On February 15, schools and offices around the country are closed for Presidents’ Day, a national holiday in honor of Washington, Lincoln, and other past commanders-in-chief. With the kids at home, we asked Chef Walter Staib from PBS’s A Taste of History how to celebrate by cooking something sweet together that historic leaders might have enjoyed. Sink your teeth into these favorite treats of past Presidents—and bite off a delicious lesson in American history.
George Washington’s Hoe Cakes
What was George Washington’s favorite breakfast? According to the Mount Vernon (Washington’s family residence) website, America’s first president loved to start his day with a plate of hoe cakes “swimming in butter and honey.”
But what exactly is hoe cake? It’s basically a cornmeal pancake cooked over an open fire. In a modern kitchen, it’s fairly straightforward to make: just pour the batter onto a hot griddle and cook it until browned on each side. “The hoe cake is kind of unique, because kids can actually make it in an Easy-Bake Oven,” says Chef Staib. In fact, the hoe cake recipe from Washington’s mansion kitchen, might just become a family favorite.
Although traditionally associated with early presidential breakfasts at Mount Vernon, hoe cakes were a staple food for many settlers and epitomize early American cookery. The recipe originated with Native Americans, but quickly grew popular among colonists, with variations served across New England, Virginia, the Deep South and the Southwest.
Abigail Adams’ Apple Pandowdy
John Adams may have been a prominent nation-builder, but America’s second president had a humble appetite. He liked to sup on simpler grub, primarily farm-grown in New England. On the family estate, his wife, Abigail, tended crops and created dishes from the seasonal harvest.
Abigail’s favorite dessert was apple pandowdy, an apple pie cooked in a skillet (hence “pan”). The origins of “dowdy” are a bit of a mystery. As Chef Staib relates, the word likely stems from Middle English’s “doude,” meaning an “inelegant person.” But in the cooking context, “dowdy” is believed to describe the rough cuts used in the apple preparation, or the slicing of dough into pieces instead of being left whole.
Semantics aside, it’s an easy recipe to master—and a dessert that the whole family will gobble up. In a skillet, arrange dough squares over the apple filling and brush with cream. Bake until the top is golden and serve with a scoop of ice cream.
James Polk’s Corn Pone
America’s 11th president, James Polk, had a penny-pinching palate. Other high-fliers of the era hosted lavish feasts of exotic and expensive foods. But not Polk—he found comfort in unpretentious Southern fare such as ham, tomato omelettes and his personal favorite, corn pone.
A rustic relative to cornbread, this no-frills flat cake is made from a thick cornmeal dough and baked in an iron pan over an open fire or a baking pan in the oven. And it’s bound to be a hit with little ones. “Biscuits and corn pone are always favorite ones for children,” adds Chef Staib.
Variations on the recipe abound, with modern chefs getting creative in the kitchen by adding chocolate or using it as a topping over chili. But as Polk’s frugal version demonstrates, the purpose of corn pone is to make do with the ingredients that you have.
So this Presidents’ Day, raise a fork not just to the leaders who made our country great, but the treats that kept them going.
Teaching your little ones to cook? Check out our helpful hints in “Kids in the Kitchen.”
By Lisa Jackson