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Posts tagged ‘Abraham Lincoln’

Inaugural Suppers

Last week’s post on feasting, thanksgiving, and national identities made me think about inaugural dinners. In the United States they’ve become not only a statement on the kind of administration the new president hopes to usher in, but also a reflection of the country’s concerns and preoccupations at that moment. They’re a kind of culinary state of the nation address. In an excellent article on inaugural suppers, Andrew F. Smith describes Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to choose a menu in keeping with wartime austerity. His cook

offered an austere, ration-conscious ‘ladies’ lunch’ of cold chicken salad, rolls (no butter), cake (no frosting) and coffee (no sugar). To make matters worse, some of the chicken had spoiled and had to be thrown out. George Jessel, the luncheon’s toastmaster, posed the question, ‘How is it humanly possible to make chicken salad with so much celery and so little chicken?’

With a nod to his folksy appeal to American voters, Bill Clinton’s menu was described as a ‘cross between a state dinner at the White House and a traditional Arkansas Raccoon Supper’. Barak Obama’s menu deliberately paid homage to Abraham Lincoln, whose reputation as a conciliator Obama hoped to emulate, and in commemoration of the bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth. Presumably, though, Obama didn’t intend to replicate the shambles of Lincoln’s own inaugural dinner.

Lincoln’s inaugural committee had planned a lavish midnight buffet for the inaugural ball: terrapin stew, leg of veal, beef a l’anglais, foie gras, pate, cream candies, fruit ices, tarts, cakes and more. The venue was the Patent Office, which had two spacious halls for dancing and dining. The buffet was set out in a corridor where patent models were displayed. When the grand supper was announced, after several hours of dancing, the crowd rushed the table and people began grabbing, pushing and stuffing themselves shamelessly. In a matter of minutes, the sumptuous buffet was a shambles – as were several of the patent exhibits.

Oh dear. We know that Obama’s lunch went well, but I’m more interested in the fuss that it caused. The menu was printed in newspapers and generated huge amounts of discussion – the Guardian even usefully provided recipes for the lunch.

It opens with a stew of sea scallops, shrimp, lobster and black cod in a cream sauce, baked in a terrine covered with a puff pastry…. Following that, the 230 guests will be served a winter veg medley of asparagus, carrots, brussels sprouts and wax beans, and a ‘brace of American birds,’ duck and pheasant…. For dessert, they’ll have a quintessentially American flavour, a cinnamon apple sponge cake.

I imagine that branches of Waitrose in north London were sure to stock up on scallops, lobster, cod, duck, pheasant, and heirloom apples before being inundated by enthusiastic Guardianistas recreating the President’s first lunch. This menu, with its emphasis on simple, unprocessed food harking back to homely, ‘honest’ meals based on seasonal, ‘whole’ produce suggests a presidency aware of the country’s economic crisis, and committed to responding to the concerns of ‘ordinary’ Americans.

A very quick internet search has revealed very little about South African inaugural dinners. Considering that since 1994, presidential inaugurations here are imbued with an incredibly strong symbolism, it’s odd that the only menu I could find was for Jacob Zuma’s inauguration in 2008. I wasn’t in the country at the time, but I can’t remember much fuss about his choice of dinner – and the same goes for the inaugurations of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

So this is what Zuma served:

Canapés

Cucumber topped with smoked snoek pate and lemon caviar.

Entree

Dullstroom trout wrapped in lettuce, citrus segments, lemon aioli, and dill served with an avocado salsa.

Palate Cleanser

Prickly-pear and fresh-ginger sorbet,

Main Course

A trio of meats: Peppered beef fillet, lamb cutlet, chicken breast stuffed with Peppadew, served with African dumplings and a thyme and berry sauce, spinach and steamed root vegetables.

Dessert

Mini malva pudding served with a chocolate potjie filled with tropical fruit, accompanied by slices of milk tart, finished off with a berry compote.

Well, ho hum. Putting together a menu for an occasion such as this, where the chef has to cater for a variety of dietary requirements is always tricky. Here, the caterers have played safe: the only recognisably South African dishes on the menu – malva pudding, milk tart, and snoek pate – are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and they’ve emphasised South African produce – Dullstroom trout, avocadoes, prickly pear, and Peppadews – rather than South African cuisines. The dumplings and spinach hint at traditional African cooking, and there are gestures towards Cape cuisine in the snoek pate and puddings. Otherwise, this is a menu that could be found in any half-decent restaurant anywhere in the world.

Fyndraai Restaurant at Solms Delta

I wonder if this hesitancy to embrace South African cooking – and we have lots of it – is connected to the fact that we’ve only recently begun to see local cuisines popping up in good restaurants. In the Cape, ‘traditional’ cooking remains the preserve of restaurants like the Volkskombuis in Stellenbosch and Cass Abrahams’s De Waterblommetjie at the Castle (now sadly closed). I like these restaurants and they’re really good at what they do (or did), but their cooking is of a time: it’s the heavy, relatively simple cooking of guidebooks to the Cape, and old-fashioned recipe books on Cape delicacies. And until around about now, we’ve seen local cooking as an ‘experience’ had at these kinds of restaurants.

But things are changing: the amazing Marianna’s in Stanford, as well as Fyndraai Restaurant at Solms Delta and, to a lesser extent, Babylonstoren, know Cape cooking well, and incorporate it into the menus. Why, though, should we care? These are all relatively – and in the case of Babylonstoren, nose-bleedingly – expensive restaurants which only a tiny number of South Africans and tourists will ever visit. So, no, there’s no overwhelming moral imperative to cook Cape (or South African).

I think, though, that it’s worth thinking about how we used to cook as a guide for eating seasonally and locally. A knowledge of these cuisines draws our attention to what grows – and lives – most easily in the regions in which we live. It makes us think more closely about the connection between what we put on our plates, and the farmers who produce our food. In a sense, it helps us to reinsert ourselves into a food chain.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

First Feasts

I have a long association with Canadian delicacies: I was once locked in a basement with a fellow South African and made to make poutine for a gathering of homesick Canadians. (In due course, I’ll claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience.) In fact, the only Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever eaten was a Canadian Thanksgiving meal at the Maple Leaf pub in London. Although held on the second Monday of October and seen as more of a harvest festival than a celebration of the founding of a nation, it’s fairly similar to the American Thanksgiving: it features turkey, pumpkin pie, and contact sport, although ice hockey rather than American football.

My Canadian friends were surprised to hear that South Africans don’t have a similar celebration, and given that this country has never lacked for nationalist movements, this does seem a strange omission. Particularly during the 1930s, Afrikaner culture brokers invented an Afrikaner history and tradition – transforming the Great Trek into a defining moment in Afrikaner history, for example. Jan van Riebeeck described the first formal dinner held by Dutch East India Company (DEIC) officials in the Cape in 1652, and it strikes me as odd that this ‘first feast’ was not turned into an annual event, celebrating the arrival of European settlement in South Africa. C. Louis Leipoldt, a key figure in Afrikaner cultural politics during the 1930s, was certainly interested in the history of Cape cookery, publishing on the subject and assembling a vast collection of sources on colonial cuisine. (The collection is now held by the South African Library in Cape Town.) I’ll devote more space to Afrikaner nationalism and South African food and cooking in the future, but I think that this is a good moment to begin thinking about the absence of a South African thanksgiving.

In October 1652, nearly six months after landing in Table Bay, the employees of the DEIC stationed at the Cape held a farewell dinner for a group of visiting Company officials, and Jan van Riebeeck, the Company’s first commander at the Cape was at pains to describe the menu:

Everything on the table was produced at the Cape: the fowls were reared here, new green peas, spinach, chervil, pot-herbs, asparagus (a finger’s thickness) and lettuce as hard as cabbage and weighing at least 1¼ lbs each.

Van Riebeek didn’t go on to explain how these ingredients were prepared, but it’s reasonable to assume that his cook did his best to replicate the cooking of the Netherlands. Considering that these European settlers had eaten – and liked – hippopotamus and had had some contact with the indigenous population, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect them to include some more obviously African ingredients in their feast. However, this feast was more than a meal: its purpose exceeded simply providing a group of DEIC employees with dinner.

Jeffrey Pilcher describes the first – and considerably more elaborate – feast held by the Spanish in Mexico in 1538: ‘the food was strictly European. …tables loaded with salads, hams, roasted kid, marinated partridge, stuffed chickens, quail pies, torta real, and for the servants, a whole roasted oxen stuffed with chicken, quail, and doves.’ The occasion commemorated a peace treaty signed between the kings of Spain and France, and the feast celebrated this union of European power: it was a manifestation of Europe’s wealth and, in the views of the conquistadores, cultural superiority.

Similarly, the inclusion of local ingredients or aspects of Khoikhoi cuisine would have been seen to undermine the authority of European settlement in the Cape. Indeed, Van Riebeeck referred frequently to the apparent Khoikhoi enthusiasm for bread, and suggested that bread could be used in exchange for cattle. As in colonial Mexico where the Spanish attempted to replace maize tortillas with wheat bread, for the Dutch in the Cape, bread represented civilised European values. It was, in their view, inevitable that the Khoikhoi should like it.

In contrast, American Thanksgiving features a combination of European and North American ingredients, with an emphasis on the latter. The feast is supposed to commemorate a dinner in 1621 held by the Pilgrims to thank a group of Native Americans who gave them pumpkins and turkeys to ward off starvation over the course of a harsh winter. This almost certainly never occurred: Thanksgiving was an invention of the nineteenth century. Annual thanksgiving, harvest, and homecoming feasts had been a feature of life in the northeastern parts of the United States since the seventeenth century. These local celebrations became the national Thanksgiving largely as a result of the campaigning efforts of the novelist and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who had described a thanksgiving feast featuring Pilgrims and Native Americans in her novel Northwood (1827). From 1846 onwards, she used her wildly popular women’s magazines to popularise the idea of Thanksgiving as a ‘Great American Festival’. Realising its capacity to draw Americans together in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 'The First Thanksgiving, 1621' (1919)

Thanksgiving’s enduring popularity is partly due to the fact that it celebrates a rather nebulous ‘Americanness’: it can be a festival celebrating American power, family values, multiculturalism, and egalitarianism. Its evolving menu is reflective of this: alongside turkey and pumpkin pie are dishes which originate from the American south, like pecan pie and sweet potatoes with marshmallows (yes, really), and green bean casserole, which is the product of the dominance of processed food in American cooking. It can be all things to most people – it’s also been declared a day of national mourning by some Native American groups.

I think that Afrikaner nationalism’s failure to create a similar thanksgiving festival stems from a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that this was an exclusive nationalism which celebrated the triumph of Afrikaners over South Africa’s indigenous populations. A feast which included elements of African – or even Indian or Malay – cuisine would undermine this. Also, Afrikaner nationalism featured a strong streak of cultural insecurity, and tended to look to Europe for a guide to all things ‘civilised’. Nationalist cookery books provided recipes for vetkoek, boerewors, biltong and other delicacies, but within the context of a cuisine which grounded itself in European food traditions.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Other sources:

Matthew Dennis, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Godfrey Hodgson, A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).

Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature, and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class, and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987), pp. 95-123.

C. Louis Leipoldt, Leipoldt’s Food and Wine, eds. T.S. Emslie and P.L. Murray (Cape Town: Stonewall Books, 2003).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Elizabeth Pleck, ‘The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 4 (Summer, 1999), pp. 773-789.

Andrew F. Smith, ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ Gastronomica, vol. 3, no. 4 (Autumn 2003), pp. 79-85.

Anne Blue Wills, ‘Pilgrims and Progress: How Magazines Made Thanksgiving,’ Church History, vol. 72, no. 1 (March 2003), pp. 138-158.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.