Food History

How to Eat Like Abe Lincoln (It Involves a Lot of Dessert)

February 15, 2016

Commanding Civil War battles from the Oval Office and delivering speeches as he towered over crowds with his famous top hat. That’s how most people picture Abraham Lincoln.

Cooking up dinner with an apron fastened around his waist? Not so much.

But it's true: Lincoln cooked, and maybe even had something of a sweet tooth. According to Rae Katherine Eighmey’s biography Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, neighbors of Lincoln observed how he used to do the family's grocery shopping and wear a blue apron while helping his wife Mary prepare supper for their three boys.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Eighmey, herself a cook, wrote this culinary biography-cookbook hybrid to explore her fascination with Lincoln’s tastes, and she details everything from the meals he may have prepared as a cook on a raft trip, to the barbecue he enjoyed as an Illinois politico.

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But there’s also something of a trend woven throughout her stories and recipes: Honest Abe seems to have had a sweet tooth.

The Lincolns polished off a gallon of sugar syrup every 10 to 12 days and about 11 pounds of sugar every fortnight. While this sugar was shared among a household of six, it was still not an insignificant amount. And between this healthy dosage of sugar, the stories of Mary supplying a steady stream of baked goods, and the accounts of some of Lincoln's favorite foods, it's fair to say Honest Abe didn't exactly shy away from sweets. As president, he was even said to have strolled from the White House to a local bakery to pick up a certain pecan pie he loved. If he were around in the days of paparazzi, there might even be more photos of him putting away sweet treats than of Joe Biden taking down ice cream cones.

When Lincoln wasn’t eating sweets, he may have been found eating raw oysters, turkey legs, game meat like venison, pork sausages spiced with black pepper and sage, and other traditional foods of the time.

We've rounded up four of Lincoln's favorite treats—with recipes—as chronicled in Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen. Eat them in his honor on his belated birthday (February 12), or President's Day (February 15).

1. Corn Dodgers

Along with corn bread, corn dodgers—think hush puppies that are boiled instead of fried—were a staple in the one-room log cabin where Lincoln grew up in Indiana. Made with corn grown on the family farm, corn dodgers held a special place in Lincoln's heart. Lincoln's cousin even caught him frequently stuffing his pants pockets full of them in the morning to eat during his mid-day break from working the fields.

Did Lincoln cook up these dodgers himself? No one can say for sure, but it's more than likely he did. His mother died when he was just nine years old, so he would have had to help out around the kitchen.

We're sure Lincoln would have loved this tasty cornbread just as much he did his dodgers. For authenticity, leave out the leavener and sweetener and bake in one of those fancy pans with cob-shaped holes for the batter. Then, stuff in your pockets and enjoy on the go.

2. Gingerbread Men

How many presidents can say that a spiced cookie was part of their political platform? Probably only Lincoln, who threw a reference to gingerbread men into his famous debate with presidential contender Stephen Douglas in 1858. When Douglas misstated Lincoln’s position on slavery and then began throwing egregious compliments Lincoln’s way—“to the point of near mockery”—Eighmey noted, Lincoln opted not to fight fire with fire. Instead, he recalled an experience he had as a young boy to make a point about the effect of the faux flattery piled on by Douglas:

Before Lincoln’s mother passed away, she used to bake gingerbread men on special occasions. One day, Lincoln took three of them to enjoy under a hickory tree when a neighbor boy approached and said: “Abe, gimme a man?” Lincoln parted with one of his cookies and watched as the boy shoved it in his mouth as Lincoln slowly nibbled at his first cookie. “Gimme that other'n,” the boy said.

“I wanted it myself,” Lincoln recalled, “but I gave it to him and as it followed the first I said to him, 'You seem to like gingerbread.'” The boy answered: “Abe, I don't suppose there's anybody on this earth likes gingerbread better'n I do. And I don't suppose there's anybody on earth gets less'n I do.”

We bet these gingerbread cookies would make Lincoln happy, and his neighbor friend even happier. Instead of cutting into circular shapes, use a gingerbread man-shaped cookie cutter or shape pieces of dough into figures. Try subbing the maple syrup for sorghum syrup or molasses for authenticity.

3. Apples

“Apples agree with me,” Lincoln once said. We're not sure we agree, however, with the strange manner in which Lincoln ate them.

Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, reported that Lincoln would wrap his thumb and index finger around the mid-section of the apple until his fingertips touched and then eat it beginning at the bottom. “I never saw an apple thus disposed of by anyone else,” Herndon remarked.

Lincoln probably wouldn't mind if his beloved apple had a light caramel coating. Make these and then take the #LincolnAppleChallenge, and try eating them in his—ahem—unique manner.

4. Almond Cake

There are many edible ways to make a man propose. You could roast up an engagement chicken. Or make 300 sandwiches. But the old school way—employed by Lincoln's future wife Mary Todd—is to bake an amazing cake.

No one knows for sure whether Mary's almond cake actually incited Lincoln to pop the question, but he did proclaim it “the best cake” he'd ever had. Sadly, to the dismay of single lady bakers the world over, the jury's out on exactly what kind of almond cake Mary made.

This tangy, tasty cake has no baking soda or baking powder, and when Mary made her cake in the 1830s, it was about a decade before chemical leaveners were commonly used.

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Bake, climb, bike, drink, repeat.