by Alexandra Rasic
Since our From the Homestead Kitchen blog series began earlier this year, my colleagues and I have written a lot about nostalgia, that feeling of having great affection or longing for the past and the things that remind us of it. This completely makes sense when we think about the comfort food that comes out of our kitchens and favorite restaurants and markets, but does it make sense when we think about how food is connected to historic events and people?
Editors of the 1928 Woman’s World Book of Unusual Cookery included two pages at the end of the publication titled “Old-Time Recipes From New England; Recipes Used in One Family During the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries,” and “Quaint Cakes of Long Ago; Cakes That Are Commemorative of Historical Persons and Events.” The overwhelming majority of the book was dedicated to presenting 52 Sunday dinner menus, but they explained the final section was included because the recipes were “worthy of an honored place in modern life.” But why? How were these recipes supposed to make people feel? And how did they honor those people or things they were named after? “Cakes of present times do not carry historical titles,” they lamented. Devil’s food cake, hermits, and brownies were all fine and good, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if “some of Woman’s World subscribers invent a ‘Coolidge cake’ or a ‘Pershing cake,’ with perhaps ‘radio cookies,’ etc.”
In the run up to Election Day, I took a particular interest in the cakes that commemorated historical persons and events. Among the recipes featured were General Washington Cake, Federal Cake, Stevens Cake, President Harrison Cake, Abraham Lincoln Marble Cake, and Muster Gingerbread. Writing about the Lincoln and Stevens cakes, the editors deduced that the mingling of the dark and and light dough in the Lincoln and Stevens cakes “was undoubtedly planned by the original concocters to commemorate the emancipation proclamation.” I was not able to locate anything indicating this as fact, but I came across many recipes for variations of Lincoln cake and cakes that Lincoln supposedly liked. The “Old-Time Recipes” page featured a recipe for Election Cake, a confection dating back to the colonial era in New England that has been studied and written about extensively, but I wanted to try something different, and something that fell into the Homestead’s interpretive period of 1830-1930.
I settled on President Harrison Cake, as in William Henry Harrison, the 9th president of the US who also happens to have been the first president to die in office after serving the shortest amount of time: one month (March 4-April 4, 1841). As with other cakes attributed to presidents, multiple recipes for Harrison cakes can be found online, with this adapted recipe for a Harrison poundcake from the Los Angeles Times accompanied by a fascinating look at the menus of inaugural celebrations throughout our history. Writing about the feast served at Harrison’s grandson’s inauguration in 1889, Andrew F. Smith noted that the menu for Benjamin Harrison included “oysters a la poulette, cold tongue en Bellevue, breast of quail a la Ciceron, terrine of game a la Morton and pate de foie gras a la Harrison.” Dessert consisted of Bonbons Republican (I could not find anything about these candies!) and “a cake in the shape of the Capitol building — 6 feet high, nearly 9 feet square and weighing 800 pounds.”
Compared to the Capitol cake, I got off easy as the recipe I made only required the use of one pot and one pan—and no frosting. But what about the ingredients of the Harrison cake spoke to his life or conditions in the country at the time of his presidency? The use of molasses as the sweetening agent is not a surprise as it was plentiful and easy to obtain, as was sour milk or cream. Historian Emily J. Arendt believes the cake was made to promote Harrison during the 1840 presidential campaign. While the recipe she features in her in-depth look at political treats is different from the one found in Woman’s World, I think she is spot on in noting that the reason the recipes have survived is because they had, and still have, broad appeal (a campaign manager’s dream!). “It is safe to assume that cooks only took the time to record those recipes that pleased their taste buds. Thus, a hand-written copy of a recipe for Harrison Cake demonstrates that some thought this cake delicious.” So while there is not any hidden meaning or significance in the ingredients or method of preparing the cake, it was a tasty keeper for those who loved—and still love—a good, dense spice cake that is easy to make. Did the cake win Harrison any votes? I doubt it. But it may have made his fans all the more pleased with his victory, and his presidency easier to swallow (sorry, I could not resist) for foes who liked a good spice cake. I was not expecting the cake to be as tasty as it was. It’s delicious on its own, but would also be very good with a cream cheese frosting or jam, too.
Can you think of a recipe you’ve made based on a historic event or individual? On this historic day or any other, we’d love to hear from you.