It’s time for that February holiday we all love the most. I’m talking, of course, about Presidents’ Day.
Seriously, it’s hard to think of a holiday less associated with food than Presidents’ Day (maybe Arbor Day?) But why? Surely we could enjoy some celebratory presidential food on Monday, Feb. 17? With the reopening of Historic Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Family Home this weekend, we’ve got even more of a reason.
So, what does one eat for Presidents Day?
There’s always the feast route. Food historians are fond of the menu from Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, which offers a glimpse at what a fancy buffet looked like in 1865. The menu is made up mostly of meats and desserts — lots of roasted fowl, and an astonishing array of cakes, jellies and other desserts, including six flavors of ice cream (one is called “burnt almonds”).
Among the more alarming items on the buffet was terrapin stew; as Smithsonian magazine puts it, “Terrapin is a freshwater turtle; during Lincoln’s time, fishermen caught the turtles in the Potomac River, just inland from the Chesapeake Bay, and sold them for a pretty penny. Though the dish has disappeared from American cuisine, chefs often boiled terrapin in a stew, made of eggs, cream and butter and seasoned with nutmeg, cayenne pepper and allspice.”
The buffet for this feast was 250 feet long, according to Smithsonian, and the hungry crowd rushed the tables: “Men hoisted full trays above the masses and took them back to their friends, slopping stews and jellies along the way. ‘The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake, and debris of fowl and meat,’ reported the Washington Evening Star.”
So maybe you don’t want a massive buffet and a sticky floor; you just want a simple meal. In that case, you’ll want to check out Food Timeline (foodtimeline.org), a kid-oriented online resource that’s pulled together historical data on what all America’s presidents liked to eat. (“There never was such a family for soups as the Roosevelts.”)
Here’s what Food Timeline dug up on Woodrow Wilson. From The Presidents’ Cookbook: “President Wilson’s disinterest in food posed some White House problems. The White House physician was constantly concerned about the President’s lack of weight ... An elaborate survey was taken by the White House staff to determine the President’s food preferences — which dishes he seemed to enjoy to eat, which he left untouched. Chicken salad was a favorite and was frequently requested by Wilson as a luncheon dish. And once, when he was to visit friends who lived outside Washington in the Virginia countryside, he wrote ahead — in an untypical burst of gustatorial fervor: ‘I am very fond of country hams, peach cobblers, butter and buttermilk, fresh eggs, hot biscuits, homemade ice cream and plain white cake.’ This contrasts oddly with a later report that the President’s favorite breakfast consisted solely of two raw eggs in grape juice.”
Or, we could all follow the lead of Bill Clinton and go vegan. Anyway, Happy Presidents’ Day.
Do you love Japanese food — especially the Japanese food made by the Kobayashi family, who run Camon Japanese Restaurant? The Columbia Design League brings the Kobayashis to the Columbia Museum of Art this Sunday, Feb. 16, for a dinner inspired by the museum’s Japan and the Jazz Age exhibit. The Japanese Art Deco Dinner runs from 6 to 8 p.m. and costs $75 ($60 for Columbia Design League members). Visit columbiamuseum.org to make a reservation.
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