Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Tacuinum Sanitatis

Yesterday brought temperatures in the low 70s,
and the change in humidity made the sidewalks and pavement weep moisture
until it looked like they had all been rained on.
And the wind ... the wind blew furiously from late morning deep into the night.
And then the real rain started.
 So I had checked the weather online earlier in the evening,
then googled the word "wind" to see what I might find.

I wasn't looking for much more than the speed of the gusts
or how long the wind was projected to last.
Instead, in one of those inextricable instances of serendipity, 
"wind" was mentioned in reference to a codex (ancient book) 
that I had never heard of before: Tacuinum Sanitatis.

cabbage harvest image from Tacuinum Sanitatus,

According to, this collection was originally written in Arabic 
by Ibn Butlan in Baghdad in 1098
under the title of Taqwim al-sihha, تقويم الصحة 
meaning "maintenance of health."
It was later translated into Latin in the 13th century.
Its 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts form a medieval "how-to" 
for preserving health and well-being.

photo from

The Tacuinum focuses on six habits: moderation in food and drink,
fresh air, alternating rest with movement, 
alternating sleep with wakefulness,
balance of emotions, and balance of the four "humours": hot, dry, cold, moist.
Illnesses are said to occur when any of these six are out of balance.
The volumes in the collection are part herbal, part cookbook, 
and part advice column.
One bit of advice cited by,
a bookseller of reproductions of ancient manuscripts:
elderly people should eat large raisins in the winter
because they alleviate intestinal pains and strengthen the liver and stomach.
I don't know if that works,
but I don't suppose it would hurt--in moderation, of course.

Tomorrow, more wisdom from the Tacuinum Sanitatis.
                                                > tacuinum sanitatis

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Touch of Frost

Bad poetry is like a clanging bell or a persistent case of tinnitus.
It is perpetually annoying.
Good poetry slows down the spinning gears in our brains,
and offers a moment for quiet and reflection.
But great poetry,  great poetry admits the spirit to a peaceful place,
one that exists somewhere in the spaces between raindrops or snowflakes.

I especially like the writings of Gibran, Tagore, Thoreau, and Robert Frost,
mainly because they seem to understand better than most 
the silent and enduring nexus between nature and spirit.

January 29th, just yesterday, was the 50th anniversary of Robert Frost's death.
I'm not sure which I find more disquieting, that he's gone,
or that he's been gone fifty years now 
but I was around to see him on television during the Kennedy presidency.
Photo Credit:  Associated Press

Anyway, today's a good day to celebrate Frost's poetic gifts
by revisiting some of his verses.
One of his better known is "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
which contains the following lines, 
the last two said to have been often quoted by President John Kennedy
at the end of his campaign speeches:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep ...

photo courtesy of

Another Frost poem, "War Thoughts at Home" was written in 1918 during WWI 
and discovered in 2006 in the cover of a friend's book,
part of a collection donated to the University of Virginia.
Although the poem is steeped in melancholy and overtones of regret,
the beginning stanzas give a glimpse into a quiet winter day:

On the backside of the house
Where it wears no paint to the weather
And so shows most its age,
Suddenly blue jays rage
And flash in blue feather.

It is late in an afternoon
More gray with snow to fall
Than white with fallen snow
When it is blue jay or crow
Or no bird at all.
By far, my favorite Frost poem is one lesser known,
kind of a poetic "road less traveled."
It's called "Asking for Roses."
I've shared these lines before, but I like them so much, I'm including them again.
The words are deeply meaningful for me,
but I leave it to each reader to measure the words for themselves:

A flower unplucked is but left to the falling,
and nothing is gained by not gathering roses ...


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ice Flowers

Most of the snow disappeared yesterday
while a few hat-less, slushy snowmen stood watch
over the shady spots still blanketed in white.
The weather warmed and is to continue warming
 until we reach a balmy 70 degrees later in the week.
Early predictions for the weekend?
More winter snow. 

photo courtesy of

Oh yes, just when it looks like winter is departing,
January's frostiness gives way to February's ... frostiness.
Winter will be reasserting itself, I guess, determined to stay until Spring
finally shoves its way onto the stage sometime in March.
So let's talk ice flowers.

snowflake photo courtesy of

The term "ice flowers" is from Kenneth G. Libbrecht,
professor of physics at CalTech, snowflake researcher and microphotographer,
 and author of the book "The Snowflake."
Dr. Libbrecht tells us that snowflakes come in a number of shapes and sizes,
including prisms, stars, hexagonal crystals, star-like dendrites, fern-like dendrites,
hollow columns, and capped columns like the one in this next photo,
which I am amazed by:

snowflake photo courtesy of

Click here: types of snowflake shapes for more types, including 12-pointed stars.
Click on this next link to see more snowflakes:  "Snowflake Gallery."

snowflake photo courtesy of

The hidden beauty of these snowflakes
 reminds me of a quote from Dale Carnegie,
the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People:

Two men looked out from prison bars,
One saw the mud, the other saw the stars.

It is amazing that snow, our beautiful nuisance,
is comprised of sifting, drifting works of crystalline art.
So next time it snows, 
I hope I will remember to see the "stars" instead of the "mud."
And if I'm lucky, I'll gather a few ice flowers.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Biggest Snowflake

A joke in my family is that we always have to start any conversation
by first talking about the weather.
I suppose that comes from our earlier generations living close to the land
and depending on it for their livelihood.
While this doesn't explain  
my natural aversion to winter and cold,
it may explain my need to ponder the weather and to talk about it.

I've noticed that since the snow stopped falling here on Friday night,
 large expanses of it remain on the grass and rooftops.
We experienced a slight warm up to the low 30s Sunday,
but nightfall continues to bring below freezing temperatures.
This morning we were greeted with some freezing rain.
Winter cold lingers here but that's not typical for recent decades.

 Tidewater winters are usually mild
with average daytime temperatures around 48 degrees
and night time lows just at freezing or above.
Nowadays, it's not often that the temperature stays
below freezing for so many days.
So I'm less than pleased that I find myself
in a winter wonderland of snow and ice.

photo courtesy of

However, I read something yesterday
 that made me thankful for the weather we have.
That is the story of the biggest snowflake on record,
which just happened to fall one hundred twenty-six years ago today,
on January 28, 1887 at Fort Keogh along the Yellowstone River
in Custer County, present day Montana.

According to Kim Briggeman, writing for the,
a "Siberian Express" winter storm blew in on the day in question,
rapidly dropping the temperature to an arctic 65 degrees below zero.
And in this storm, a rancher found a snowflake 
that measured 15 inches wide by 8 inches thick.
Now that is a snowflake I wouldn't want to meet on a dark night.

While this big boy was definitely an anomaly,
 larger-than-life snowflakes may be more common than people may realize.
Tomorrow, a glimpse at some more memorable snowflakes.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Ouroboros

The other evening as I was driving home,
the sky was filled with long expanses of dark stratus clouds.
They stretched across the horizon as far as I could see.
I can't remember ever seeing such long, 
narrow charcoal-gray clouds striping the sky before.
One of the long clouds directly ahead of me
 looked just like a snake with its mouth wide open.
Not only that, this cloud snake
looked like it was about to eat the tail of the long cloud in front of it.
photo courtesy of

 I remembered reading about a snake eating its own tail as a symbol in astrology,
but couldn't remember much more.
I did a little research and learned this symbol is called the ouroboros, 
and it is described in detail in the article
"The Ouroboros as an Auroral Phenomenon"
by Marinus Anthony van der Sluijs and Anthony L. Peratt,
published in the January 1, 2009 edition of the Journal of Folklore.
According to the authors, the snake-eating-its-tail symbol, "the circular snake,"
dates back several thousand years BCE.
I find it remarkable that it is a symbol shared by ancient cultures all over the world,
including China, Egypt, Persia, South America, and equatorial Africa.
In some cultures, the ouroboros symbolizes unity and eternity;
in others, it symbolizes the protection and stabilization of the earth.
In any case, it sounds like a positive symbol to me.

Ouroboros Line Art

The near-universality of the symbol is a mystery,
but authors van der Sluijs and Peratt attribute it to the possibility 
of a magnificent astral event visible to ancient cultures around the globe.
Something like the southern (aurora australis) 
or northern (aurora borealis) lights, or what they call an auroral ring.
In other words, the ancient cultures related the fantastic astronomical event
to their own physical experience, in this case, a snake.

Wherever the ouroboros came from, and whatever it may mean,
I like that it appeared in the form of a cloud on a winter's evening to guide me home. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Snow Day

Here on "the Southside" of Tidewater/Hampton Roads,
we experienced our first big snow day on Friday--
and by big snow day, I mean an inch or two.

Some winters bring us snowfall, but many do not.
So when Southeastern Virginia gets some snow, it's a big deal.
Traffic jams, crowded grocery stores, school cancellations,
early closings--all are part of a snow day in the Shire.

When I got home Friday, just ahead of the heaviest of the snow,
I baked cookies and watched the juncos and cardinals 
feeding at the feeders.
Snow always brings juncos, 
but they don't often show up at feeding stations otherwise.
Their arrival with the snow is a delight, yet a mystery to me.
I mean, where have they been all this time?
Even so, seeing birds feeding in the soft falling snow
makes a chilly winter's day special.

So in honor of our first snow day,
a poem by Robert Frost:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I rued.

Sometimes, a little brush with nature is all it takes.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Another Squirrel Story

I know a lot of people consider squirrels a nuisance,
but when they appear in small numbers, 
I enjoy their finer qualities:  grace, charm, agility.
I like their playfulness too.
Not to mention the cutest little faces, stickiest little feet, and the bushiest tails.

I've noticed that sometimes, 
even the mere word "squirrel" evokes a comedic sense.
In those cases, I wonder if it is the influence of the animal or the word. 
Perhaps it's the consonant cluster at the beginning of the word. 
That "skw" sound followed by the "r" and "l" sounds, called liquids in linguistics,
may just spark some sense of the silly or inane
because of the way we have to contort our lips to say it.
If that's true, it has little to do with the origin of the word, 
which is interesting, but not particularly funny.

photo courtesy of

According to,
the word squirrel came to English from French and Latin,
which borrowed it from Greek skiouros, meaning "shadow-tailed." 
Douglas Harper, who developed the web site,
speculates that the word may have meant
"that which makes shade with its tail."
Sure, why not. 
But I also like the interpretation that squirrels 
move quickly and surreptitiously, like a shadow. 
It makes them a little more mysterious.
This week, I was in a classroom with a window 
that looked out on a small courtyard.
I saw a gray squirrel slip down a small tree near the window
and head for some pansies planted by a door.
The squirrel pawed the leaves, stuck its face into the foliage,
and emerged with two green pansy leaves in its mouth.

I watched as it made its way to the tree.
I wondered if it planned to line its nest 
with some extra insulation against the freezing cold, but no.
The squirrel rested in the valley between the tree's branching trunks
and nibbled the pansy leaves. 
And it may be my imagination, 
but I thought I detected a hint of bliss on its little face.
And that's pretty charming.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Winter's Day

I always thought my loathing of cold and winter 
was unmatched by anyone else.
That is, until I discovered this morose poem 
published in a 1913 collection called
The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Mr. Dunbar really hated winter:

A Winter's Day
Across the hills and down the narrow ways,
And up the valley where the free winds sweep,
The earth is folded in an ermined sleep
That mocks the melting mirth of myriad Mays.
Departed her disheartening duns and grays,
And all her crusty black is covered deep.
Dark streams are locked in Winter's donjon-keep,
And made to shine with keen, unwonted rays.
O icy mantle, and deceitful snow!
What world-old liars in your hearts ye are!
Are there not still the darkened seam and scar
Beneath the brightness that you fain would show?
Come from the cover with thy blot and blur,
O reeking Earth, thou whited sepulchre!

Wow, that's intense. Even I don't hate winter that much. 
Of course, there are other interpretations of Dunbar's poem
besides his uneasiness and frustration with winter.
Maybe his words are an acknowledgment that winter is but an illusion, 
albeit a cruel one.
Or perhaps he's saying that the beauty of snow
obscures the bleak ugliness of the winter landscape
as it lies waiting just below the crystalline surface.
That's the beauty of poetry,
it will always mean different things to different people.

photo courtesy of

But I will concede winter is not all bad.
Yesterday in the Shire, the sun came out and the sky was clear blue.
The temperature remained below freezing,
but I enjoyed seeing the Canadian geese clustered together 
next to the pond as a great blue heron sailed in, 
flapped then folded its wings,
and settled first one foot and then the other in the water.
The geese were unruffled and continued to sun themselves.
It was a pleasant winter scene.

photo courtesy of

Later in the afternoon, along the Hague in downtown Norfolk,
dozens of seagulls huddled together by the water's edge,
their breasts dazzling white in the sun.
Whiter than white, and better than snow,
whatever it might obscure.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Coldest Week of Winter

While driving along a familiar route yesterday afternoon,
I noticed a beautiful flowering almond shrub covered in dark pink blossoms.
It looked beautiful, but oddly out of place 
considering that the temperature had dipped overnight to below freezing.
And unlike recent weeks, the temperature didn't warm up to the 50s by afternoon.
With this unwelcome chill,
my musings about an early spring in yesterday's blog 
proved to be less than prophetic.
Outside: Cold. Cold. Cold.
Inside: Dry Air.
Result: When we get too close, 
my long hair and the pekes' fur rises in the air
and then snaps, crackles, and pops with static electricity.
And I dare not walk across the carpet and touch anything, lest I get a shock.
Although today's weather reporters 
have expanded their prognostications beyond rain, sun, or snow
and cheerily caution us about air quality, pollen counts,
wind chills, heat indexes, and wind gusts,
they don't yet supply us with an index for static electricity.
But they have kindly announced that this week 
will be the coldest one of the winter thus far.
Oh, great. 
And we have weeks to go until Spring.

Yet, I am trying to be more optimistic about things in general,
so I will try not to complain about the cold, 
or if worse comes to worst, ice and snow.
Besides, as I noted yesterday,
Tidewater generally has warmer weather through the winter,
and our 24 degrees this morning is balmy
compared to the below zero temps elsewhere.

photo courtesy of

I once knew an elderly woman named Imogene
who personified graciousness and optimism.
One April, after hints of spring were finally beginning to emerge
following a very long and bitterly cold winter, 
a late season snow fell.
I began to grumble to her about my unhappiness over the prospect of more winter. 
She listened for a moment and then leaned in and said, 
"Oh, but the crocuses will look so beautiful in the snow."
And they did look beautiful in the snow.
But let's face it, beautiful or not,
it was still too cold.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Early Spring: A Confusion of Seasons

Although my Christmas poinsettias, now long-legged and leaf-dropping,
are still hanging on at my house ...
although my cold-weather pansies and snowdrops are full and vigorous ...
even though we are only a few weeks into winter
and still slogging through one of the longest months of the twelve ...
it seems spring is unwilling to wait its turn this year.

Because the Shire is in the southeastern corner of Virginia,
we have the advantage of warming ocean breezes
that often save us from the snow and ice visited on other areas.
But violet-pink henbit peeking over sidewalks in mid-January? 
Golden yellow dandelions dotting green grass?
Tender purple violets soaking up glimpses of sunshine?
All these tell me that spring seems determined to arrive early.

my January violets:

I'm not complaining,
this recent weather seems to have prompted the birds 
to sing in the early morning again.
At night, the sky is clear and the stars sparkle around the bright moon.
But I am concerned that the emerging leaves of iris--now several inches tall-- 
 are vulnerable to winter's continued influence and its killing frosts.
But what can one do to alter such a turn of events?
Not one thing.
Que sera, sera.
If nothing else, these too-early flowers 
are a nice reminder that winter won't last forever.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Calas, Wilson and Ideas for a Presidential Meal

I did a little more research on Zachary Taylor's calas tous chauds,
and found some translations (and a new recipe with less salt).
According to and,
French Quarter street vendors would sell "calas" on Sundays after Mass.
They would shout, "Calas, bels calas tous chauds!"
which means, "Calas, beautiful calas, still hot!"
David Guas, Bayou Bakery in Washington, D.C.
includes a recipe for calas on this web site:,
which thankfully, calls for only 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
The tous chauds part of the mystery is cleared up,
but I still can't find a translation for calas or similar forms.
If anyone knows for sure, enlighten me.

Woodrow Wilson, born in Staunton in Augusta County,
 is the last of the Virginia presidents--so far, that is.
Wilson has always seemed to me a contemporary president,
so it's surprising to realize that he was a child during the American Civil War,
living with his pastor father in Augusta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina
at a time when the region was devastated by the War.

Even though he experienced the antebellum south, if only fleetingly,
under Wilson's presidential leadership
many modern changes were made in the U. S: women's right to vote,
beginning of the American income tax, establishment of the Federal Reserve 
and the Federal Trade Commission, to name a few.
But above all, Wilson worked tirelessly to establish the League of Nations
in hopes of ensuring a lasting peace following World War I.

Photo of Woodrow Wilson
photo of Wilson from

So what foods did "Tommy Wilson," 
as he was known throughout his childhood, enjoy?
The Presidents' Cookbook, cited in The Food Timeline
says that Wilson didn't have that much of an appetite,
and the White House physician was often concerned about his low weight.

Regardless, the Cookbook lists strawberry ice cream,
chicken salad, and a dessert called Charlotte Russe as Wilson's favorites.
Counter to his later antipathy towards food, the Food Timeline says
 Wilson once wrote to friends before visiting them that he was fond of
ham, eggs, homemade biscuits, butter, peach cobbler, and plain white cake.
All of which sounds more appetizing than the breakfast Wilson
supposedly favored later in life: two raw eggs in grapefruit juice--
a concoction that sounds more like an emetic than a meal.


So today, as we celebrate the pageantry of another U. S. inauguration,
here's a menu for a very presidential--and American--day of meals:

Start the day with coffee, Washington's hoecakes, or Taylor's calas tous chauds.
For lunch, how about some of Wilson's chicken salad?
Or if a more substantial meal is in order,
emulate the presidents and serve shad, steak, turkey or ham as the centerpiece.
Anyone who is feeling particularly ambitious
can prepare Monroe's chicken pudding.

Don't forget to serve up some of Jefferson's or Harrison's favorite vegetables:
peas, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, or beets.
And no meal is complete without some of Jefferson's hot bread and butter.

photo courtesy of

Finish the day with desserts favored by Madison
(layer cake, cinnamon cake) or Wilson (peach cobber, strawberry ice cream).
And take a tip from the Tylers and serve Madeira and champagne.
Democracy is worth celebrating, after all.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Zachary Taylor: Creole Food

Virginia can claim Zachary Taylor, the twelfth U. S. president,
as a native son, but just barely.
Taylor was born in Barboursville, Virginia,
which is northeast of Charlottesville,
but soon after his birth, his family moved to the western frontier--
present day Louisville, Kentucky.
Over the years, Taylor owned plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. 
It was in Louisiana that he developed a love of Creole cooking.

daguerrotype photo of Zachary Taylor
 from wikimedia commons

According to The Presidents' Cookbook
cited on the web site The Food Timeline,
one of his favorite Creole dishes was calas tous chauds, 
an unusual rice fritter often served with coffee for breakfast. 

As written, the French name is a bit of a mystery;
it isn't in any of my French language sources.
I do know that tous means "all" and chaud means "warm" or "hot,"
so that's probably as close as I'm going to get to a translation.
If anyone can enlighten me, please do.

To prepare, dissolve a cake of yeast in 1/2 cup of water 
and soak 2 cups of cooked rice in the yeast mixture overnight.
The next morning, add 2 beaten eggs, 4 cups of flour, 
and assuming it's not a misprint,
a whopping 4 tablespoons of salt. 
Dough is left to rise, then it's fried and served with syrup.
I must admit I'm intrigued about how that all comes together,
but with 4 tablespoons of salt, I can't say it sounds that appealing.
The full recipe is on The Food Timeline web site.

As for other foods Taylor enjoyed, 
we know he liked cherries--
a preference which may ultimately have proved his undoing.
On July 4th, 1850, by all accounts a viciously hot and humid day,
President Taylor attended a fundraiser for the Washington Monument
and other Independence Day celebrations (
He walked along the Potomac River and upon his return to the White House,
consumed vast quantities of iced water 
and cherries in an attempt to cool off (

Some accounts say he drank a whole pitcher of iced milk; 
one account says he ate cherries and cucumbers.
Whatever he ate, he fell deathly ill and died five days later. 
Theories include gastroenteritis, cholera, and arsenic poisoning; 
however, a 1991 exhumation found no evidence of poisoning.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in Oxford History of the American People,
cited on, attributes Taylor's death to iatrogenic causes;
that is, death by medical treatment.
Morison says the doctors attending Taylor filled him with
copious amounts of "ipecac, opium, calomel [mercury choloride], and quinine."

Yeah, that would probably do it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Harrison and Tyler: A Short Life and a Young Wife

In keeping with our pre-inaugural series on Virginia presidents
and their favorite dishes, today brings us to William Henry Harrison,
who was the 9th U.S. president, 
and John Tyler, who was Harrison's vice president and successor
to the presidency after Harrison's untimely death.

Photo of William Henry Harrison
Harrison image from

According to*, 
Harrison was born on Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County, 
the son of wealthy Virginia planters. 
He became famous for his leadership during campaigns against 
the Shawnee leader Tecumseh in "the Northwest Territory,"
which in those days was Ohio.
But he lived only a month after being elected president,
succumbing to pneumonia on April 4, 1841.

citing Margaret Brown Klapthor's book The First Ladies Cookbook:
Favorite Recipes of all the Presidents of the United States,
describes Harrison's determination to do his own marketing
for White House meals. That would be difficult for a modern president to do.
Klapthor tells us that Harrison loved vegetables,
especially cruciferous vegetables like  cabbage and cauliflower,
and root vegetables like beets and carrots.
Unfortunately, all that healthy eating didn't help Harrison survive,
and he was very soon succeeded by John Tyler.

Photo of John Tyler
John Tyler image

after Tyler became president, he purchased 1200 acres 
35 miles east of Richmond, Virginia.
He called his home by the fanciful name of Sherwood Forest.
His political foes called him "His Accidency."
Tyler was not at all popular with congress since he vetoed many bills
passed by the majority. Relations devolved to the point that 
most of his cabinet resigned, 
and he was essentially expelled from his own political party.
He was the first US president to be censured and threatened with impeachment.
The acrimony was so great that Congress retaliated against Tyler's intransigence
by cutting off funds for the maintenance of the White House,
an action that echoed British history 
and the tangles between Charles I and Parliament two hundred years before.

His political problems aside, after Tyler's first wife died
he still found time to court and marry a young woman thirty years his junior.
The Food Timeline, citing The Presidents' Cookbook 
by Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks,
describes the gaiety brought by Julia Gardiner, Tyler's beautiful wife.
Julia Gardiner was the Jackie Kennedy of her time. 
She had taste and style and some sources say, 
she was determined to make the most of Tyler's last several months in the White House
with socials, parties, and lots of food and drink.

Puddings were a popular offering; punch, Madeira and champagne all flowed freely.
The new Mrs. Tyler favored large and elaborate breakfasts, 
which included more food than most people eat in a year:
"omelets, spring chicken, pigeons, and woodcocks,
ham and eggs, roast ham, saddle of venison, ... roast wild ducks
and other poultry" were all laid out for diners.

* source material on the presidents is excerpted from
The Presidents of the United Sates of America, by Michael Beschloss and Hugh Sidney.

Friday, January 18, 2013

James Monroe: Cry Babies and Chicken Pudding

The colonial electorate chose another Virginian 
to be the 5th U. S. president: James Monroe.
If anyone is counting, that makes four Virginians out of the first five U. S. presidents.
James Monroe was born on a tobacco plantation 
in Westmoreland County, Virginia,
but James Monroe's own family home is called Ash Lawn-Highland 
and is near Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Albemarle County.
Monroe's history is less known than some U. S. presidents,
but no less fascinating.

James Monroe's service to the country began long before he became president.
I was surprised to learn that as an 18-year-old soldier,
he had crossed the Delaware with George Washington,
and later survived the frozen winter at Valley Forge.
His time at Valley Forge must have been a real test of his physical and mental strength
considering that he had been wounded 
during the Revolutionary War's Battle of Trenton (New Jersey) months before.
I'm sure at some point, he must have longed for the comfort of family and home.
But as all people must, he endured to fulfill his destiny.

In his government service as congressman and later president,
Monroe is responsible for what is known as "the Monroe Doctrine" 
which essentially drew a line in the sand to warn Europe and Russia 
that they were not allowed to establish colonies in the Americas.
Monroe also negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803
which expanded the boundaries of the United States westward.
James Monroe image 

All in all, he had a distinguished career. 
And as soldier, congressman, senator, diplomat, and president,
what did he like to eat?
The Ash Lawn website tells us that Monroe shared Jefferson's affection for 
French foods and wines, but that his heart belonged to the Virginia foods of his youth.
According to The President's Cookbook, cited on The Food Timeline,
Monroe loved spoonbread, chicken fried with rice,
chicken pudding, tomatoes and eggs, and a molasses cookie called 'Cry Babies.'
Everything in that list sounds like typical Southern fare,
but that chicken pudding dish, that is a  mystery.

So I Googled chicken pudding 
and found a recipe on this site for Southern Living Magazine.
Basically, it involves a whole chicken, cooked for an hour 
with carrots, celery, onions, salt, pepper, and butter.
Remove the chicken, strain the broth,
 and add flour and lard to form "one large hoecake."
After baking the hoecake, tear it up, mix it with the boned chicken,
and pour a broth and egg mixture over all. Bake.
And that my friends, is a long way to go to get chicken pudding.

Fortunately, the Ash Lawn site shares some easier Monroe family recipes:
"Cream Jumbles," a cookie confection 
made with of sugar, butter, cream and flour,
then rolled thin (or dropped) and baked in small rounds or other shapes.

The site also provides a recipe called "Minted Fruit Cordial"
that sounds like the perfect drink for a summer day.
It's a combination of water, grape juice, orange juice, 
the juice of several lemons and limes
chopped mint and sugar.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Well, Hello Dolly

In the week leading up to the presidential inauguration,
I thought it would be fun to look at some of the foods served at inaugural parties
or lacking that information, those that were favored
by a few of the eight presidents who were Virginia natives.

One reason Virginia is sometimes called the "mother of presidents" 
is because three of the first four U. S. presidents
 (and of course, five subsequent ones) were Virginia's native sons.
Following our third president, Thomas Jefferson,  
was Jefferson's friend James Madison,
author of the Bill of Rights, "The Father of the Constitution,"
and perhaps most interesting of all, 
husband to the glamorous Dolley Payne Todd.

James Madison, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Miller Center at the University of Virginia
describes Dolley as "a lively Philadelphia widow."
By all accounts, Madison was a quiet and bookish man
and Dolley was a vivacious social butterfly 
who loved grand gatherings and elaborate dinner parties.
Given their contrasting personalities,
theirs was a surprising match.

Dolley Madison, courtesy of

Dolley was often openly criticized by her husband's political opponents,
who condemned her for "gambling, wearing make-up, and using tobacco."
Since she was born and raised a Virginia Quaker,
all of those criticisms seem particularly unlikely.
Margaret Bayard Smith, who wrote about early Washington life,
said that Mrs. Madison was one who behaved with "perfect propriety."
One thing is certain: Dolley Madison loved a good party.

I found a really fascinating and award-winning web site called The Food Timeline,
 written and researched by Lynn Oliver:
The web site includes some of Dolley Madison's favorite cake recipes:
"Soft Gingerbread," which called for a healthy dose of molasses--
and beef drippings;
and "Cinnamon Cake" made with butter, 
flour, sugar, and two tablespoons of cinnamon.

Dolley also served  "Layer Cake,"
which was a favorite of guests. 
Her Layer Cake is a white cake with a caramel frosting,
and it sounds delicious.
These cake recipes and more are available on Ms. Oliver's Food Timeline.
Click on the link above.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Thomas Jefferson's Favorites

In my quest for information about Thomas Jefferson's inaugural dinner,
I discovered a couple of factual errors in yesterday's blog 
about George Washington's first inaugural.
According to the Library of Congress, 
Washington was sworn in in New York, not Washington DC. 
Not only that, there was indeed a little celebrating 
as Washington made his way to New York.
And the night of the inauguration, there were fireworks.
Unfortunately, still no sources were found that described the inaugural meal.
But onward to Jefferson, the third U.S. president.

Thomas Jefferson image,

Thomas Jefferson is the second of the eight presidents from Virginia,
and he was the first inaugurated in Washington DC.
 I couldn't find any references to his inaugural dinner
beyond the fact that he returned to his boarding house and seated himself
in his usual spot furthest from the fire 
rather than take a place of honor at the table.
At least he didn't dine alone, being accompanied by about 30 others for the meal.

Although information about the inaugural meal is sparse,
there is lots of information about Jefferson's favorite foods at table in Monticello
and about some of the meals served in the White House during his presidency
here at this site:

Generally, the evening meals were sumptuous; however,
describes one guest of the Jefferson White House who was rather disappointed
that he had only been served "rice soup, round of beef,
turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal,
fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni ... ."
This same diner also enjoyed ice cream, 
and "a dish somewhat like pudding ... covered with cream sauce... ."
To that we can add "jimcracks" an assortment of nuts, candies, and fruits.
The meal sounds lavish by today's standards,
so it is hard to imagine just what this gentleman was expecting.
Maybe he was aware of Jefferson's reputation as a connoisseur
and was dismayed that many of the dishes were somewhat ordinary.
But who knows? His expectations shall remain a minor mystery.

At home in Monticello, 
Jefferson enjoyed vegetables--over 250 varieties, 
but most especially peas. says that Jefferson loved peas 
the way Ronald Reagan loved jelly beans.
Jefferson also had his cooks prepare blanc mange, 
a kind of milk or cream pudding,
which, incidentally, my maternal grandmother also used to make.
Because it is predominately milk, sugar, and gelatin, I never ate any;
so I can't speak to its flavor. I would imagine it's similar to a vanilla pudding though.

Even though I'm not a fan of blanc mange,
I can share Jefferson's affection for some of his breakfast foods.
Breakfasts at Monticello were less elaborate than the evening meals,
but included "tea, coffee, muffins, hot wheat and corn bread
cold ham and butter."

Hot bread and butter?
Now that's good food,
whether for pauper or for president.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Washington's Favorite Foods

The presidential inauguration coming up on January 20th
affords a good opportunity 
to explore two of my favorite January (or any time) pursuits: history and food.
And there's no better place to begin than with the first of the eight
American presidents born and bred in Virginia: George Washington.

I thought it would be easy to find information on Washington's 
inaugural party fare, but back then, it seems presidents 
didn't get big dinner parties and galas just for being sworn in.
An article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, posted at
says that George Washington dined alone 
at a boarding house the night of his inauguration
since Martha hadn't yet arrived in Washington.
There's no extant record of what Mr. Washington
might have eaten to celebrate his big day.
photo courtesy of

However, thanks to and
we do know what some of Mr. Washington's favorite foods were.
First of all, he liked hoecakes with lots of butter and honey.
Hoecakes are another name for a cornmeal flat bread, also called a johnny cake.
Some accounts refer to these as pancakes,
but they weren't light and fluffy pancakes like we have today.
Washington also favored fish, freshly caught from the Potomac River.
I didn't find any information that specified the type of fish,
but since the waters were in Virginia, shad was probably on the menu.

Washington also enjoyed pickles, string beans, steak and kidney pie,
and his wife's whiskey cake.
And yes, he liked cherries, especially cherry pie.

The most unusual dish eaten by Washington is mushroom ketchup,
which was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in America.
There are no tomatoes in this ketchup recipe, 
and the consistency is very thin, more like a gravy.
The recipe is here:

So here's another reason to celebrate in January: American democracy.
Cook up some shad or steak, douse it with mushroom ketchup
and finish the meal with some of  Martha Washington's whisky cake or cherry pie.
Given Washington's list of favorites,
I'll just be going for the cake and pie.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Makar Sankranti

Just when I thought there were no fun holidays in January,
it turns out there are--I just had to go global to find one.
 Makar Sankranti, the Indian harvest festival,
 takes place every January 14th.
According to, Makar Sankranti
occurs 21 days after the winter solstice and
marks the transmigration of the Sun from one house of the zodiac to another.
When this happens, the Sun appears to move northward.

photo courtesy of

This holiday is said to be auspicious, signaling a return to good times 
after what is considered an inauspicious period in mid-December.
In the villages, bonfires are lit the night before
and children create garlands from cow dung to burn in the sacred fires.
Not as festive as garlands of ivy; but effective all the same, I guess,
especially considering that cows are highly esteemed in Indian culture.
The next day, farm animals and implements are decorated 
in honor of the holiday.
In some areas, children fly colorful kites.

photo courtesy of

Ancestors are honored, as are the Hindu sun god Surya
and the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati. 
Children are showered with candies and sweets--
by some accounts to protect them from the evil eye. 

But apparently the foods and rituals of  the Makar Sankranti
holiday celebrations vary widely around India and South Asia
with everyone celebrating a little differently.
This is great news for those of us looking 
for a reason to celebrate something in mid-January 
(besides birthdays, of course).
I don't have a kite to fly, but I'm thinking if the sun comes out today,
I'll pause a moment and think about Makar Sankranti
and maybe, if I'm lucky, I'll have Indian food for dinner. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Household Advice?

Today, I thought I'd share some of the advice 
one can find in a community cookbook. 
Most of it is extremely helpful, 
but some of it is a little odd.

This information comes from the Loose Creek, Missouri community cookbook.
Loose Creek is a small unincorporated town in Osage County, Missouri 
and the place where my father's German ancestors settled in the early 1800s.

Let's start with the good ideas:
The Loose Creek cookbook says that tomatoes will stay fresh longer 
if they are stored stem side down.

photo courtesy of

And this one I just might try:
when baking fish, place it on a bed of onions, celery, or parsley
to prevent its sticking to the pan.

And this one, I actually have tried with great success.
In fact, I never use drain cleaner. Try this for a clogged drain:
Pour in a cup of baking soda, followed by a cup of vinegar.
Wait a few minutes and pour in a kettle of boiling water.
Voila! Clogged drain is easily opened without dangerous chemicals. 

As helpful as that advice is, there is some that really seems odd.
The first one that caused me to do a double take: 
the advice to put ground egg shells in with the coffee
"for a better flavor" of coffee.

And then there was the extended process for cleaning
"blood on the rug," which prompted a number of musings from me 
about just how the blood got on the rug 
and why it happens so much in Loose Creek 
that it merited inclusion in the cookbook.

Another odd piece of advice: cleaning window screens
by coating them with kerosene "on both sides."
I wonder how long before the kerosene smell dissipates
and how long the screens would remain flammable.

Here's a peculiar tip titled "Finding a gas leak."
Lather the pipes with soapy water. 
The escaping gas will cause the soapy water to bubble.
Make a temporary plug by moistening a cake of soap 
and pressing it over the spot.
When the soap hardens, 
it will effectively close the leak until the gasman comes.

Hardy pioneer stock, these folks are, and very self-sufficient.
Even so, I would suggest leaving the soap in the bathroom 
and just running out of the house until at a safe distance.

This final one made me laugh right out loud:

"For Bald-Headed People"
1/2 gallon of green persimmons,  mashed
1/2 tablespoon of salt
1/2 cup of alum
1 cup of flour
1/4 teaspoon of pepper

Mix contents in a big bowl. Smear 1/4 inch thick over scalp 
and wrap with damp towel. Leave wrapped for 36 hours--
during this time scalp will pucker up and draw the hairline
from side of head to top--renewing hair on top of head.

Seriously, I'm at a loss for words.