Wednesday, April 27, 2011

John Adams Quick and Easy Boston Baked Beans

Long before John Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, American Indians in the region were eating all kinds of beans. During the harsh New England winters, food was often difficult to find, but beans were relatively easy to find, dry, store, and prepare.

Food historians say that New England Indians mixed beans with maple syrup and bear fat. They then placed the mixture in a clay pot, buried it in a pit and covered it with hot rocks. After the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, they may have learned how to make baked beans from Indians in the region but probably prepared them with molasses and pork fat instead of maple syrup and bear fat.

If you'd like to whip up some Boston Baked Beans at your next barbecue or other large social gathering, here is a quick and easy recipe to try from

1 pound dried pinto beans (2 1/4 cups)
12 bacon slices, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 cups water
1 1/3 cups chopped onion
1 cup ketchup
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup dry mustard
2 tablespoons mild-flavored (light) molasses
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper

Place beans in large bowl. Add enough water to cover by 3 inches. Let stand overnight. Drain beans; set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F. Cook bacon in heavy large pot until crisp, about 8 minutes. Add beans and all remaining ingredients to pot. Bring to boil.

Transfer pot to oven. Bake uncovered until beans are tender and liquid thickens, stirring occasionally, about 4 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring beans to simmer before serving.)

FAST FACT: On November 1, 1800, John arrived in the new capital city and moved into the President’s House. The next evening, while sitting in a damp, unfinished room, John wrote a letter to his wife Abigail, which included a blessing for the new house and its future inhabitants. This is what he wrote: I pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under This Roof! More than a century later, in the final year of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had these words inscribed under the stone mantle of the fireplace in the State Dining Room. And these words are still there today!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Mysterious Origins of Country Captain Chicken

Although they may have become accustomed to elegant State Dinners while living in the White House, many American presidents have enjoyed a wide variety of simple dishes prepared with chicken. James Madison was reportedly fond of Chicken and Okra Soup, James Monroe retained a childhood taste for Chicken Pudding with Fried Rice, and it has been said that Woodrow Wilson frequently requested that Chicken Salad be put on the White House luncheon menu during his two terms of office.

But that's not all. John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie were reportedly fond of Poulet a l'Estragon (Chicken Tarragon); Richard Nixon enjoyed daughter Tricia's homemade Chicken Divan; Bill Clinton was, and perhaps still is, partial to chicken enchildas made with a cheese similar in texture and taste to Velveeta; and one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's favorite dishes was reportedly Country Captain Chicken, a curried-chicken dish with mysterious origins.

In her nineteenth-century cookbook, Eliza Leslie claimed that the dish got its name from a British officer who brought the recipe back from his station in India. Others maintain that the dish originated in Savannah, Georgia, which was a major shipping port for the spice trade. In Rare Bits: Unusual Origins of Popular Recipes, Paterica Bunning Steven puts forth another other theory about the origins of this slightly spicy chicken dish:

According to an oft-repeated story, a sea-captain sailed into Charleston harbor with a shipload of spices from India. Entertained by the hostesses of a city noted for its graciousness, he repaid their kindness by teaching their capable cooks to make a delicious dish of chicken and curry. Alas for legend!

A virtually identical dish is known in England, where it goes by the very same name. The captain, if there ever was one, must have been a British officer stationed in the back country of India. An English writer has noted that "country captain" is also an Anglo-Indian term from the captian of a...ship...from a foreign country. Just how or if that fits into the puzzle would be difficult to say. Another suggestion is that Country Captain may be only a corruption of "country capon."

Although no one knows exactly who created and named this dish, we do know that it has been popular throughout the south for centuries. If you'd like to try it someday, here is a simple and delicious "30-minute Recipe" from the Food Network's ever-peppy Rachel Ray:

2 3/4 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 cups white and wild rice or long grain rice
2/3 cup flour, eyeball it
1 rounded tablespoon sweet paprika
4 pieces, 6 ounces each, boneless, skinless chicken breast
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 turns of the pan
2 tablespoons butter
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 or 3 large cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon curry powder or mild curry paste
1 cup chicken stock
1 can diced tomatoes in puree or chunky style crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup golden raisins or currants, a couple of handfuls
2 ounces, 1 small pouch, sliced almonds, lightly toasted
3 scallions, chopped, for garnish

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add butter and rice and return water to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Cook rice 20 minutes or until tender. Turn off heat and fluff rice with a fork.

Combine flour and paprika in a shallow dish. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cut each chicken breast and thigh in 1/2 on an angle. Coat chicken pieces in paprika seasoned flour. Wash your hands and chicken work surfaces thoroughly.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add oil to the pan. Brown chicken pieces, 3 minutes on each side, and remove from the skillet. Add butter to the pan, then stir in peppers, onions and garlic. Season the veggies with salt and pepper and saute them 5 to 7 minutes to soften.

Add curry, stock, tomatoes and raisins. Slide chicken back into the skillet and simmer over moderate heat for 5 minutes to combine flavors and finish cooking the chicken through. Place skillet on a trivet and serve the chicken from the pan. Garnish the Country Captain's chicken with sliced almonds. Transfer rice to a serving dish and garnish with chopped scallions.

FOOD FACT: So now that we know which presidents liked to eat dishes prepared with chicken, it seems only fair that we consider what chickens like and need to eat for their well-being. According to experts, chickens need grains; greens (like grass, green vegetables and weeds); protein (from bugs, worms, milk and meat); calcium (from Oyster shells); as well as Vitamins A and D, and salt. And because a chicken's weight is made up of more than fifty percent water, they need a constant supply of fresh water to "drink."

Credit: Chicks Feeding, oil on canvas by Lucy Ann Leavers

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lucy Hayes and the First Easter Egg Roll at the White House

According to the White House website, "some historians note that Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll, while others tell stories of informal egg-rolling parties at the White House dating back to President Lincoln's administration." Beginning in the 1870s, Washingtonians from all social levels celebrated Easter Monday on the west grounds of the U.S. Capitol where children rolled brilliantly dyed hard-boiled eggs down the terraced lawn.

This practice ended in 1876, however, when lawmakers complained that eggs shells were destroying the grass. To resolve this problem, Congress passed the Turf Protection Act which banned egg rolls from Capital grounds, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law later that year. But First Lady Lucy Hayes revived the tradition in 1878 by inviting children to roll Easter eggs on the White House lawn, a tradition that has continued ever since.

According to an article in Time Magazine:

Some 53,000 people attended the egg roll in 1941...though in modern times the number is generally under 20,000. Calvin Coolidge's wife mingled through crowds while holding a pet raccoon named Rebecca, while Mrs. Warren G. Harding put on the uniform of her beloved Girl Scouts for the event.

Showcasing modern technology, Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed crowds and addressed listeners across the country via radio in 1933, while the Clinton administration proudly announced that 1998's egg roll would be the first broadcast on the Internet.

This year, the White House Easter Egg Roll will be held on Monday, April 25th, with the theme of “Get Up and Go!” promoting health and wellness. According to the White House website, the event will feature live music, sports courts, cooking stations, storytelling and, of course, an Easter egg roll!

Although the menu for this year's White House Easter Brunch hasn't been released, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that menu items in 2008 included Honey Baked Ham with Maple Mustard Sauce as a main entree, along with Eggs Benedict, spinach salad, waffles, sauteed asparagus, biscuits and cheese grits.

If you'd like to serve Eggs Benedict at your Easter Brunch this year, here is a simple recipe to try from the Food Network:

1 teaspoon vinegar
4 eggs
4 thin slices Canadian bacon
2 English muffins

Hollandaise sauce:

3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon hot water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and hot
Salt and pepper
Paprika and chopped parsley

In large skillet, bring 2 inches of water and vinegar to a boil. Crack one egg into a glass. Reduce water to a simmer and pour egg into water. Add remaining eggs and cook for 4 minutes. Remove eggs with a slotted spoon and drain. In a non-stick skillet heat the bacon until warm. Toast the English muffins until golden.

For sauce: Place yolks, water and lemon juice into blender. Blend for 1 minute. With blender running, pour butter through open hole of lid. Season with salt and pepper. To assemble: Top each muffin with bacon and a poached egg. Pour the warm sauce over and garnish with paprika and the chopped parsley.

FAST FACTS: Historians tell us that the Easter Egg Roll has been held at the White House every year except during World War I, World War II and the Truman Renovation of the White House, when it was moved to nearby locations or cancelled. Ronald Reagan was the first president to hide autographed eggs for children to find in the Egg Hunt and President Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon were the first to include the White House Easter Bunny in the festivities." Years earlier, First Lady Grace Coolidge made an appearance at the Easter Egg Roll in the 1920s with her famous pet racooon Rebecca!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Andrew Jackson and "Boil Them Cabbage Down"

For most of his adult life, Andrew Jackson lived near the hills of east Tennessee where mountaineers with fiddles and banjos sang foot-tapping tunes about common frontier foods. Today, you can still hear some of these old food-related tunes, like “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “When it’s Chitlin Time in Cheatham County.”

“Boil Them Cabbage Down” is another classic folk song played with a fiddle. Some music historians claim that its origins can be traced to those Africans who were brought to the southern states as slaves. According to this theory, some "Africans in Niger played primitive instruments that resembled the fiddle, guitar, and banjo, so when the Africans were brought to the United States, they found the fiddle to be a familiar instrument.”

Although the precise origins of this tune will likely always remain a mystery, what is certain is that it is deeply rooted in folk history and has been recorded by such popular folks singers as Pete Seeger. Maybe you've heard the lyrics:

Boil them cabbage down
Went up on the mountain
just to give my horn a blow
Thought I heard my true love say
Yonder comes my beau

Boil them cabbage down
Turn them hoecakes round
The only song that I can sing
is Boil them Cabbage Down...

The origins of “When it’s Chitlin Time in Cheatham County” are also rooted in uncertainty. If you're unfamiliar with the term dictionaries generally define chitlins as the intestines or guts of a pig. To maximize profits, slave owners during the Jacksonian era would try to feed their slaves in the cheapest manner possible. After slaughtering a hog, the best cuts of meat were typically reserved for the slave owner's use while the remains (snouts, ears, intestines, feet, etc.) were given to the slaves to eat.

Today, chitlins are still considered a delicacy in the south. Still, I’m guessing that some of you might not want to nibble on chitlins - or Boiled Cabbage, for that matter - but you might like to try this simple and delicious recipe for Sauteed Cabbage from Ina Garten

1 small head white cabbage, including outer green leaves (2 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Cut the cabbage in half and, with the cut-side down, slice it as thinly as possible around the core, as though you were making coleslaw. Discard the core.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage, salt, and pepper and saute for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is tender and begins to brown. Season to taste. Serve warm and enjoy!

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Warren Harding, The Roaring Twenties, and the Development of Finger Foods

Although kind and well-liked, Warren Harding is often ranked as the worst president in American history, and even he admitted to close friends that "the job was beyond him." Aware of his limitations, Harding appointed some very capable and intelligent men to his cabinet, including Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State and Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce.

Unfortunatley, Harding also surrounded himself with an "unpleasant group of dishonest cheats," who came to be known as "The Ohio Gang." According to historians at the Miller Center:

Warren’s close friend and political manager, Harry Daugherty, whom he named attorney general, was one of the worst - and one of the slickest. He survived impeachment attempts by Congress and two indictments for defrauding the government in the disposal of alien property confiscated by his office from German nationals. Another schemer, Albert Fall, secretary of the interior, secretly allowed private oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California in return for least $300,000 paid to him in bribes.

Whether Harding was aware of his advisors' crimes beforehand is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that he loved to play card games and drink whiskey with them upstairs at the White House in private defiance of Prohibition.

Describing the scene at one of Harding's card games that she encountered, Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, wrote: "the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey, cards and poker chips ready at hand – a general atmosphere of waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and spittoons alongside."

Meanwhile, as President Harding was downing whiskey with his advisors at the White House, millions of ordinary Americans were drinking at secret taverns and bars called speakeasies, a popular term during Prohibition used to describe an establishment that sold illegal alcoholic beverages. According to The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink:

In order to gain entrance to [a speakeasy], you had to speak in a low voice through a small opening in the back door and tell the attendant inside who it was who sent you to the place. The term itself...may derive from the English "Speak-softly-shop," an underworld term for a smuggler's house where one might get liquor cheaply, its usage in this sense having been traced back to 1823.

But with the onset of Prohibition in America, speakeasies sprang up overnight, sometimes in shabby sections of town, but often in the best neighborhoods, and many of these establishments were actually fine restaurants in their own right. New York's "21" club was a speakeasy during this period and had two bars, a dance floor, an orchestra, and dining rooms on two floors...French diplomat Paul Morande, visiting New York for the first time in 1925, reported his experience at a speakeasy: "the food is almost always poor, the service deplorable."

It was during this period (often referred to today as the Roaring Twenties) that the custom of throwing cocktail parties at home also became popular. The rise of cocktail parties, in turn, inspired the development of finger foods, which worked well for tipsy partygoers who jiggled Gin Fizzes, Whiskey Smashes, and other cocktails while mingling with others in loud, crowded rooms.

Some popular finger foods of the Roaring Twenties include Lobster Canapés, Shrimp and Crabmeat Cocktails, Stuffed Deviled Eggs, Caviar Rolls, Oyster Toast, and Savory Cheese Balls. And food historian Poppy Cannon indicates that President Harding often served his favorite dish, Bratwurst with Saurkraut, at his many poker parties at the White House.

If you’d like to serve up some Bratwurst Rolls at your next party, here is a simple and simply delicious recipe to try from

1/4 cup butter
2 medium onions, sliced into thin rings
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped (optional)
3 to 4 (12-ounce) cans cheap beer
8 bratwurst links
8 small, crusty hoagie rolls
whole-grain mustard
dill pickle spears

Prepare the grill for a medium-hot fire. Place the butter in a medium disposable foil roasting pan. Place the pan on the grill rack and cook until the butter melts. Add the onions and garlic (if using). Cook until softened, three to five minutes. Add the beer and bring to a simmer. Place the pan on the low heat zone and keep the onion mixture warm.

Place the bratwurst on the grill rack. Grill, turning occasionally, until evenly charred, four to five minutes. Transfer the bratwurst to the onion mixture and let stand until ready to serve. With tongs, place the bratwurst in the rolls. Serve with the onions, mustard, and pickle spears.

FOOD FACT: Some of the mass-manufactured foods introduced during the Roaring Twenties include the Baby Ruth Candy Bar, Wonder Bread, Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drinks, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Welch's Grape Jelly, Popsicles, Hostess Snack Cakes, Kool-Aid, Peter Pan Peanut Butter, and Velveeta Cheese!

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