Abraham Lincoln rarely spoke on matters relating to food. But during the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln shared a story about gingerbread men that stayed with him well into his presidency. Indeed, what madeleines were to Proust, gingerbread men were to Lincoln – few things conjured such strong memories of childhood.
The debate had begun innocently enough, with Stephen Douglas indulgently complimenting his opponent as a tactic to win over the crowd. But the debate soon turned ugly, with Douglas personally attacking Lincoln, suggesting that if Lincoln were elected to the Senate, he would pit the states against each other over the question of slavery. In an attempt to change the tone of the debate, Lincoln responded with a childhood story. When he was growing up in Indiana, his mother would occasionally be able to get her hands on ginger and sorghum to make gingerbread – special treats given the family’s relative poverty. One day, his mother made some gingerbread, and out of the batch she had made young Abe three gingerbread men. He took them outside to eat them under the shade of a hickory tree.
As he was sitting there, the young boy of an even poorer neighboring family came along and said “Abe, gimme a man.” Abe gave him one of his gingerbread men, and the boy devoured it in two bites while Abe was still biting the legs off of his first. “Abe,” the boy said, “Gimme that other’n.” Lincoln wanted the other for himself, but he gave it to him and the boy devoured it just as before. ”You seem to like gingerbread men,” Lincoln observed. ”Abe,” he replied, “I don’t s’pose anybody on earth likes gingerbread better’n I do – and gets less’n I do…”
Turning to Douglas in the midst of the debate, Lincoln said he couldn’t understand how he had so completely misunderstood his positions, and noted that he had been blindsided by Douglas’s flattery. Recalling the debate, Lincoln noted “I was not very accustomed to flattery and it came the sweeter to me. I was rather like the Hoosier, with the gingerbread, when he said he reckoned he loved it better than any other man, and got less of it.”
The gingerbread story became part of the Lincoln legend, and he repeated it during his presidency to reporters at the White House. Lincoln’s mother’s recipe does not survive, nor do any personal recipes from his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. She cooked out of necessity and was reportedly never terribly good at it. When the Lincolns moved to Washington, Mary was grateful to have cooks in her household – grateful not only to not have to cook, but also to demonstrate the family had class and weren’t the “back-woods hicks” many of Lincoln’s opponents accused them of being.
Though she didn’t leave personal recipes behind, it is well known that the first lady enthusiastically followed the receipts and housekeeping advice from Eliza Leslie, the early 19th century equivalent to Irma Rombauer and Emily Post. In her 1847 volume The Lady’s Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion For Large Or Small Families - which Mary Todd Lincoln almost certainly would have had – Leslie gives several recipes for gingerbread, including a recipe for ginger crackers that would be firm enough to cut into shapes.
Most of what we think of gingerbread today are actually ginger cookies. Traditional gingerbread is much more like a thick, dark cake sweetened with sorghum or molasses. To make the gingerbread men, Abe’s mother likely made gingerbread and reserved some of the batter, added more flour to it to make a solid dough, and then cut out the cookies in the shape of men.
So in lieu of Lincoln’s actual recipe for gingerbread men, I offer this substitute which would very likely have been used in the Lincoln household. Sorghum can be substituted for molasses if you have access to it. The fresher the ground ginger the more intense the flavor will be. If you prefer a stronger ginger flavor, add an extra teaspoon to the recipe. It’s really a matter of personal taste.
As Leslie mentions in the recipe, these crackers/cookies are “excellent on sea voyage” – if kept dry, they will last quite some time. The instructions here are a bit vague – as most old recipes used to be. Make sure you have a full bag of flour on hand just in case. I found that “sufficient flour to make a dough just stiff enough to roll” was several cups. You can use a stand mixer for convenience. I’m a bit of a masochist though, and stirred by hand using a solid wooden spoon. It’s good for your arm muscles.
Once the dough comes together you’ll need to work a bit quickly to prevent the dough from drying. While rolling, keep the extra dough under a damp cloth. Do try to roll the dough thinly, as the resulting cookie is a bit firm. If it’s too thick, you might have difficulty biting down into the front part. The firmness owes to the lower fat content of the recipe. Adding more butter or shortening would make a softer cookie.
Placing the cookies on parchment paper before baking will help prevent sticking. A moderately brisk oven can be translated to about 400 degrees, for about 4 to 6 minutes. Watch these like a hawk, though. As soon as they start browning, remove them.
I should say that in addition to being a very interesting recipe, they actually produce really good cookies too. Try them out and post your impressions below!
Ginger Crackers, from Eliza Leslie’s The Lady’s Receipt-Book: A Useful Companion For Large Or Small Families (1847)