Civil War Cooking: Mrs. Robert E. Lee’s Gingerbread

Mary Custis Lee

Go to the source! That’s what historians say, right? There are so many variations of “Lee’s Favorite Gingerbread” and I was excited to try a version from THE SOURCE. Mrs. Robert E. Lee of Arlington actually wrote multiple gingerbread versions in her family recipe book, but beside one she penned “my recipe.” That’s a pretty good clue! And that’s the recipe I decided to try on a chilly autumn night.

The original transcription reads:

6 cups of flour, 1 of lard with a table spoonfull of butter, two tea spoonfuls salt, a cup of butter milk, teaspoonful of soda sifted with the flour, a full cup of brown sugar, as much molassas as will make a dough which must be rolled out and baked in a moderate oven. The dough should be well worked out & rolled with enough flour to make the cakes smooth but not to have any on the outside when baked.

Interestingly, Mrs. Lee did note specify what spices to use or how much, leaving it up the cook. And it is probably worth remembering that Mrs. Lee likely did not regularly work in the kitchen, so her famous recipe was likely baked and interpreted by an enslaved cook or baker the majority of times it was made for the family before or during the Civil War years.

Gingerbread has a long and historic history. Spice islands. Colonies. Packages to soldiers from the homefront. Lincoln’s favorite? (In fact, Meg Groeling has written about the sweet treat previously on the blog. Read more here.) 

To make the recipe, I followed the “updated for the modern kitchen” suggestions provided by Anne Carter Zimmer in The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book, and I did use crisco instead of lard. The spices added were ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. The recipe came together easily and made a dough that was easy to roll out and cut.

As with most spiced cookies, the flavor grew stronger as the days passed and the cookies kept nicely for several weeks. For once, find the original source was a quick challenge and a real delight!

6 Responses to Civil War Cooking: Mrs. Robert E. Lee’s Gingerbread

  1. The buttermilk is the key. It’s available, at least according to Google, at most grocery stores, and Target, etc.

  2. Also, in response to the remark about the gingerbread not really being made by Mrs. Lee, but by an enslaved house servant, you may not be aware that Mrs. Lee had crippling arthritis for much of her life, becoming an invalid by her mature years. And it’s likely that no lady of a well-to-do household spent a lot of time in the kitchen, no matter where that kitchen was located or the status of the household servants. And, Mrs. Lee had seven children to tend to….but in speaking of it as “her” recipe, it’s possible it’s one she herself developed as a young person, and took pride in for that reason, no matter who actually made it. There never seems to be an article in Emerging Civil War that doesn’t drop in some snark somewhere…and Crisco is an acceptable substitute for lard.

    1. if the recipe was in her own hand, it is likely she made these herself … and in spite of being a “well-to-do” lady with lots of “help,” i was surprised (reading Guelzo’s bio on Lee) that Mrs. Lee was not a stranger to housework … although she didn’t like it very much … her husband commented that Mary was ” … somewhat addicted to laziness and forgetfullness in her housekeeping … “

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