Monday, December 31, 2012

Andrew Johnson Hoppin' John

At the end of the Civil War, the South lay in ruins. Southern plantations and entire cities had been destroyed during the war. Without food, many southerners starved to death, and some of those who survived lost everything they owned.

As a result, the government had to figure out how to rebuild the South. As president, Johnson took charge of the first phase of Reconstruction. But his attempt to quickly readmit the former Confederate states into the union and his vetoes of important civil rights bills outraged Radical Republicans in Congress.

The House of Representatives impeached Johnson in 1868, but he was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate. Historians say that Johnson’s victory “marked the beginning of an ambitious series of receptions, dinners and children’s parties that would turn the last nine months of his term into an ongoing celebration.”

After leaving office, Johnson returned to his native state of Tennessee where he probably consumed such traditional southern foods as Benne Wafers, Hoppin’ John and Pine Bark Stew. Still popular in the south, Hoppin' John is often the high point of New Year's Day festivities and is thought to bring good luck throughout the coming year. If you'd like to whip up some Hoppin' John, you can't go wrong with this quick and delicious recipe from Emeril Lagasse.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large ham hock
1 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup green pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed
1 quart chicken stock
1 Bay leaf
1 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
Salt, black pepper, and cayenne
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
3 cups steamed white rice

Heat oil in a large soup pot, add the ham hock and sear on all sides for 4 minutes. Add the onion, celery, green pepper, and garlic, and cook for 4 minutes. Add the black-eyed peas, stock, bay leaves, thyme, and seasonings.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes, or until the peas are creamy and tender, stir occasionally. If the liquid evaporates, add more water or stock. Adjust seasonings, and garnish with green onions. Serve over rice and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Benjamin Harrison, a Holiday Dinner, and the First Decorated Christmas Tree at the White House

Benjamin Harrison’s presidency began with a dramatic, three-day centennial commemoration of George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States. The festivities began on April 28, 1889 with a reception in the White House, followed by a reenactment of George Washington’s crossing of New York Harbor by barge under a fuselage of gun salutes and fireworks. The evening was capped with a lavish banquet, featuring thirteen wines and thirteen toasts in honor of the original thirteen colonies.

Despite the initial fanfare, Harrison and his family dined rather modestly during their four years in the White House, and it has been said that their Christmas dinner was about as unpretentious as the family itself. According to culinary historian Poppy Cannon:

The dinner began with Blue Point oysters on the half shell, followed by consomme a la Royale, chicken in patty shells, and then the piece de resistance, stuffed roast turkey, cranberry jelly, Duchess potatoes and braised celery. Then came terrapin a la Maryland, lettuce salad with French drssing, and assorted desserts: minced pie, American plum pudding, tutti fruitti ice cream. For those still hungry, ladyfingers, Carlsbad wafers, and macaroons were passed, followed by fruit and coffee...

But of all White House holiday traditions, the Harrison's are perhaps most well-known for setting up the first decorated Christmas tree in the White House. According to White House historians, it was on the morning of December 25, 1889 that President Harrison "gathered his family around the first indoor White House Christmas tree. It stood in the upstairs oval room, branches adorned with lit candles. First Lady Caroline Harrison, an artist, helped decorate the tree."

As our nation's First Lady, Mrs. Harrison set the stage for what would eventually become a White House holiday tradition. But not all First Families after the Harrisons set up Christmas trees in the White House. First Lady Grace Coolidge did in the 1920s; however, it was First Lady "Lou" Henry Hoover who started the custom in 1929 when she oversaw the decoration of the first "official" tree. Since then, the honor of trimming the main White House Christmas tree has belonged to the First Ladies. According to the White House Historical Association:

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. She decorated a tree placed in the oval Blue Room with ornamental toys, birds and angels modeled after Petr Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" ballet. Mrs. Kennedy reused these ornaments in 1962 for her children's theme tree. Set up in the North Entrance, this festive tree also featured brightly wrapped packages, candy canes, gingerbread cookies and straw ornaments made by disabled or senior citizen craftspeople throughout the United States.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Administration began during a time of great uncertainty. In November 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy had stunned America. New First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson certainly felt a desire to help the nation heal. She chose comforting and nostalgic holiday decor during her White House years. Her 1965 and 1966 Blue Room Christmas trees were decorated in an early American theme. They featured thousands of small traditional ornaments, including nuts, fruit, popcorn, dried seedpods, gingerbread cookies and wood roses from Hawaii...

Handmade crafts set the theme for First Lady Betty Ford's 1974 Blue Room tree. Emphasizing thrift and recycling, Mrs. Ford used ornaments made by Appalachian women and senior citizen groups. Swags lined with patchwork encircled the tree. She kept this quaint feel in 1975 for her "old-fashioned children's Christmas" theme. Experts from Colonial Williamsburg adapted paper snowflakes, acorns, dried fruits, pinecones, vegetables, straw, cookies and yarn into ornaments...

Last year, the White House theme for the holiday season was "Shine, Give, Share," which offered "an opportunity to pay tribute to our troops, veterans, and their families throughout the White House." The official tour featured 37 Christmas trees (30 are natural trees and 7 are made from paper, felt or aluminum) and a gingerbread model of the White House made of 400 pounds of gingerbread, white chocolate, and marzipan. But the centerpiece was the official Christmas tree which honored our men and women in uniform and featured holiday cards created by military children.

According to, the cards were collected from United States military installations around the world...Medals, badges, and patches from all of the military branches are displayed on ornaments, historic military images are displayed with volunteer-made pinecone frames, and ribbons inspired by the Armed Forces colors represent the brave women and men who protect our Nation and defend our freedom."

FOOD FACT: The White House holiday décor also included "a bounty of Bos!" With a playful nod to the First Dog, the tour route featured five "Bo topiaries made from various materials like felt (35 yards of wool felt used), buttons (318 buttons in total), pom poms (750 pom poms used), and candy (12 marshmallows and 1,911 pieces of licorice!).

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dolley Madison Fresh Raspberry Flummery

So did you know that Dolley Madison had an insatiable sweet tooth and was particularly fond of such treats as Macaroons, Cinnamon Cakes, Gingerbread, Cranberry Sherbet and ice cream?

Flummery was another popular ninteeenth century dish that Dolley reportedly served at her many festive social gatherings at the White House. According to an article in the New York Times, dictionary writers are not kind to flummery and this “innocent pudding” is often described by lexicographers as a “bland custard” or “a sort of pap,” while Webster’s asserts that an alternative meaning of flummery is “something insipid or not worth having.”

Food historians say that the modern origins of flummery can be traced to a seventeenth century Welsh specialty prepared with oatmeal and boiled until dense. As this "goopy dish" lost popularity over the years, cooks gave the name flummery to those puddings that were “firmed up with almonds and gelatin.”

By the time flummery made its way to the United States, it had been transformed into a "pure, delicately-set fruit stew." If you’d like to whip up some flummery this holiday season, here is a simple recipe to try from the New York Times Magazine:

1 quart fresh raspberries
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons cold water or milk
Juice of half a lemon
Heavy cream, for serving

Combine the berries, sugar and ½ cup hot water in a saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until the mixture is liquid. Strain the pulp through a fine sieve. Return the strained liquid to a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, blend the cornstarch with the cold water or milk. Stir this into the boiling berry liquid. Add the lemon juice. Simmer for 1 minute. Serve with heavy cream and enjoy!

FOOD FACT: Famous for hosting elegant dinner parties and receptions, Dolley Madison’s name became associated with fine dining and entertaining. In the early nineteenth century, food companies and advertisers began using her name to suggest that any woman could entertain as well as she did. Some of the companies named after her were The Dolly Madison Bakery and Dolly Madison Ice Cream. There was even a Dolly Madison Popcorn. And Dolly Madison snacking cakes are still widely available today!