Civil War Cookin’: It’s Just A Book Review

Well, it’s a couple days after Thanksgiving and since we’ve already “decked the halls with boughs of holly” (at least at my home), it’s probably time to wrap up Civil War Cookin‘ for 2017. If you’ve been intrigued by the recipes and historical accounts and want to read more, then we’ve got the right conclusion for you.

I spent the week reading a fascinating book about Abe Lincoln and mid-19th Century cooking, and here’s my short book review.

I stumbled across the title when I was browsing through a library catalog, requesting sources for this series. The book sounded interesting, and I placed a hold; when I picked it up, I knew I had to read it – not just speed-read and reference this book – and I’m sure glad I took the time.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times by Rae Katherine Eighmey (Smithsonian Books, 2013).

I became a little skeptical as I read the disclaimers in the opening chapters, but then my confidence was restored. Ms. Eighmey openly admits that the primary sources to answer the question “what did Lincoln eat?” are scarce. Most of the desirable details weren’t recorded (or didn’t survive). There are some anecdotes and variety of historical facts gleaned and interpreted with exhaustive research.

Yes, there are conclusions and “what-if” culinary scenarios presented in the text, but they are set in mid-19th Century historical context and are likely possibilities to join the known facts. I appreciated Ms. Eighmey’s honesty and clarity between facts and supposition.

The book traces Lincoln’s life with a focus on the foods he grew, gathered, bought, and ate. At the end of each chapter, there are authentic recipes adapted for modern measurements and kitchens. Although Lincoln and his family hold the spotlight of the book, the author also shares a wealth of information about cooking practices, growing and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables, changes in cuisine prompted by changes in America.

One of my favorite stories from the book is a story shared by one of Lincoln’s neighbors in Springfield. According to the account, Abraham Lincoln regularly returned from his law office in the evening, tied on a blue apron, and joined his wife in the kitchen to help her finish the last minute preparations for the family’s dinner. Now that’s an image of Lincoln that we haven’t heard much about!

The Lincoln’s Home in Springfield, Illinois

What recipe am I planning to try? Almond Pound Cake is definitely first on my list. (I might even make it for the Civil War caroling event I’m attending next weekend.) It’s not a Lincoln family classic because unfortunately historians haven’t found a bundle of Mrs. Lincoln’s recipes. However, the recipe featured in the book is adapted from The Kentucky Housewife which was published in 1839. We do know that Miss Mary Todd made an almond cake one evening when Mr. Lincoln came courting – so there is a fun historical connection to the dessert.

Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen is a light-hearted investigation of 19th Century cooking in Kentucky, Illinois, and Washington D.C. during the mid-19th Century. Ms. Eighmey shares her dedicated research, detailed knowledge of American culinary practices and recipes, and devotion to recreating historic recipes in modern kitchens. It’s a unique perspective in an easy-to-read format, and I’m sure it will give you a year’s worth of Civil War cookin’ inspiration.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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