September 12, 2004
Dinner with Abe (Lincoln, that is)

Yesterday I went back in time.

The museum near Richmond, Indiana, hosts a Civil War Encampment each fall. About 100 re-enactors gather for a weekend of planned skirmishes, public interpretation, and lots of sweating in wool.

My bonnet and layers of dress were mercifully wool-free, but there was plenty heat from the glowing hearth in the 1841 farmhouse. A red face and some crispy knuckles hairs...small price to pay when you're cooking dinner for Lincoln and 20 of his closest friends, 1860s style.

Ingredients that came with the hearth included plenty of good hardwood, a collection of cast iron Dutch ovens and copper kettles, and a small garden blooming with heirloom tomatoes and herbs like thyme, basil, rosemary, and lovage. The fire was going by 9:30AM and Abe was expected at 5PM. We cooked (and sweated) the hole day.

The menu was summer friendly and chosen by one of the museum's veteran hearth cooks from early and mid-nineteenth century cookbooks. We left the microwave behind in modern times, but did bring along our literacy - the farmhouse wife who originally cooked on this hearth couldn't read or write but kept a family of 12 (and then some) well fed on experience and trial and error.

I won't relay the exact recipes here since nothing turns out exactly the same way twice when you're cooking over hot coals and since the "science" of historic cooking includes instructions like "beat well in bright sunlight." But here's what Lincoln took off his stove pipe hat for...

Boiled turkey - let a turkey or two sit in strong brine overnight, throw it (them) into a large pot and cover with clean water, add salt, celery, carrots, onions, and a bouquet garni of whichever herbs are in the garden, cook slowly not allowing the water to come to a strong boil, take out the done turkey and use the remaining stock to flavor the following dishes...

Mashed potatoes - you know the drill, in the spirit of mid-nineteenth century Americans don't be afraid of whole cream and lots of butter

Green beans with salt pork and onions - cook the topped green beans in plenty of hot, salted water with a bouquet garni until done to your likeness (what we'd consider way past al dente seemed to be the preference at tables 160 years ago), in another pan, fry the salt park and then remove, fry sliced onions in the remaining fat, mix in the salt pork and then mix together with the cooked green beans, salt and pepper to taste

Salad - use what's in season and simply dress with oil, red wine vin, salt, pepper, and a little sugar

Scalloped tomatoes - quickly blanch tomatoes to remove the skins, slice and thinly coat in breadcrumbs seasoned with salt, mace, and cayenne pepper, butter some bread slices and tear them up, alternate layers of each in a deep baking dish until full (or until you think you'll be full), make the top layer of broken buttered bread, bake until the tomato juices are bubbling

Yeast rolls with fresh butter - milk the cow, find the churn, and get to work...or shake whipping cream in a tightly sealed canning jar until solid butter forms, separate the buttermilk and butter (drink the buttermilk, use it in the mashed potatoes, or for baking), wash the butter in water (put the butter in a bowl, pour a little water over and use the back of a spoon to paddle the butter, drain the cloudy water, and repeat until the water stays clear even after paddling), add some salt and lather your favorite yeast rolls (try to leave some for the actual dinner, I's hard)

Parsley gravy - fry parsley in lots of butter, add some flour, salt, and pepper, and stir constantly over heat, when the rue thickens up, add some broth from the cooked turkey

Celery sauce - yesterday's first try over the hearth turned to make more of a stuffing than a try this...very thinly chop a head of celery and fry until very tender in plenty of butter with salt and pepper, add equil parts water and heavy cream (about 3/4 - 1 cup each), season with mace and fresh nutmeg, serve over the turkey

For dessert, we offered a sweet almond cake (reportedly Mr. Lincoln's favorite) with glassy icing and blackberry cobbler.

Remember, singed dress hems and pot-black stained fingernails are the signs of a dedicated mid-nineteenth century cook...washing hands is optional before dinner.

Posted by Corrie in Indy at September 12, 2004 12:25 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Sounds like a lot of work, but fun! I am tickled to notice that the recipe for green beans is more or less the same as the one I used a few nights ago for a warm runner bean salad...except that I also added some toasted pine nuts. Wonder if Honest Abe would have liked them??

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 12, 2004 at 3:31 PM
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