How Mary Won Abe Lincoln Over With Cake

You may have heard that Barack Obama has a thing for Abraham Lincoln.

Come Tuesday, when he’s sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, Obama will put his hand upon the same Bible used at Lincoln’s inauguration ceremony in 1861. The honest-Abe homage continues at lunch, which features Lincoln-inspired fare (pdf file) served on replicas of china chosen by Mary Todd Lincoln, the 16th president’s notoriously eccentric wife -- and the first to be called “First Lady.”

Had historian Janis Cooke Newman been consulted on the menu, surely she would have recommended Mary Todd Lincoln’s vanilla-almond cake for dessert.

For three years, Newman, a San Francisco-based writer, spent much of her time “getting into Mary’s head,” for her historic novel, “Mary,” which is based on the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln.

And baking Mary’s cake, says Newman, who spoke to me by phone earlier this week, “was an integral part of making this book.”

“It became this thing that I would do when I got stuck writing,” Newman explains. “I wrote the book in the first person, so I could better understand what she [Mary Todd Lincoln] was thinking and feeling. She was a shopaholic, her son committed her to a lunatic asylum. I wanted to know what was going through this woman’s mind. So as a way to channel her, I’d say, ‘I’m gonna go make this cake.’ Baking the same thing that she would that would create the same smells in the house allowed me to be in touch with her.”

When her book was first published in 2006, Newman took the cake on tour. “For every reading, I would make the cake so that readers would better understand Mary’s story, with their mouths filled with the sweetness of her cake.”

The story behind the cake, says Newman, goes something like this: Back in 1825, the esteemed Marquis de Lafayette was paying a visit to Lexington, Ky., home to the upper-crust, slave-owning Todd family. In honor of the auspicious occasion, a French baker, by the name of Monsieur Giron, was commissioned to bake a cake. The almond-scented vanilla cake was such a hit, says Newman (who credits “The Lincoln Table” by Lincoln impersonator Donna McCreary for the cake story), that the Todd women “begged him for the recipe which became part of the family’s repertoire.”

Apparently, the white cake was part of Mary’s seduction tactics while she was courting one Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. in late 1839. Did Abe like the cake? “Well, he did marry her," says Newman. The couple tied the knot in 1842 in Springfield.

Newman believes that the cake remained a mainstay in the Todd Lincoln household in Springfield and even when the family moved to the White House in 1861. “She [Mary] had to do all her own cooking in Springfield,“ explains Newman. “Lincoln was poor, so they couldn't afford servants, and she came from a family that had slaves. So she had to learn how to cook on her own and take care of her house on her own.”

As for the Lincoln-themed Obama inauguration, Newman couldn’t be happier. “It’s so satisfying they’re still using the china!” she exclaims. When they moved into the White House, Mary wanted to decorate, unlike previous presidential wives. "She went to New York and went way over the $20,000 budget for decorating, and it became a scandal," says Newman. "She took so much flak for redecorating the White House during war time (Civil War), and now I feel like she’s slightly vindicated. She had really great taste.”

Newman says that after the pomp and circumstance of next week dies down, she plans on sending the Obamas a copy of her book. And the answer is yes: she’ll be sitting down with a piece of Mary’s cake on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

Coming up tomorrow: The recipe for Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake, plus your breakfast/brunch ideas for watching the inaugural festivities from home.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 15, 2009; 10:00 AM ET Baking , Culinary History
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Hi Kim,
Wanted to let folks know that I made agathist's (THANKS!!) vegetarian chili last night. I substituted a turnip for the rutabaga and added half of a green pepper. My chili also didn't seem to have enough liquid so I also put in a can of tomato sauce.

This chili was fantastic! I can't wait to tuck into a bowl of it for lunch today.

Posted by: earlysun | January 15, 2009 9:40 AM

What a wonderful story. I can't wait to read the book and learn all about Mary Todd Lincoln...and make her cake!

Posted by: juliaboyle | January 15, 2009 11:35 AM

Kim, thank you for this post. Historical recipes are so interesting and I love reading the narratives attached to them. Also, thanks for the Inaugural Luncheon menu! It's linked on my blog...

Posted by: stephanieboda | January 20, 2009 6:14 PM

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