Sunday, March 20, 2011

Presidential Palate 4, St. Patrick's Day Edition: Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln

So we've already made it up to the Civil War in our presidential quartets.  The theme for this meal was determined when I read that Abraham Lincoln ate his first inauguration's luncheon at the beautiful Willard Hotel next to the White House, and that it consisted of Mock Turtle Soup, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Parsley Potatoes, and Blackberry Pie.  Since St. Patrick's Day happened to fall during this week, we decided to kill two birds with one stone and combine our Presidential meal with our St. Patrick's Day celebration.

The combination made sense for reasons other than President Lincoln's predilection for corned beef.  Millard Fillmore was President during the latter half of the great Irish immigration in response to the Irish Potato Famine, and issues related to the hoards of new Irish and German immigrants plagued this entire set of chief executives.  Also, James Buchanan was a first-generation American, since his father had immigrated from Ireland.

Millard Fillmore, who came from a New York farm family, favored plain, simple food, and supposedly consumed a lot of soups and stews.  Therefore, we opened the meal with a soup course in his honor; however, to stay with the St. Patrick's theme, we made a cream and cabbage soup entitled "Pride of the Irish" soup (although we altered the recipe to make it a vegan dish):

Although it might not look too inspiring at first, a couple of minutes with my handy-dandy emersion blender turned it into this smooth, springy-green concoction:

that looked even better when garnished with a little cheese (soy cheese for my son) and chives:

Although James Buchanan was of Irish descent, he grew up in Pennsylvania (the only President from that state so far) and liked Pennsylvania Dutch food.  Pennsylvania Dutch food is not really Dutch, like the area in New York that Van Buren was from; the "Dutch" part was really an American mistranslation when German immigrants explained they were "Deutsch" (the German word for German, pronounced "Doysh").  So for Buchanan, we made a hot German Potato Salad.  However, I left out the traditional bacon (I try to avoid nitrates, and I figured the corned beef would have enough for one meal), and substituted parsley in anticipation of Lincoln's parsley potatoes.  I also swapped leeks for the onions; although I know leeks are primarily associated with Wales, I think the Irish used them a lot as well.

So, in addition to the soup, we had a lovely plate of hot potato salad, peas, and Mr. Lincoln's corned beef:

This was a big hit with the crowd--probably the best-received entire meal of the four Presidential menus we have cooked so far.  It was such a big hit, however, that we didn't have room for dessert, which was the item in honor of Franklin Pierce.  But we decided to celebrate Pierce on a latter occasion.

So tonight I made our St. Patrick's Day/Presidential Palate 4 meal, take 2.   This, ironically enough, is really a more traditionally Irish dish than the one we had on St. Paddy's Day itself.  The thing is, the Irish Irish rarely ate corned beef.  It was a favorite meal for the English, however, as well as the French, the Caribbean, and several other foreign locations.  So by the 19th Century, the English had taken over the Irish lands and turned the island into a major EXPORTER of corned beef.  In fact, it was the foreign love for Irish corned beef that could be blamed for the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s.

What happened was that the English took all the prime agriculture land and turned it into pastures for cows that eventually got exported as corned beef.  They left only the poorest farming land to the Irish people to use to meet their own food needs.  Potatoes were one of the few crops that could grow in such poor soil, so by the middle of the 19th Century, about one third of the Irish were completely dependent on potatoes as their major food source.  So when the potato crop got wiped out, the poor had no other option for a food substitute.  This led to almost one million Irish starving to death, and another million leaving the country, reducing the total population by 20-25% over the course of about five years.

When the Irish got to the US, however, corned beef was relatively cheap.  Because it had been considered such a luxury food back home, the poor Irish immigrants ate as much as they could of it in their new home.  So the whole corned beef thing may make sense for American Irish, but really is a pretty sad story for the native Irish.

Anyway, this week my friend Sieglinde, who writes the FABULOUS Siggy Spice cooking-and-life blog,  posted her recipe for Bangers and Mash.  This traditional pub meal is really more representative of native Irish cooking, since the Irish have always eaten much more pork than beef.  So I followed her delicious recipe (which uses Guiness in the gravy--yum!), and made my mash not just out of potatoes, but also some leftover peas and broccoli I had (making it a healthier dish and turning it a more Irish-themed green than the traditional approach):

My guys LOVED this dish--so much, in fact, that I think this may become our new St. Patrick's Day tradition.  Now that I've realized the connection between corned beef and the Great Famine in Ireland, it doesn't seem like the best dish to celebrate all things Irish.

Then, after dinner, we finally got to eat Frankin Pierce's contribution--Fried Pies, a recipe from the President's Cookbook that was supposed to have been one of Pierce's favorite treats.  That recipe calls for dried apples, but I used fresh ones instead, and I also used maple syrup instead of sugar to reflect Pierce's New Hampshire roots.  These are actually deep fat fried, so we pulled out the iron skillet again:

After they were cooked, we drained them and rolled them in sugar and served while still warm and crispy:

These were another MAJOR hit!  So either we are getting better at all this, or else the antebellum Presidents had taste that was more similar to our family's preferences.

Either way, this project got us covering a lot of 19th Century history in addition to our four featured Presidents, and ended up with some favorite foods as well.


  1. What a FABULOUS history of food! I loved, loved, LOVED it! In fact, I am going to link it on the Siggy Spice Face Book page! Thanks so much for your kind words, I am so honored that you made this for your family and the fact they loved it...well, that is like a giant warm fuzzy!

  2. Thanks. This is what I love about the Internet--how connected we can be, where I can share what I've learned about the history of Irish food and you can share some recipes. It's a whole different way of building community.