I visited the childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln’ in Lexington over the Fourth of July weekend. It was a great way to feed my inner history geek. But as a food historian, it was also cool to hear what our amazing tour guide said about our first lady’s foodways growing up.
As a first couple, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Ann Todd couldn’t have been more different. Mary grew up in a privileged slave-holding old Southern family, while Abraham was son of a poor farmer whose family had no distinction. While Abe grew up loving corn cakes and Kentucky wonders (a kind of lard-fried hushpuppie), Mary’s family sat down to elegantly appointed dinners every night, cooked by their slave cook, Aunt Chaney.
The table at the Mary Todd Lincoln House’s dining room shows a very formal china setting, with an interesting fish platter, cut with holes for rising steam to keep the fish warm during serving. Chaney was responsible for all the cooking and had absolute control of the kitchen. She also was responsible for putting up the butter and the pickling in the fall to get them through the winter. But it was Uncle Nelson, the family’s slave butler, who Chaney sent out to market in Lexington to get the staples the family didn’t produce on site. Family oral history claims that when the many children got on her nerves, she would bang pots and pans to get them out of her kitchen. Family lore also claims Nelson was called in to make his special Mint Juleps when special guests visited the Todds.
Mary Todd at the time of her marriage to Abe Lincoln.
It was Chaney who made the signature beaten biscuits and cornbread for the family. She thought it was criminal that the “po white trash Irish” many of whom were servants in the North, didn’t know how to make good cornbread. A stone top counter in the back kitchen of the house shows the work area on which Chaney would have made the biscuits. Beaten biscuits are a true Kentucky staple – not like other southern biscuits. Unleavened dough mixed with very cold sweet milk is rolled thin enough until it blisters and then is perforated with a fork and baked. The end product is a thinner, crisper biscuit. Kentuckians commonly split them and use as a sandwich for country ham, another local staple.
An interpretation of Aunt Chaney’s beaten biscuit station at the Todd House.
In 1851, when Abe and Mary visited the home in Lexington to help settle her father’s estate, Mary sat with Aunt Chaney to transcribe her recipe for beaten biscuits and cornbread to take back to her Irish cook in Springfield.
Also in Chaney’s kitchen at the Toddd house is a lockable sugar desk, which only she and Mary’s stepmother, would have had the key. Refined sugar was an expensive commodity in the early days of Kentucky’s statehood, and a specific type of furniture, the Kentucky sugar desk, invented to safeguard it’s contents. Local antique dealer and Antiques Roadshow appraiser, Wes Cowan, auctions a few of these off every year and they reap many thousands of dollars.
A lockable Kentucky Sugar Desk at the Todd House.
Lincoln had developed a taste for oysters as a single itinerant lawyer, eating at Taverns in the small towns in which he practiced. He also developed a taste for squash pie from Rutlege tavern in Illinois, where he took a lot of his meals.
He also had a sweet tooth, being a fan of gingerbread from youth, that his stepmother made him on occasion.
One story goes that the Todd family had obtained a special fluffy white cake recipe from a famous French caterer in Lexington named Monseur Mathurin Giron, who owned a bakery and dancing hall. The Todd family served this cake (probably made by Aunt Chaney) on special occasions, including an evening when Abe came to court Mary Todd. Abe proclaimed that this was the best cake he’d ever tasted. Monsiur Giron created the cake for the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit to Lexington on his US road tour in 1825, and also made the wedding cake for Mary’s older sisters wedding to Ninian Edwards Monsieur Giron would have most probably made Abe and Mary’s cake if they were married in Lexington. Also a famous cake in the Todd household that Lincoln enjoyed was their Pecan Cake, rich in flavor and full of nuts and raisins.
Mary Todd’s white cake from the recipe of Monsieur Giron.
All these cake recipes would have been created before introduction of commercial baking powder. Instead, pioneer cooks would have used something called pearlash or potassium carbonate. But baking powder still required addition of sour milk to engage the bubbling process, so in 1856, baking powder was introduced, which contained cream of tarter to initiate the required chemical process to create bubbles or leavening. It wasn’t until around 1868 when the most efficient leavening agent, commercially available yeast, was introduced.
When Mary became the first lady, she was considered backwater by the Washington elite, because she was from Kentucky. But she actually very familiar with elegant dinners, how to entertain in style, and was even fluent in French. Although she might not have cooked herself, or known how to cook, Mary Lincoln would have been able to instruct her servants how to prepare for state dinners and was anything but a hillbilly hostess, thanks to her instruction from her family’s slave cook, Aunt Chaney.