Whether it’s through an intimate family meal or a large social gathering centered around a dinner, food has the power to bring people together in the most unexpected ways. Even during the earliest days of American history, when politics revolved around powerful men who held office, women were able to participate in political culture by baking creative desserts such as “Election Cake” or “Jackson Jumbles.”
For some time, Montana State University Assistant Professor of History, Emily J. Arendt, has studied this unique intersection between food history and women’s involvement in politics in nineteenth-century America. Her research will now be the focus of Food and Partisanship in the Early Republic, an upcoming event at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden.
“Politics functions on a level beyond the voting box. If we expand what we think about as components of political culture, we can tell a story about politics and history that’s much more diverse and much more inclusive of actors that have traditionally been left out of that narrative,” says Arendt, whose broad research interests include both gender history and early American political culture.
“My research, for years now, has focused on the ways that women have been involved in politics, if not on an overt level, at least in tangential ways that contribute to this revised idea of political culture.”
To provide an example, Arendt explains how women once played a large role in organizing fundraisers and creating banners or decorations used in political events. In researching these “tangential ways,” she eventually came across American almanacs and hand-written cook books filled with complied recipes, featuring desserts like “George Washington Cake” or “William Henry Harrison Cake.” Interestingly enough, it was through these baked goods and the traditional domestic activity of cooking that women had the opportunity to express their own ideals about what it meant to be American.
The Practical Housekeeper; and Young Woman’s Friend, Marion L. Scott, 1855
According to Arendt, food was not only used to cultivate a sense of national solidarity in the 1800’s, but also to reflect political divisions as women utilized desserts to indicate particular partisan preferences. The election of 1832, for instance, pitted democrat Andrew Jackson against national republican Henry Clay, giving rise to what she calls the “dueling Jumble recipes (Jackson Jumbles and Clay Jumbles).”
Many of these recipes have gone through various iterations over the years, reflecting what appealed to individual palates at the time. In attempting to reproduce her own version of the Harrison Cake (in honor of William Henry Harrison), Arendt found that the recipe resulted in a “fruit-studded spice cake” more similar to what we would classify as quick bread today. It is spicy, dense, and as she points out in this New York Library blog post, representative of Harrison himself.
Miscellaneous recipe for Harrison Cake, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library (left); a slice of William Henry Harrison Cake (right). Images via Emily J. Arendt
Such recipes circulated around well into the 1990’s, but baking has lost much of its association with political culture and communication since then. Even so, as we draw closer to the 2016 presidential election, it’s worth wondering what sweet confection is best representative of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Arendt has her own guesses:
“Donald Trump would be something very rich and custardy, that involved gold leaf somehow,” she states in jest.
“And Hillary – I don’t know what baked good Hillary would be – maybe like a yellow cake, something that a lot of people are okay with, but no one really loves.”
“Food and Partisanship in the Early Republic” will take place on November 3rd at 6:30 p.m. at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden. The event will include a sampling of food from that era. For more information, click here.
Next, check out 2016 Presidential Election Mania.