Saturday, April 2, 2011

Presidential Palate 6: Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley

Before the week ends, it's time to write about this week's Presidential Palate dinner.  These four presidents are examples of why I am doing this project.  Prior to our Presidential Palate initiative, I could hardly have told you anything about any of these presidents, neither what they did or why they were important.  Now, though, we have at least SOMETHING to celebrate about each one of them.

For example, let's start with Chester Arthur.  Previously, Arthur was just one of those "boring" presidents to me.  Now, however, he is a hero to me.  Why?  Because his administration is the first that I've read about that served a dessert made out of my favorite--CHOCOLATE!  This exemplifies why this project is so interesting, because you forget that everyone didn't always eat what you eat.

In the case of cakes, there had been cakes around since long before George Washington.  However, they were all either white or yellow cakes or fruit cakes.  Back then, chocolate was too expensive to be used in something as trivial as a cake.  So there is no mention of chocolate among presidential meals for almost 100 years.

However, New Yorker Arthur considered himself to be quite the gourmet and kept up on the latest trends in food.  By the mid 19th century, the price of chocolate had dropped, and people had started to serve what they called "chocolate cake"--white/yellow cake with chocolate frosting.  But in Arthur's time, there was a fashionable new recipe for so-called "devil's food cake," which had chocolate in the cake batter.  There is dispute as to the origin of the name, but my guess is that it was considered to be positively sinful to use chocolate in both the cake and the icing.  However, the sources I read say that this is a truly original American recipe, and that Europeans did not start making chocolate batter cakes until well into the 20th century.

So we commemorated President Arthur with a Devil's Food Cake.  We even followed what is said to be the earliest printed version of the recipe, from a cookbook published in 1902 (which is well after Arthur's time, but the earliest known instructions for such a cake).  It is different than modern cakes in that, like the more historical white and angel food cakes, the egg whites are beaten before being added to the batter.  In fact, there was relatively little butter (in our case, margarine) or milk (in our case, coconut milk) compared to the amount of flour, making it quite a thick batter and resulting in a denser cake (more like pound cake) than the chocolate cakes people favor today.  However, it gave my son his first experience in beating eggs using an old-fashioned egg beater:
The old mechanical egg beater still does a great job!

This cake is supposed to be made in layers and covered in a chocolate or white frosting, but we cooked ours in a bundt pan and just sprinkled it with powdered sugar, since cake alone is bad enough for my diabetic husband, let alone all the added sugar in a frosting.
Chester Arthur's Devil's Food Cake

Next came Grover Cleveland.  He is one that I should remember (but to be honest, I didn't) because there is one fact about Cleveland that is not shared with any other American president.  Give up?  Cleveland is the only president who had two non-consecutive terms--so he is the 22nd president and the 24th president.  So I wanted a recipe for him that would cement that fairly significant fact in my brain--and in my son's.

The problem was, Grover Cleveland was not particularly interesting eater.  Here is something we have discovered in our research for this project:  just as during both the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras, there were very few two-term presidents, as the office tended to flip-flop every four years between different parties and politics, so too did the eating habits of the presidents tend to differ dramatically.  So after gourmand Arthur came the more plain-eating Cleveland.

So I kind of abandoned using one of his foods or recipes, and went looking for something "double" or "twice" in the title.  One recipe I found that came highly recommended was "Double-stuffed Chicken Breasts."  However, the "double" referred to inserting two types of cheese into the chicken, and cheese is not good for my dairy-allergic son.

Then the magic happened.

Because what should appear on my friend Siglinde's wonderful Siggy Spice blog but a recipe for Hawaiian Pineapple Chicken.  It looked wonderful, and my son LOOOVES pineapple in his food.  But he almost never gets it because--guess what?--I'm allergic to pineapple (you can see menu planning has its challenges in this household), and so I never cook pineapple stuff.  But it seemed like a sign, because during Cleveland's second term was when the US basically kicked out Hawaii's native leader, Queen Lili'uokalani, and set up the brief Republic of Hawaii, which happened prior to Hawaii first becoming a territory, and then a state, of the US.   Of course, Cleveland was an isolationist and was against US imperialism, but his own party, who was mad at him by this time by his inability to solve an economic depression that was taken place at that time, forced it upon him.  Still, I like tying the beginning of Hawaii to some particular point in mainland American history, and it seems like this is the right place to put it.

So in honor of our 22nd and 24th president, we ended up making two different chicken main dishes:  Double Stuffed Chicken for my husband and me, and Hawaiian Pineapple Chicken for my son.  I stuffed the chicken with artisan New York Cheddar to remind us of Cleveland's New York roots:
Double-Stuffed Chicken for Grover Cleveland

In terms of the Hawaiian Pineapple Chicken, my pictures look pitiful in comparison with the master, so see the luscious-looking photo that Siglinde has posted on her blog.

In between Cleveland's two terms comes Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of the short-lived William Henry Harrison.  It turns out that eating preferences don't ALWAYS alternate with the parties, because the Harrison's seemed to be even plainer eaters than was Cleveland.  However, several places said that the Harrison family, who came from Indiana, were "addicted" to corn in all forms.  So I found a lovely-sounding recipe for "Indiana Corn Chowder," and we made that.  And it was lovely:
Benjamin Harrison and Indiana Corn Chowder

It is not as thick and rich as some corn chowders, and features red potatoes and some zucchini, making it colorful and healthy.  It was also a nice homage to Ben's grandaddy, since we had made "Old Sober" soup as his dish for his Presidential Palate meal.

This brings us to our final president, William McKinley.  McKinley may be most famous for being president during the Spanish American War, which not only brought Hawaii into the Union, but resulted in Puerto Rico and Guam becoming territories and the occupation of Cuba.  So my son wanted to make a Cuban dish to round out the meal.  We ended up deciding to make "Moros Y Christianos," or a Cuban version of black beans and rice.  (The title translates as "Moors and Christians," which brought us back to the Arab occupation of Spain and an explanation of why that title relates to that dish.)

Anyway, here is what my final plate looked like WITH the addition of a mixed greens salad (but not showing the soup or the dessert):

So I think we ended up with a pretty memorable meal based on some fairly unremarkable presidents.


  1. The boston velvet cake was (Int. cont PRINT "Really" cont. 100 THEN IF print=100 (cont) PRINT "good" THEN

  2. Boston velvet cake? Where did you come up with that? You aren't insinuating that Boston is home to the Devil, are you?

    Great programming, though....