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Presidential Food Book Display at Main Reading Room Open House

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Today’s post is authored by Constance Carter, head of the science reference section. Connie has written for Inside Adams before- see her posts on Presidential Wheels, Civil War Thanksgiving Foods,  Food Thrift, the Chocolate Chip Cookie, LC Science Tracer Bullets, and her mentor Ruth S. Freitag.

The Old Kitchen in Cottage of John & Abigail Adams
The Old Kitchen in Cottage of John & Abigail Adams

On the 16th of February, in honor of George Washington’s birthday (aka Presidents Day), you may want to stop by the Library of Congress Main Reading Room Open House from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to view items selected from the Library of Congress collections. One of the collections that you will be able to peruse are books related to presidential food that describe favorite recipes of first families or reminiscences of White House butlers, chefs, and housekeepers.  There will be copies of Presidential Fooda 9-page resource guide–available, as well as titles that will appeal to the younger readers.

One of the books on display will be a recent addition to the Library’s cookery collections- The Culinary Lives of John and Abigail Adams: A Cookbook by Rosana Wan (Schiffer Publishing, 2014). Wan, a park ranger at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts, draws heavily on the correspondence of John and Abigail, which should be of great interest to presidential and culinary historians alike.

While John and Abigail’s gastronomic adventures may begin in Massachusetts, their travels to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, as well as to Europe, afforded them an opportunity to partake of a variety of cuisines.  Their correspondence was sprinkled with references to food, as were entries in diaries.  Wan notes, “On September 7, 1774, John Adams wrote in his diary:

Dined with Mr. Miers Fisher … this plain Friend, and his plain, tho pretty Wife, with her Thee’s and Thou’s, had provided us the most Costly Entertainment–Ducks, Hams, Chickens, Beef, Pigg, Tarts, Creams, Custards, Gellies, fools, Trifles, floating Islands, Beer, Porter, Punch, Wine …

John Adams, residence in Quincy, Massachusetts. John Adams and John Quincy Adams, dining room . From the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection , 1961
John Adams, residence in Quincy, Massachusetts. John Adams and John Quincy Adams, dining room . From the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection , 1961

A short diary entry on November 18, 1777 Adams writes:

…dined at Fish Kill … it was a feast–Salt Pork and Cabbage, roast Beef and Potatoes, and a noble suit Pudding, Grog, and a glass of Port.

As the wife of the vice-president, Abigail was dismayed at the prices of produce in New York and noted in a November 10, 1789 letter to John Adams:

it really would have been worthwhile to have brought our vegetables in Boston.  Potatoes particularly for they are at 9 shilling a Bushel by the Quantity, turnips at 1/6. Malt is an other article, that I should have been glad to have had 6 Bushel of, but I fear I am too late for Barnard.

To lessen the family’s expenses, Abigail sometimes purchased vegetables from local farmers.

White House kitchen , c1904.
White House kitchen , c1904.

When John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in November of 1800, it was still incomplete.  The fireplaces were without wood, and according to Poppy Cannon’s The Presidents’ Cookbook (1968), “Abigail had to chop wood and keep a fire going constantly in every room.” There were scarcely any lamps, no outside steps, and no water supply.  Yet on New Year’s Day 1801, Abigail welcomed crowds of well-wishers to the White House. According to Cannon, the reception was beautifully organized.  “Tea, coffee, punch and wine were served … cakes and tarts … curds, creams, trifles, floating island, syllabub, sweetmeats, and assorted fruits graced the tables and were passed among the guests.”

Librarians and curators will be serving up the Library’s collections from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 16th at the Main Reading Room Open House in honor of Washington’s Birthday (aka Presidents Day). We look forward to talking to you about the Library and its collections.


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