Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ulysses S. Grant, the Transcontinental Railroad, and Santa Fe Broiled Sage Hen

After the Civil War, peace between the North and South made it possible for the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad to be completed. In 1863, the Union Pacific began laying track in Omaha, Nebraska, heading west. At the same time, the Central Pacific started laying track in Sacramento, California, heading east.

Work in the beginning was slow and difficult, as you can imagine. After less than 25 miles of track had been laid in California, the Central Pacific “faced the daunting task of laying tracks over terrain that rose 7,000 feet in less than a hundred miles.” To conquer the sheer embankments, workers, the vast majority of whom were Chinese immigrants, were lowered by rope from the top of cliffs. While dangling in mid-air, they chipped away at the granite with picks and axes and then planted explosives to blast tunnels through the cliffs.

On October 10, 1865, Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, submitted a progress report to President Ulysses S. Grant:

A large majority of the white laboring class on the Pacific Coast find more
profitable and congenial employment in mining and agricultural pursuits, than in railroad work. The greater portion of the laborers employed by us are Chinese, who constitute a large element in the population of California. Without them it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise within the time required by the Acts of Congress...

Their wages, which are always paid in coin, at the end of each month, are divided among them by their agents…in proportion to the labor done by each person. These agents…furnish them their supplies of food, the value of which they deduct from their monthly pay. We have assurances from leading Chinese merchants that ...the [company] will be able to procure during the next year not less than 15,000 laborers. With this large force, the Company will be able to push on the work so as not only to complete it within the time required by the Acts of Congress, but so as to meet the public impatience.


Four and a half years later, the two tracks finally met and the final “Golden Spike” was driven in with great ceremony at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. By the end of the century, four more railways crisscrossed the United States. By then, most trains had luxury dining cars where first class passengers like President Grant dined on superb regional fare. The Baltimore and Ohio, for example, was famous for fresh seafood from the Chesapeake Bay while the Santa Fe was reportedly known for its Prairie Chicken and Broiled Sage Hen.

Although those railway recipes would be difficult to duplicate today, you can try this simple and simply delicious recipe for Lemon Sage Roasted Chicken from Bon Appetit.

4 chicken breast halves with skin and bones
8 very thin lemon slices, seeded
12 fresh sage leaves
Olive oil
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 cup low-salt chicken broth

Preheat oven to 450°F. Slide fingertips under chicken skin to loosen. Arrange 2 lemon slices and 3 sage leaves under skin on each breast; smooth skin over to enclose. Place chicken on rimmed baking sheet; brush with oil. Drizzle 1 teaspoon lemon juice over each breast; sprinkle with garlic, salt, and pepper. Pour 1/2 cup broth onto sheet around chicken.

Roast chicken until brown and cooked through, basting once or twice with pan juices, about 25 minutes. Transfer chicken to platter. Place baking sheet directly atop 2 burners; add remaining 1/2 cup broth. Using back of fork, mash any garlic on baking sheet into broth and pan juices. Boil over high heat until broth reduces almost to glaze, scraping up browned bits, about 4 minutes. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve.

FAST FACT: For every track of mile laid, railroads were granted a certain sum of money and 20 square miles of free land. The transcontinental railroad brought rapid economic growth to the nation, as farming, cattle-ranching and other agricultural businesses rapidly developed along the main lines..

If you like this, click here for my new book from Simon and Schuster!

Friday, February 24, 2012

James Garfield, the Pythagorean Theorem, and the Founding Father of Vegetarianism

As a lawyer, professor, and duly ordained minister, James Garfield is the only president to have discovered a novel proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. The Theorem, of course, is named after Pythagoras, an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician. As you might recall from grade school, the theorem says that in a right triangle, the sum of the squares of the two right angle sides will always be the same as the square of the hypotenuse (the longest side).

Translated mathematically, the equation would read: A2 + B2 = C2. Let’s try it quickly here: If Side A is 4 inches long and Side B is 3 inches long, the equation would be: 4 x 4 = 16 and 3 x 3 = 9. Added together, 16 + 9 = 25. Now we simply find the square root of 25 and - voila! - we know that side C is 5 inches long!

So what in the world does the Pythagorean Theorem have to do with food? A lot, if you consider the fact that Pythagoras has been called the Founding Father of Vegetarianism. Until the mid-nineteenth century, when the term "vegetarian" came into use, people who didn't eat meat were often called “Pythagoreans.”

As a young man, James Garfield was a farmer in Ohio and probably wouldn't have called himself a Pythagorean, but he surely would have liked this healthy recipe for Ultimate Veggie Burgers from 101 Cookbooks if he tried it!

2 1/2 cups sprouted garbanzo beans OR canned garbanzos, rinsed
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 onion, chopped
Grated zest of one large lemon
1 cup toasted (whole-grain) bread crumbs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Combine garbanzos, eggs, and salt in a food processor. Puree until the mixture is the consistency of a thick, slightly chunky hummus. Pour into a mixing bowl and stir in the cilantro, onion, and zest. Add breadcrumbs, stir, and let sit for a couple of minutes so crumbs can absorb some of the moisture. Heat oil in a heavy skillet over medium low, add 4 patties, cover and cook for 7-10 minutes. Flip the patties and cook the second side for 7 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the skillet and cool on a wire rack while you cook the remaining patties.

FAST FACT: James Garfield was one of our most intellectual presidents. Before going into politics, he was a professor of ancient languages at Hiram College in Ohio. He was also ambidextrous and biographers say that he would often show off his knowledge by writing Greek with one hand and Latin with the other!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

James Hemings: Thomas Jefferson's Head Chef

Before departing for his diplomatic appointment as U.S. Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson decided to bring his teenage slave James Hemings with him for the “particular purpose” of mastering the art of French cookery.

Between 1785 and 1789, James apprenticed under famous French chefs and pastry cooks and became chef de cuisine in Jefferson’s residence on the Avenue Champs-Élysées, earning about $48 a year. Now, these were the tumultuous years leading up to the French Revolution and there was no slavery in France at that time, and so James could have claimed his freedom at any time, but for reasons that remain unexplained, he chose not to do so.

Instead, he returned to the United States and later became head chef at Monticello. When James later petitioned for his freedom in 1793, Jefferson agreed upon the following condition:“if the said James shall go with me to Monticello...and shall continue there until he shall have taught such persons as I shall place under him for the purpose to be a good cook...he shall be thereupon made free.”

To fulfill the terms of this manumission agreement, James taught his brother Peter all the recipes and cooking techniques he had learned in France, and, three years later, James became a free man.

No one knows exactly what became of James after that, but we do know one thing: after Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800, he asked James to be his head chef in Washington, D.C. James declined this post, however, and a Frenchman by the name of Honoré Julien was head chef at the President’s House during most of Jefferson’s two terms of office.

FAST FACT: Manumission is a fancy legal term for the freeing of a slave. In the United States, manumission of slaves was achieved by a variety of means, including state-ordered manumission and through private manumission agreements, like the one between Thomas and James.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ronald Reagan Macaroni and Cheese

On the evening of January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan delivered his Farewell Address from the Oval Office at the White House. In it, he spoke reverently of the past, of his accomplishments during his eight years in office, and of his vision of America’s promise.

Near the end of his address, Reagan turned his attention toward patriotism, freedom, and the future, and said that “All great change in America begins at the dinner table” in the daily conversations between parent and child. This is what he said:

My fellow Americans...we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom - freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.

So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant...Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let 'em know and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do...


After leaving office, Reagan and his wife Nancy quietly retired to a mansion on a private, tree-lined street in the exclusive community of Bel Air, California. Despite the many elegant State Dinners that he surely must have become accustomed to during his two terms of office, those who were close to the president say that he retained a childhood taste for Meatloaf, Hamburger Soup, and other simple foods of his youth.

One his "all-time favorites," however, according to White House Chef Henry Haller, was Macaroni and Cheese, so much so that Reagan requested that a dish of it be delivered to him while he was recuperating at a hospital after being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt that took place on March 30, 1981, less than 100 days into his presidency.

“The dish was served in the manner the President prefer[ed],” Haller explained, “with the noodles well cooked and covered with a light cheese spiked with mustard.” If you’d like to serve up some of President Reagan’s Favorite Macaroni and Cheese for dinner tonight while talking to your kids about what it means to be an American, here is the original recipe from The White House Cookbook by Henry Haller:

½ pound macaroni
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg, beaten
3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup warm milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A pinch of paprika

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 2-quart casserole dish. Add macaroni to 2 quarts of boiling salted water and cook for 10 minutes. Drain well in a colander. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir in butter and beaten egg. Add 2-1/2 cups of the grated cheese.

In a small bowl, combine milk with salt, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Spoon macaroni and cheese into the prepared casserole. Pour milk mixture over and sprinkle top with the remaining cheese. Sprinkle with paprika.

Bake on middle shelf of preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until macaroni is firm to the touch and the top is crusty and browned. Serve at once, either as a light entree accompanied by a hot green vegetable and a crisp salad, or as a side dish with Hamburgers or Meat Loaf.

FAST FACT: Also injured in the assassination attempt was White House Press Secretary James Brady who suffered a gunshot wound to the head, while a Secret Service Agent was shot in the chest and a Washington, D.C. police officer was hit near the spine. Historians at the Miller Center say that "as Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital for emergency surgery, administration aides downplayed the severity of the injuries. According to Political Affairs Director Lyn Nofziger, Reagan was in good spirits, at one point teasing the medical staff, 'Please tell me you're Republicans.'"

Credit: Ronald Reagan wearing cowboy hat at Rancho Del Cielo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (1976)

For a free excerpt of my new book from Simon and Schuster click here!