Perhaps the greatest American of the Civil War period was Abraham Lincoln, but how did he appear to the people who ate with him and cooked for him? Well, it was easy to prepare meals for Lincoln because he never complained about the fare. But, on the other hand, he never praised a dish either.
Mrs. Thomas Lincoln, Abraham's stepmother, declared that "Abe was a moderate eater ... he sat down and ate what was set before him, making no complaint; he seemed careless about this." Isaac N. Arnold, a close friend in Illinois, later learned from Lincoln that he had eaten very plain food in childhood. On the frontier, he was fed cakes made from coarse corn meal and are called "corn dodgers." Wild game supplied the necessary protein in his diet.
In 1831 Lincoln moved to New Salem, a small community on the Sangamon River. During part of his stay at this village, he boarded at the Rutledge Tavern, where the beautiful Ann Rutledge worked as a waitress. The meals were plain, and Lincoln was served the usual fare: cornbread, bacon and eggs. At times the Railsplitter took his meals with other families in the neighborhood. Mrs. Jack Armstrong said that he ate mush, cornbread and milk in her home, and if Lincoln had a delicacy that he enjoyed then, it was honey. N.W. Brandon of Petersburg recalled that he "was very fond" of sweet honey. Lincoln's favorite dessert was Mary's Gingerbread with Apple and Brown Sugar topping.
As soon as Lincoln was admitted to the bar, he went to Springfield, where he became the partner of John Todd Stuart. But much of his law practice was on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. For many weeks each year, he rode hundreds of miles and lived where the food was poor, and the accommodations were primitive. A fellow lawyer on these trips, Leonard Swett, observed that Lincoln was very temperate in his eating habits. "He ate," said Swett, "simply because it was necessary and not for enjoyment. Indeed, it might almost be doubted whether eating furnished him enjoyment or that he knew the difference between what was good and what was not. ... I never, in the ten years of circuit life I knew him, heard him complain of a hard bed or a bad meal of victuals. We would go out, for instance, at Mrs. Scott's, at Danville, and be sumptuously entertained, and nobody would enjoy it more than he. but I never heard him say the food we got was any better than that which was furnished at the tavern."
William H. Herndon, Lincoln's last law partner, remembered that what he ate made no difference to Lincoln. At mealtime, he took his place at the table involuntarily, said nothing, neither abused the food nor praised it, and asked no questions. No complaints ever passed his lips while on the circuit. Herndon also stated that Lincoln "had a good appetite and good digestion, ate mechanically, never asking why such a thing was not on the table nor why it was on it, if so; he filled up, and that is all."
If he had a favorite light meal, it was "apples & fruits generally," but sometimes he would come down to the Lincoln & Herndon law office in the morning and have breakfast of cheese, bologna sausage and crackers.
C.C. Brown, a young law student in Springfield, was examined for admission to the bar by Lincoln and Herndon. After a silly and routine question, Brown "passed the bar" and took his examiners to Charles Chatterton's Restaurant on the west side of the public square for a treat. It is not known who picked the menu, but Lincoln partook of it: fried oysters and pickled pig's feet! Evidently, it was a happy occasion for Lincoln because Brown recalled that he ate very heartily and told stories, some of which "would scarcely do for a Sunday paper."
On November 4, 1842, Lincoln married the lovely and talented Mary Todd of Lexington, Kentucky. She had been raised in the beautiful Blue Grass region, where gracious living and savory cooking were famous. It is said that Mary was a good cook; her parties were known for their variety of fine foods. Isaac N. Arnold wrote that "her table was famed for the excellence of its rare Kentucky dishes, and in season was loaded with venison, wild turkeys, prairie chicken, quails, and other game, which in those early days was abundant." However, Billy Herndon disagreed with Arnold. He stoutly declared, after reading Arnold's book, that Mrs. Lincoln "kept or set a poor table" for the daily meals and only splurged when guests were present. If this statement is true, Mary was either saving money for other household expenses or had learned the folly of spending long hours in the kitchen when her husband never praised her Kentucky recipes.
Mrs. Lincoln surprised Abe with a home remodeling project, adding a second story in 1856, while Abraham was out of town on the Eighth Judicial Circuit for nearly six months.
It must have been exasperating to cook for Lincoln. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Ninian Wirt Edwards, recounted that he "ate mechanically. I have seen him sit down at the table, and never unless recalled to his senses would he think of food." But at times, Lincoln did express a preference: he loved a "good hot cup of black coffee." And he liked meat as well as vegetables. Although the tall Sangamon lawyer was absent-minded while eating, he certainly kept his thoughts on food when he himself visited the market. His neighbors often saw him buying beefsteak downtown. For 10¢, Lincoln could purchase enough steak for a meal, and he carried the brown-paper package home himself instead of having it delivered. These episodes prove that Lincoln enjoyed the usual choice of a Midwestern man—beefsteak.
At times, perhaps, Lincoln did pay attention to fancy dishes, but he rarely commented upon them. Once, when speaking at Springfield, Illinois, on July 17, 1858, he hinted that he had once tasted some excellent French cuisine. While making fun of Douglas's pet theory of Popular Sovereignty, Lincoln declared that "it is to be dished up in as many varieties as a French cook can produce soups from potatoes." Perhaps the former Railsplitter recalled a meal that he had eaten in his favorite Chicago hotel, the Tremont Hotel III.
When Lincoln was elected President of the United States, he journeyed to Washington, D. C. to assume the most difficult task of his life. With weighty problems of state on his mind, the tired President neglected his meals even more than he had in Springfield. Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows of the Sanitary Commission remarked to Lincoln one day: "Mr. President, I am here at almost every hour of the day or night, and I never saw you at the table; do you ever eat?" "I try to," replied Lincoln. "I manage to browse about pretty much as I can get it." One day, while F. B. Carpenter was living with the Lincolns at the White House and painting "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet," the clock struck 12 noon. Lincoln listened to the chiming and exclaimed, "I believe, by the by, that I have not yet had my breakfast ─ this business has been so absorbing that it has crowded everything else out of my mind."
Noah Brooks, an old friend from Illinois and a Sacramento (California) Daily Union correspondent, testified that Lincoln was "never very attentive to the demands or the attractions of the table." "When Mrs. Lincoln, whom he always addressed by the old-fashioned title of 'Mother,' was absent from the home," Brooks revealed, "the President would appear to forget that food and drink were needful for his existence, unless he were persistently followed up by some of the servants, or were finally reminded of his needs by the actual pangs of hunger. On one such occasion, I remember, he asked me to come in and take breakfast with him, as he had some questions to ask. He was evidently eating without noting what he ate, and when I remarked that he was different from most Western men in his preference for milk at breakfast, he said, eyeing his glass of milk with surprise, as if he had not before noticed what he was drinking, 'Well, I do prefer black coffee in the morning, but they don't seem to have sent me any.'"
Yes, early in the morning, Lincoln wanted a cup of coffee. After this steaming aromatic beverage, the President might not find time for breakfast until 9 or 10 a.m. One of Lincoln's private secretaries, John Hay, often ate with the President. He remarked that Lincoln ate a frugal breakfast, "an egg, a piece of toast, coffee, etc." Sometimes the two men consumed a single egg apiece and plodded off to work. At noon Lincoln "took a little lunch—a biscuit, a glass of milk in winter, some fruit or grapes in summer." He "ate less than anyone I know," declared Hay. Carpenter, too, often witnessed Lincoln eating a "solitary lunch" when his family was gone. "It was often a matter of surprise to me," wrote Carpenter, "how the President sustained life; for it seemed, some weeks, as though he neither ate nor slept." When the hour for lunch arrived, a servant generally carried "a simple meal upon a tray" to Lincoln's second-floor office. Sometimes the Chief Executive would not examine the contents of the tray for several hours. Then, he would sample them in a "most unceremonious manner."
If the Commander-in-Chief ever had time for a full and pleasant meal, it was generally in the evening when dinner was served at the White House. At this hour, guests were often present, and Lincoln made a formal appearance to welcome them. On such occasions, Mrs. Lincoln had the food prepared in the White House kitchen or served it by a caterer. If Lincoln were hungry, he certainly could eat his fill of excellent food at this time.
There has been much debate about whether or not Lincoln ever drank liquor. Billy Herndon admitted that he "drank when he thought it would do him good." Leonard Swett remembered that Lincoln did drink wine upon occasion and that in the White House, "he used to drink a glass of champagne with his dinner, but I believe that was prescribed for him." Perhaps his physicians decided that the hard-working President sometimes needed a sleep aid. William Howard Russell of the London (England) Times ate with the Lincolns on March 28, 1861, and noted in his diary that wine was served at the dinner. But certainly, it was a rare occasion when Lincoln tasted alcohol. He had once joined a temperance society, although his account at the Corneau & Diller Drug Store in Springfield shows a few purchases of brandy by the bottle. Yet there is no positive proof that it was Lincoln who consumed this brandy. It is safe to say that Lincoln was temperate in his drinking. And the word temperance means "moderation or self-restraint in action, statement, etc."
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.