Sunday, December 26, 2010

Andrew Jackson Benne (Sesame) Wafers

Andrew Jackson was so strong-willed that his political enemies dubbed him King Andrew I, portraying him as a tyrannical ruler who abused presidential powers and trampled on the constitution. During his two terms of office, Jackson vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the United States, signed the “Tariff of Abominations” which led to the Nullification Crisis and ignored important Supreme Court decisions protecting Native American rights.

Jackson was also no stranger to slavery. More than 150 slaves worked day and night at his stately Tennessee mansion "The Hermitage" where cooks prepared his favorite southern foods, including Braised Duck, Chicken Hash, Old Hickory Soup and Wild Barbecued Goose.

Popular in the South throughout the nineteenth century, Benne Wafers were another Jackson family favorite. Today, these delightfully light, crisp, paper-thin cookies can still be found in bakeries and candy shops throughout the south. If you'd like to whip up a batch of Benne Wafers, here is a simple and simply delicious recipe to try from

1 cup sesame seeds, toasted
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
4 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 F. Cover cookie sheets in parchment paper, silpat sheets, or lightly oil them. Toast the sesame seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat until they are golden brown.

Beat brown sugar and butter together in a medium-sized bowl for several minutes until fluffy. Beat in the egg. Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder, then add dry ingredients to the butter, sugar, egg mixture, mix well. Stir in the toasted sesame seeds, vanilla extract, and lemon juice.

Drop by teaspoonful onto prepared cookie sheets, leaving space for the cookies to spread. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, or until the edges are slightly brown. Cool for a minute or two on the cookie sheets, then transfer to a rack to continue cooling.

FAST FACT: As a soldier and general, Jackson was said to be as tough as "Old Hickory," a very tough wood. Sadly, his father died before he was born and his mother and two brothers died before he reached the age of 15. Orphaned and alone, Andrew had to take care of himself from a very young age, which may explain why he became such a “tough” young man.

FOOD FACT: Benne (an African word for sesame) might have been brought from East Africa and planted throughout the South during the colonial era. Other foods brought from Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries include peanuts, sweet potatoes, okra, black-eyed peas and collard greens!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

James Monroe, Valley Forge, and Spoon Bread

So did you know that while serving in the Continental Army, James Monroe crossed the Delaware with George Washington, fought at the Battle of Trenton, and endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge? Among the patriots encamped at Valley Forge were Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

Another soldier there was Dr. Albigence Waldo, a surgeon from Connecticut, whose diary provides perhaps the best account we have of conditions that winter at Valley Forge:

Dec. 21st., Preparations made for hutts. Provision Scarce...sent a Letter to my Wife. Heartily wish myself at home, my Skin & eyes are almost spoiled with continual smoke. A general cry thro' the Camp this Evening among the Soldiers, "No Meat!, No Meat!", the Distant vales Echo'd back the melancholly sound, "No Meat! No Meat! "What have you for our Dinners Boys?" Nothing but Fire Cake & Water, Sir." At night, "Gentlemen the Supper is ready." What is your Supper, Lads? " Fire Cake & Water, Sir..."

Dec. 22nd., Lay excessive Cold & uncomfortable last Night, my eyes are started out from their Orbits like a Rabbit's eyes, occation'd by a great Cold, and Smoke. What have you got for Breakfast, Lads ? " Fire Cake & Water, Sir." I am ashamed to say it, but I am tempted to steal Fowls if I could find them, or even a whole Hog, for I feel as if I could eat one...But why do I talk of hunger & hard usage, when so many in the World have not even fire Cake & Water to eat...

Before the end of the war, Monroe returned to Virginia and studied law under Thomas Jefferson. He then served as governor of Virginia and was appointed as U.S. Minister to France. Like Jefferson, Monroe developed a taste for fancy French cuisine while serving overseas, but biographers say that he retained a fondness for Chicken Pudding, Spoon Bread, and other simple foods of his Virginia youth.

Because it has a consistency similar to pudding, Spoon Bread is usually served straight from the baking pan with a spoon. If you'd like to whip up a batch this winter, here is a simple and simply delicious recipe to try from

1 cup sweet potato, mashed
1 cup corn meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup boiling water
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup evaporated milk
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Directions: Preheat oven to 375. In a heat proof bowl, mix cornmeal and salt. Add boiling water and mix well. Add mashed sweet potato, sugar, baking powder, and milk mix well. Add eggs and mix well. Set aside for a few minutes. Grease cast iron skillet or metal baking pan with oil, allow extra oil to stay in pan. Heat pan with oil in it over medium heat until oil is hot but not smoking. Pour batter into hot skillet and place in hot oven. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Spoon bread should rise like a souffle, pull away from sides, and brown on top.

FAST FACT: So did you know that in Emmanuel Luetz’s painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” James Monroe is depicted directly behind Washington, holding an American flag up against the storm? If you would like to see this painting some day (it measures 12 feet high and 21 feet long!), it is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Regal Splendor of the Presidential Palace

Having witnessed the chaos of Andrew Jackson’s "levees" first hand, Martin Van Buren prohibited all food and drink from public receptions. Privately, however, he hosted many extravagant dinner parties at the White House. Using gold plated spoons that James Monroe had purchased years earlier in France, Van Buren added the finest quality cut wine glasses, water bottles, and goblets. He also purchased expensive European finger bowls in which he daintily rinsed his fingers after a night of fine dining.

Before the Election of 1840, Charles Ogle, a Whig Congressman from Pennsylvania, rose to speak in the House of Representatives and launched into a three-hour attack on Van Buren’s luxurious lifestyle. After describing the “Regal Splendor of the Presidential Palace,” Ogle turned his attention to Van Buren’s “kingly” dinner table. Setting the scene for a packed gallery, Ogle dramatically proclaimed:

Mr. Chairman...Let us enter [the] palace, and survey its spacious courts, its gorgeous banqueting halls, its sumptuous drawing rooms, its glittering and dazzling saloons, with all their magnificent and sumptuous array of gold and silver...I cannot forbear…to read you a description of the Great Banqueting Hall...who can deny that this room, intended for the comfort of our democratic Chief Magistrate, is adorned with regal splendor far above any of the grand saloons at Buckingham Palace...or Windsor Castle...

In my opinion, it is time the people of the United States should know that their money goes to buy for their plain hard-handed democratic President, knives, forks, and spoons of gold, that he may dine in the style of the monarchs of Europe...What sir, will the honest locofoco say to Mr. Van Buren for spending the People’s cash [on] GREEN FINGER CUPS in which to wash his pretty tapering, soft, white, lily fingers, after dining on Fricandeau de Veau and Omelette SoufflĂ©?

Outraged, Democrats condemned Ogle’s speech and tried to show that William Henry Harrison was the true aristocrat in the campaign. But the damage was done, and Harrison, at the age of sixty-seven, became the oldest person elected to the American presidency, a distinction he held until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

FAST FACT: Ironically, it was Van Buren who was born into a working class family while Harrison was from a very wealthy political family and his father was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Charles Dickens at the White House

One of the most famous guests to dine at the White House during John Tyler’s presidency was the great English writer, Charles Dickens. Upon his arrival to the United States, Dickens was honored at an extravagant ball in New York City, where he was greeted by such famous American writers as Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Edgar Allan Poe.

A few days later, Dickens met John Tyler in the White House and later penned this about the president: He looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody - but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable.

Although Dickens seemed to like Tyler, he strongly disliked the American institution of slavery. Describing a particular dinner in Baltimore, Dickens wrote:

We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and...were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it IS slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.

After returning to England, Dickens wrote his first travel book entitled American Notes in which he criticized Americans for their poor table manners and disgusting habit of spitting tobacco. In it, he also devoted an entire chapter to slavery in the United States.

While that book was very well-received, Oliver Twist is perhaps Dickens’ most famous novel. Set in mid-ninteenth century England, the main character is a nine-year-old orphan in a London workhouse where the boys are given only three meals of thin gruel each day. When Oliver courageously asks for more (“Please, sir, I want some more”) he is dubbed a troublemaker and treated even more cruelly.

So what, exactly, is gruel? Well, it's usually defined as a thin porridge or soup. Most forms of gruel include rice gruel, flour gruel, and millet gruel. If you'd like to get a taste of it for yourself, here's a quick and simple recipe to try:

2 teaspoons of flour
1 teaspoon of salt

Boil one cup water. Drip water on flour and salt until it turns into a thin paste. Add the paste to the boiling water. Stir to a semi-fluid consistency. Strain to eliminate film. Serve warm and say, "Please, sir, I want some more!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Theodore Roosevelt, a Brooklyn Candy Shop Owner, and the Invention of the Teddy Bear

So did you know that the Teddy Bear was invented in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt? According to historians, it all began when Roosevelt went on a four-day bear hunting trip in Mississippi in November of 1902. Although Roosevelt was known as an experienced big game hunter, he had not come across a single bear on that particular trip.

According to historians at the National Park Service:

Roosevelt’s assistants, led by Holt Collier, a born slave and former Confederate cavalryman, cornered and tied a black bear to a willow tree. They summoned Roosevelt and suggested that he shoot it. Viewing this as extremely unsportsmanlike, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear. The news of this event spread quickly through newspaper articles across the country. The articles recounted the story of the president who refused to shoot a bear. However, it was not just any president, it was Theodore Roosevelt the big game hunter!

When a political cartoonist named Clifford Berryman read the reports he decided to “lightheartedly lampoon” the incident. Then, when a Brooklyn candy shop owner by the name of Morris Michton saw Berryman’s cartoon in the Washington Post on November 16, 1902, he came up with a brilliant marketing idea. You see, Michtom's wife Rose was a seamstress and made stuffed animals at their shop, and so he asked her to make a stuffed toy bear that resembled Berryman's drawing. He then showcased his wife's creation in the front window of their shop along with a sign that read "Teddy's Bear."

After receiving Roosevelt’s permission to use his name, Michtom began mass producing the toy bears which became so popular that he launched the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, and, by 1907, more than a million of the cuddly bears had been sold in the United States. And so NOW you know how one of Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting trips led to the "invention" of the Teddy Bear!

Now...I'm guessing that most of you probably don't want to feast on a juicy bear steak like those that Roosevelt and his fellow hunters surely enjoyed, but you might like to make these cute Teddy Bear Cupcakes which are great to serve at children's birthday parties and play dates.

1 box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® yellow cake mix
1 cup water
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
3 eggs
1 container Betty Crocker® Whipped chocolate frosting
1/3 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
48 teddy bear-shaped graham snacks

In large bowl, beat cake mix, water, peanut butter and eggs with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Bake 13 to 18 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and tops spring back when touched lightly in center. Cool 10 minutes. Remove from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.

Reserve 1/4 cup of the frosting. Spread remaining frosting over tops of cupcakes. Sprinkle each cupcake with 1/2 teaspoon of chocolate chips; press gently into frosting. Spread about 1/2 teaspoon reserved frosting on flat sides of 2 graham snacks. Place on cupcakes, pressing candles slightly into cupcakes to hold in place.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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!