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Prairie Fare: Trip to Museum Inspires Culinary Explorations

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Cornmeal played a prominent role in Lincoln’s childhood menus. Cornmeal played a prominent role in Lincoln’s childhood menus.
Garden-Robinson takes a tour of Mary Todd Lincoln's childhood home and is inspired to make some cornbread.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

As I stood in the entryway of Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood home in Lexington, Ky., I had one of those awe-filled moments in life. I was standing in the footsteps where Abraham Lincoln met his future wife’s family more than 170 years ago.

During Lincoln’s leadership through the Civil War, monumental changes occurred in the U.S.

In fact, my own work life might be greatly different if Mr. Lincoln had not signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which provided thousands of acres of land to establish land-grant colleges. North Dakota State University is one of the land-grant institutions.

Programs in agriculture and engineering were among the first areas of study for land-grant colleges. Later, the land-grant colleges became the home to cooperative Extension, including the NDSU Extension Service, as a result of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Cooperative Extension has the mission of bringing the research from the universities to the people of the respective states.

Farming techniques and food preservation were among the first programming areas and remain to this day, along with a wide range of other topics.

I think I owe Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Smith, Mr. Lever and the Congress of the time a belated thank you for a very interesting career.

As our tour guide brought us through Mary Todd Lincoln’s home, we saw various mementos from the Lincoln family’s life together. We saw some dishes that were used during Lincoln’s presidency, furniture from one of their homes and an engraved cup given to their son upon the death of his brother.

When we reached the kitchen, our tour guide asked us to identify one of the pieces of furniture. No one recognized the locked chest.

The chest was used to store sugar, which was a highly valued commodity that sometimes reached $5 per pound in those early times. An inventory list was kept as sugar was removed by the teaspoonful from the chest. Molasses often was used in its place.

I also noted the wood-burning stove. Before our electric, gas and microwave ovens, cooking and baking were much more challenging. Oven temperature was determined by the number of seconds you could hold your hand in the oven chamber.

I couldn’t resist buying a couple of historic cookbooks in the gift store. I used some money with Abe’s image to purchase the books, including “Lincoln’s Table” by Donna McCreary.

McCreary’s book traces the Lincoln family’s culinary roots from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois and finally to their presidential home with fancier meals. Growing up in a Kentucky cabin, Abraham Lincoln’s early food was simple but healthy fare, consisting of wild game, vegetables and food from the wilderness.

Although Mr. Lincoln often is reported as a “picky eater,” the author of the book disputes that fact with her historical research. During the Civil War, he had to be reminded to eat and they would tempt him with some of the recipes featured in the book.

Cornmeal played a prominent role in Lincoln’s childhood menus, and some of the traditions were brought to the presidential table. Corn crops grew well in the areas where Lincoln spent his early years.

As I read the historical cookbook on my return flight, I decided to try a cornmeal bread recipe at home. A piece of warm cornbread sounded a lot more appealing than the airline-issued bag of pretzels.

The recipe called for the use of a cast-iron frying pan as a baking pan. Cast iron was used widely in the early U.S. and is gaining popularity again, especially for outdoor cookery in Dutch ovens. Cast iron also added some iron to their diets during the cooking process.

I knew we had a cast-iron frying pan packed away somewhere at home. Every time I pack away something, I discover I need it. My husband found it in a box in our garage.

Fortunately, we had seasoned and stored the cast-iron pan properly. It had no rust, but we cleaned and reseasoned it by applying shortening to the cooking surface and heating it in our oven on a low temperature for about an hour. I didn’t want my cornmeal bread to stick to the pan.

You do not want to soak cast-iron cookware in your sink because it will rust.

Here is one of the recipes I made at home and served with white bean and chicken chili. This recipe is adapted from one featured in “Lincoln’s Table.” In keeping with our land-grant tradition, you can find a variety of research-based information and recipes on our website at http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/food.

Golden Cornbread

1 c. cornmeal

1 c. all-purpose flour

1/4 c. sugar

4 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 egg

1 c. milk

4 Tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Melt butter in a 10-inch iron skillet. Mix together all the dry ingredients. Stir in the egg and slowly add milk. If you plan to bake in the skillet, swirl the butter around the skillet so the bottom of the pan is coated. Add the melted butter from the skillet to the batter. Mix the batter well. Pour into the hot skillet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Alternative directions: Melt the butter in a microwave oven and mix as directed. Spray the bottom of a 9-inch round or square pan with nonstick cooking spray (or use oil or shortening). Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in a 375 F oven.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 210 calories, 7 grams (g) of fat, 5 g of protein, 33 g of carbohydrate, 2 g of fiber and 590 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)


NDSU Agriculture Communication – Sept. 25, 2014

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.edu
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