Cooking at the White House wasn’t always the glam job it is today.
Thomas Jefferson’s French chef Honoré Julien – who’d cooked for George Washington, too – wanted to quit upon seeing the kitchen at the White House.
And George Washington placed a want ad for a cook: ”A cook is wanted for the family of the President of the United States,” it said. ”No one need apply who is not perfect in the business, and can bring indubitable testimonials of sobriety, honesty and attention to the duties of the station.” Tavern owner, staunch patriot, and spy Samuel “Black Sam” Fraunces* got the job, probably because Washington knew that the guy could really cook — after all, Fraunces had cooked for the general during the Revolutionary War when Washington and his troops languished in New York.
Washington no doubt knew that if a cook could satisfy men on the edge of hunger, then all would be well in a well-equipped kitchen, at least one well-equipped for the times. No stove appeared in the White House until the Millard Fillmore (who?) presidency, 1850-1853.
So by the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, the kitchen at the White House prepared the elaborate coronation-like meals that the Americans thought they needed to serve to foreign diplomats from Europe. And that explains, at least in part, why Lincoln’s menu featured Boeuf (Beef) à la Mode.
In Samuel Pepys’s diary [Diaries (Pepys), 1667], Pepys described visiting “a French house to dinner,” where the table was “covered, and clean glasses … and a mess of pottage first, and then a piece of boeuf-a–la–mode, all exceeding, well seasoned, and to our great liking.”
The truth of the matter is, recipes for Beef à la Mode appeared in the several English cookbooks so popular in the new United States for almost 100 years prior to Lincoln’s inaugural dinner, although evidence suggests that the recipe under a less glossy name was popular and pervasive in England and France for centuries. Hannah Glasse included it in her 1747 classic, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, the cookbook that underlies most of the earliest American cookbooks. Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, first published in England in 1727, contains a recipe for “beef alamode,” though her recipe title actually reads as “To Stew a Rump of Beef.” In 1742, William Parks — a printer in Williamsburg, Virginia — printed Smith’s book in what we today would call a pirated version. The author of the first truly American cookbook, Amelia Simmons, provided three different recipes in her American Cookery, 1796, and Mary Randolph included “Beef-A-La-Mode” in her well-used 1824 cookbook, The Virginia House-wife.
Meanwhile, in England, Mrs. Isabella Beeton wrote her Book of Household Management (1861) with two recipes for Beef a la Mode, one “economical” and the other full-bore expensive.
An official definition is in order:
|1.||in or according to the fashion.|
In other words, Beef à la Mode, despite being dressed up with a fancy French name, was nothing more than pot roast cooked with a touch of wine.
No one knows exactly what Beef à la Mode recipe Lincoln’s caterers used for that dinner on March 6, 1865. But the following recipe from Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management no doubt comes close because Mrs. Beeton’s book may well have been enough of a novelty at the time to entice Mary Lincoln to request the recipe for the dinner:
BEEF A LA MODE.
602. INGREDIENTS.-6 or 7 lbs. of the thick flank of beef, a few slices of fat bacon, 1 teacupful of vinegar, black pepper, allspice, 2 cloves well mixed and finely pounded, making altogether 1 heaped teaspoonful; salt to taste, 1 bunch of savoury herbs, including parsley, all finely minced and well mixed; 3 onions, 2 large carrots, 1 turnip, 1 head of celery, 1-1/2 pint of water, 1 glass of port wine.
Mode.-Slice and fry the onions of a pale brown, and cut up the other vegetables in small pieces, and prepare the beef for stewing in the following manner:-Choose a fine piece of beef, cut the bacon into long slices, about an inch in thickness, dip them into vinegar, and then into a little of the above seasoning of spice, &c., mixed with the same quantity of minced herbs. With a sharp knife make holes deep enough to let in the bacon; then rub the beef over with the remainder of the seasoning and herbs, and bind it up in a nice shape with tape. Have ready a well-tinned stewpan (it should not be much larger than the piece of meat you are cooking), into which put the beef, with the vegetables, vinegar, and water. Let it simmer very gently for 5 hours, or rather longer, should the meat not be extremely tender, and turn it once or twice. When ready to serve, take out the beef, remove the tape, and put it on a hot dish. Skim off every particle of fat from the gravy, add the port wine, just let it boil, pour it over the beef, and it is ready to serve. Great care must be taken that this does not boil fast, or the meat will be tough and tasteless; it should only just bubble. When convenient, all kinds of stews, &c., should be cooked on a hot-plate, as the process is so much more gradual than on an open fire.
Time.-5 hours, or rather more.
Average cost, 7d. per lb.
Sufficient for 7 or 8 persons.
Seasonable all the year, but more suitable for a winter dish.
GOOD MEAT.-The lyer of meat when freshly killed, and the animal, when slaughtered, being in a state of perfect health, adheres firmly to the bones. Beef of the best quality is of a deep-red colour; and when the animal has approached maturity, and been well fed, the lean is intermixed with fat, giving it the mottled appearance which is so much esteemed. It is also full of juice, which resembles in colour claret wine. The fat of the best beef is of a firm and waxy consistency, of a colour resembling that of the finest grass butter; bright in appearance, neither greasy nor friable to the touch, but moderately unctuous, in a medium degree between the last-mentioned properties.
Basically, it’s beef stew we’re exclaiming over here. But Beef à la Mode sounds better, more sophisticated, doesn’t it?
*See this article about Samuel Fraunces’s background, a background which is in dispute on many levels.
© 2016 C. Bertelsen