Historical Desserts for the 4th of July

Some recipes from Thomas Jefferson, the Coolidge White House, 19th-century political rallies, and a Supreme Court justice's husband--with a dose of history
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Heather Horn

To pass the time as the nation waited for the DOMA decision last week, the Court-watcher superhub SCOTUSblog, staffed by seasoned court reporters and lawyers, took questions from readers. Do the clerks stay to hear the decisions? Can Ruth Bader Ginsburg really do twenty pushups? Is a decision really coming today?

"Has anyone perused the SCOTUS cookbook?" asked one reader. "Is it worth the $25?"

"The stories about Marty Ginsburg, Justice Ginsburg, are worth way more than $25," answered SCOTUSblog editor Amy Howe. But the book received other endorsements as well.

"I had the opportunity to interview Justice Ginsburg serveral times in 2004-2005," wrote in another reader who'd been watching the liveblog, "and each time Prof. Marty Ginsburg would bake us his lemon poppy-seed pound cake to eat during the interview. The man could really bake."

I don't need to be told twice to acquire a niche cookbook. Once The Atlantic's legal analysts had filed their takes on the cases of the day, and the crush was over, off I was to the Supreme Court gift shop.

For those who followed the last two weeks of the Court's term closely, the spiral-bound collection is bound to fascinate for at least one reason. It's not just that the book--a selection of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's husband's recipes, which he apparently often made for the Supreme Court spouses at their lunches--contains stories about a remarkable man and an exceptional marriage. It's not just that it provides an unusual angle from which to consider the individuals who make such tremendous decisions, and the families that support them. Nor still is it that the recipes are genuinely good, as I quickly discovered testing them. No, what Court-watchers of the past weeks will notice is that the book was put together by Martha-Ann Alito, the wife of Justice Alito, who was recently criticized for apparent rudeness to Justice Ginsburg as she read her Voting Rights Act dissent. The Supreme Court may have its moments of discord, but these recipes and stories were collected by Justice Alito's wife in memory of Justice Ginsburg's husband, "on behalf of the Supreme Court spouses."

In this regard, Chef Supreme: Martin Ginsburg is only a more recent example in the rich tradition of recipe collections in our nation's capitol: Food, and particularly specific recipes, have long been a vehicle for the expression of broader American identity in Washington, D.C., and the collection of them has long transcended the divides republican government definitionally produces. For July 4th, it's a relatively simple task to resurface some of those old recipes and their collectors. Let's begin with a recipe from the man who drafted the document July 4th celebrates.

"Jefferson's recipes," the late food writer Richard Sax noted in his Classic Home Desserts, "some recorded by his chef Julien, and many gathered by his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, are so carefully written that you can cook from them with complete success." And people have: Sax points out that President George Bush's luncheon for Queen Elizabeth in 1991 featured macaroons made from the Jefferson household's original recipe. History does not record whether the British monarchy found Jefferson more to its taste in 1991 than in 1776.

Other founding fathers may also be remembered in re-created desserts. The staff at Mount Vernon, George Washington's well-preserved home, have issued a modernization of Martha Washington's "great cake" recipe, originally requiring 40 eggs and 4 pounds of butter.

To commune with the common man, today's bakers can easily re-create "Election Cake," a generic name for a panettone-like yolk- and butter-enriched bread with dried fruit. Sax suggests the cakes were "served at Militia Day fairs after the American Revolution," and Greg Patent in Baking in America writes the cake "was so good that it was supposedly used to bribe voters." It was showing up in magazines in the mid-19th century. If turn-of-the-century cooking is more your style, try a re-creation of a Washington Pie from the 1904 White House Cook Book. A few years back, P.J. Hamel tested and updated the recipe instructions, posting the results on the excellent blog run by King Arthur Flour, the United States' oldest flour company. Anyone now can produce the layered, creamy cake, which resembles a Boston Cream Pie without the chocolate frosting.

Moving forward a decade or so to peruse The Congressional Club Cook Book of 1927, one may find an amusingly sparse recipe for Indian Pudding from Teddy Roosevelt's widow, who credits it to her grandmother:

3 pints of scalded milk.

7 tablespoons of Indian meal. Stirred well together while hot.

When it is cold add 5 eggs, ½ pound raisins, 4 ounces butter. Spice and sugar to your taste.

Cooking time and temperature? You're on your own. The other Indian Pudding recipes around it, from the wives of New England Republicans Representative Frothingham, Senator Gillett (fun fact: Gillett proposed an anti-polygamy amendment to the Constitution in 1914), Senator McLean, and Senator Metcalf, are all much more detailed, and include specific instructions for spices and for molasses, without which Indian Pudding these days is barely recognizable as Indian Pudding.

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The book also contains Grace Coolidge's recipe for corn muffins, notable for two reasons: first, because Mrs. Coolidge says it will make 14 muffins, which will give modern bakers a chuckle (but don't believe her: with modern tins, it's a scant 12); second, because in 1932 the Pulitzer Prize would be awarded to the goofy Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing, in which a crucial plot point consists of the president falling in love with and marrying a woman for her corn muffins. "Who cares about corn muffins?" pouts the Southern belle his committee has selected for him to wed instead. "All I demand is justice!" The Gershwin experts I asked about the coincidence knew of no evidence that Grace Coolidge was the inspiration here, though one, Philip Furia , encouraged further digging. "Please do pursue this," he wrote, "because it would illuminate what for me is still a very odd moment in the libretto."

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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