place.
While researching this supposed Lexington/Lafayette connection,
I found a delightful little book that’d been published in Philadelphia
in 1829: Lafayette in America, 1824 and 1825; Or, Journal of a Voyage
to the United States. An account of the noted and
beloved-by-Americans Frenchman’s return journey
to the country he’d bravely assisted during its War
for Independence, it was recorded by his secretary,
Auguste Levasseur, and then later translated by
John D. Godman, M.D.*** In the few pages dealing
with the General’s limited time in Lexington, there
is NO mention of any foods or cakes or bakeries
or of meeting or spending time with any members
of the Todd family. In fact, General Lafayette spent a mere 48 hours
in the City. His schedule during that time included touring a boy’s
school, an academy for girls, and the University of Transylvania,
all of which were located within Lexington. He then traveled
several miles outside the City to the homes of General Charles
Scott’s widow and of the then US Secretary of State, Henry Clay.
There’s also another, similar, account that claims Mary acquired
the cake recipe herself, allegedly from her favorite Lexington
bakery. No date was given in this particular version. But again,
if her family had slave-chefs and bakers, why would she (or
anyone else, for that matter) even need a bakery, let alone
have a favorite one? Also, I’ve frequently heard someone say,
“Oh, I love to bake cakes using the recipe that belonged to my
[insert relative here] Great-Grandmother/Grandmother/Mother.”
But I’ve NEVER, ever, heard, “You’re gonna love this cake recipe
from the bakery down the street”?!? So…I mean…really?!
Another element of this “Cake Debate,” and in fact, of any
claims about what foods the Lincolns supposedly ate, is the
question of what cookbook (or books) Mary Todd Lincoln did
(or didn’t) own and did (or didn’t) use. Luckily for us modern
food historians, there IS documented proof that she bought
at least one. But which one? And when did she acquire it?
And why? And, well…stay tuned….
to be continued…
The FOURTH image, the marker located where the original Globe Tavern
stood in Springfield, Illinois, the text reads:
On this site stood
The Globe Tavern
the home of
and his wife
from the time of
their marriage on
November 4, 1842
May 2, 1844.
Here their first child
*“Officially,” Presidents’ Day was created (June 28, 1968) to commemorate
Washington’s birthday ONLY. Congress later attempted to “officially” include
Lincoln, but failed. Of course, nowadays people think it’s a day to celebrate
ALL US Presidents, whether or not they have done anything of note.
**By all accounts, Mary and Abe courted in secret, and then “suddenly”
were married the VERY SAME DAY of the Big Reveal. And so, even I have
to wonder: Was it merely the fact that there was a secret? Or was it
because they’d violated the current rules of propriety? Or was her sister
afraid of potential stains on her own reputation? OR…was it a shotgun
wedding? After all, their first child was born a scant nine months later
(August 1, 1843). He was certainly a “honeymoon baby,” but was he
more than that? Is that birth date the REAL one? Or did someone
perhaps fudge with it at some point? I’d sure like to see the original
birth certificate. Heck, I even read in one source that some historians
have described Mary as being “pregnant at the altar”! Huh. Abe Lincoln,
country bumpkin AND major hunk! Who knew?!
***In the course of my research, I discovered another book about
Lafayette’s travels in this country: Lafayette in America in 1824
and 1825, by Alan Hoffman (2007).
What’s interesting is the story the author shares about his fascination
with the General, and how it lead him to sit down with a French/English
dictionary and his recently-purchased $450-original-copy of Levasseur’s
account in order to translate it. Aww, how nice.
But what I’d like to know is…WHY?!? It’d already been translated! Way
back in 1829, just a mere four years after the Big Voyage! Why the heck
would anyone re-do it? What’s the point? Did Hoffman not know about
Godman’s translation? If so, well, how can that be? Just how bad ARE
his research skills?
So, I sought out Hoffman’s book at the Brooklyn library, because I want
to compare the two translations (without having to spend $30 or more).
However, apparently it hasn’t been at the top of the Library’s acquisition
list, and so I must await its arrival from another lending institution. I’m
eager to get it because, according to the listing on amazon.com, Hoffman’s
book “is the only unabridged English translation” of Levasseur’s account.
Hmmm…guess we’ll see. I’ll let you know what happens.