In the 150 years since Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, he has become a nearly mythic figure, a larger-than-life hero who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most revered leaders of history. But all this mythologizing sometimes makes it hard to see the man behind the legend. For example, what did Lincoln like to eat? On the anniversary of his death, we take a look back at Lincoln through a culinary lens: what he liked to eat, how he viewed food, the delicacies served at his second inaugural celebration—and finally, what may have been on the table the night he died.
Food as Fuel
By many accounts, Lincoln was not a gourmand—he liked simple food, and seems to have viewed food as a source of necessary energy rather than of pleasure. During his presidency, nourishing himself certainly took a backseat to the more pressing duties he faced as the commander in chief of a nation mired in the Civil War—as evidenced by his increasingly gaunt frame.
According to John Hay, one of Lincoln’s private secretaries in the White House, Lincoln “was one of the most abstemious of men; the pleasures of the table had few attractions for him.” Hay, who ate with Lincoln occasionally, noted that the president enjoyed a good hot cup of coffee, and would sometimes make breakfast of that with a single egg. His lunch was usually not much more than a biscuit and some fruit, with a glass of milk, while at dinner he “ate sparingly of one or two courses.” Hay concluded that Lincoln “ate less than anyone I know.”
When Lincoln did eat, he apparently enjoyed simple food such as corned beef and cabbage, cornpone and chicken fricassee—these were the kinds of dishes Mary Todd Lincoln would have prepared for her family back in Springfield. Rae Katherine Eighmey writes in “Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen” that Mrs. Lincoln asked one of the White House cooks if she knew how to prepare “chicken fricassee with gravy and biscuits to tempt President Lincoln’s appetite when the stresses of office kept him from eating.”
The Second Inaugural
This kind of simple fare would have been quite a contrast to the menu from Lincoln’s second inaugural celebration in March 1865. At that grand affair, held on the top floor of the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C.—currently the site of the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum—the buffet dinner was served on a table some 250 feet long. Four thousand guests dined on a selection of delicacies largely inspired by French cuisine: beef à-la-mode, patê de foie gras (misspelled “patête” on the menu) and smoked tongue en gelée. Alongside this French feast, the bill of fare also boasted some wholly American twists, such as roast turkey, pickled oysters and oyster stew.
Also on the menu that night were “Ornamental Pyramides” in coconut, orange and caramel, among other flavors. According to an anonymous eyewitness account published in the New York Times, three of these sugar sculptures dominated the table: a miniature version of the Capitol; a depiction of Admiral David Farragut on the mast of his flagship, the USS Hartford; and a model of the Battle of Fort Sumter.
President and Mrs. Lincoln arrived at 10:30 p.m., and dinner wasn’t served until close to midnight, at which point the revelers charged the lavish spread. Chaos ensued, and “in less than an hour the table was a wreck,” the Times correspondent reported. “As much was wasted as was eaten, and however much may have been provided more than half the guests went supperless.” Despite this, it seems to have been an epic party: Lincoln and his wife reportedly stayed at the event for three hours, but the guests kept dancing all night.
That Fateful Night
In her book “Team of Rivals,” Doris Kearns Goodwin relates that on the evening of April 14, 1865—Good Friday—Abraham Lincoln sat with several friends, including Governor Richard Oglesby of Illinois. The president was reading aloud to them from “some humorous book,” as Oglesby later recalled. “They got to calling him to dinner. He promised each time to go, but would continue reading the book. Finally, he got a sort of peremptory order that he must come to dinner at once.”
Dinner that night lasted from around 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., according to the chronology presented by Edward Steers in “Blood on the Moon,” his book on the Lincoln assassination. What was on the menu? Andrew Caldwell, author of “Their Last Suppers: Legends of History and Their Final Meals,” suggests mock turtle soup, roast Virginia fowl with chestnut stuffing, baked yams and cauliflower with cheese sauce as the doomed president’s last meal. While these might have been dishes typical to Lincoln’s time, Caldwell doesn’t cite his source for this last supper, so it’s difficult to confirm its historical accuracy.
According to Steers, who provides an otherwise thorough chronology of Lincoln’s final hours, the substance of that Good Friday dinner is “not known.” Given what we know of Lincoln’s eating habits, however, it seems safe to assume the dinner was simple and spare, like most of his other meals. Whether it was turtle soup and veal, corned beef and cabbage or his favorite—chicken fricassee—it appears Lincoln’s last meal may be lost to history.
Lincoln and his wife dined alone, Steers presumes, because their son Robert retired early that night due to exhaustion from the activity surrounding the recent Confederate surrender at Appomattox. (Robert was an officer on General U.S. Grant’s staff.) After dinner, Lincoln met with Schuyler Colfax, speaker of the House of Representatives, and it was after 8 p.m. when he and Mary entered their carriage to drive to Ford’s Theatre.