Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hanging with Harding

A Warren G. Harding figurine (that looks
more like Dick Cheney) standing in front of
his (Harding's) memorial.
Ohio is a hotbed of presidential history, and I recently spent a long weekend there, basking in much of that history.

My first, eagerly anticipated stop was a visit to Warren G. Harding's home. (Some people would think I say that facetiously. If you're one of them, you don't know me very well.) A few weeks ago I posted about Harding's affair with a German sympathizer while he was a senator during World War I. Just before I left for Ohio, I read The President's Daughter, the book written by Nan Britton, supposedly another of Harding's mistresses and the woman who claimed to be Harding's baby-mama. So Harding had been very much on my mind, and I was genuinely eager to visit his house.

I was also a bit apprehensive. For some reason, visiting presidential sites usually leaves me feeling a bit let-down. I always have such high hopes, but I almost always come away not quite satisfied. Since this is Harding we're talking about, I really wasn't expecting much, but I wound up blown away.

I started my tour in the visitor's center, which is located in what served as the press house during Harding's 1920 presidential campaign. There was a short, informative video plus a few display cases about various aspects of his and First Lady Florence's life. It wasn't big and flashy, but it got the job done.

The porch from which Harding conducted
his 1920 presidential campaign.
Then my tour guide told me to head over to the porch of the residence and we'd get started. At this point I should mention that my tour guide, Brett, appeared to be about 15 years old, and that I was the only person on the tour. I didn't think this would bode well. But as it turned out, Brett was in college, and even though he was young (but probably older than 15), he was extremely knowledgable---possibly the most knowledgable presidential guide I've ever had. He had answers for all my questions---and there were a lot. I realized later that if there had been other people on the tour, I probably would have held back with some of my inquiries, but since it was just Brett and me, I asked away.

Brett explained the history of the house and the current restoration efforts, and he said that the site has 5,000 items that belonged to the Hardings. Although they're not all on display, it sort of felt like they were. There are tons of belongings of theirs throughout the house, which is probably the main reason why the visit was so satisfying. In a lot of presidential homes, they might have a few original items, but the rest are reproductions or period pieces that belonged to someone else. In the Harding home, almost everything belonged either to the Hardings or to family members. Brett was able to explain what every little trinket was, where each piece of furniture came from, what the different designs in the custom-made stained-glass windows meant, at what store in Europe the Hardings purchased their china, etc.

The house is large and pretty, but not so imposing that it felt pretentious. Unlike some historic houses that feel like museums, Harding's house feels like a home. His half-dozen straw hats hanging on pegs above his bicycle made it seem like Warren might be about to burst through the back door to get ready for a ride. It was all very approachable.

The Harding home feels like time truly just stopped, and we get to witness it.

I imagine Warren's early demise has something to do with the site's success in maintaining authenticity. Some residences wind up in other people's hands and aren't turned into historic sites until decades later. For example, Taft's house had been converted into apartments, and though it has since been renovated, it makes it harder to get a feel for what the house was like when he lived there. Since Harding died in office, and Florence died not long after, the house became a tourist attraction almost immediately. Florence's will left the house and most of the contents to the Harding Memorial Association, ensuring that furniture and other items wouldn't be lost or sold or whatever else might happen to presidential "stuff" over the course of many years.

Toward the end of my tour I asked Brett about Harding's affair with Carrie Phillips and his alleged affair with Nan Britton. I was a little apprehensive about asking because I assumed that as a caretaker for Harding's possessions, the staff would be also be protective of the man's legacy. Brett didn't seem to mind a bit, though, and didn't try to make excuses or apologize for the fact that Harding clearly engaged in at least one extramarital affair. He mentioned "Jim" (James Robenalt, author of The Harding Affair) having spent time researching at the site, and had nice things to say about him. When I asked about Nan Britton, he didn't laugh and blow it off like I thought he might. We did agree that the affair---at least as Britton presented it---probably didn't occur, but he didn't categorically state that it wasn't possible. He did mention that Elizabeth Ann Britton, the daughter of Nan Britton and allegedly Warren G. Harding, had visited the Harding site before she died, and she claimed to have never believed her mother's story that Harding was her father. Apparently the issue caused them to be estranged for many years.

I left the tour feeling happy and satisfied. All my questions that could be answered, were answered, and I felt like I had gotten a genuine glimpse into Harding's life. My only complaint was that no photography was allowed, so unfortunately I can't share Florence Harding's awesome seance chair or cricket cage, or Warren's briefcase, or the guitar he gave his step-son for his birthday, or the bedroom set that had belonged to Warren's grandparents, or any of the hundreds of other items currently on display.

You probably won't ever find yourself in Marion, Ohio, without reason, but if you're in the general mid-Ohio region, make a special trip to the Harding home. It's well worth a visit.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Who REALLY Killed Lincoln?

A few days ago, my friend Becky gave me an Edgar Allan Poe finger puppet. This was cool, because it's an Edgar Allan Poe finger puppet. But it's also cool because when we went to the Abraham Lincoln museum, my 3-year-old chose Lincoln and Grant finger puppets as his souvenir for the day, so it was nice to be able to add another puppet to the mix.

Sure enough, when I handed Poe to my son, he ran off to go find Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. He played with the three puppets for a minute, then stuck them all together with the magnets in their heads and left them on the coffee table. A while later my 10-year-old walked by and saw the new puppet. "Oh, is that John Wilkes Booth?" he asked.

Of course my son's comment made me realize that with a Lincoln puppet and a Booth doppelgänger, I had the ability--nay, the responsibility--to use my children's other toys to recreate that tragic evening at Ford's Theater.

I was also reminded of a passage from Sarah Vowell's book Assassination Vacation, in which she visits sites related to the first three presidential assassinations. In one part, she's visiting Booth's grave in Baltimore after having just been to Poe's grave across town, and she's musing about the similarities between the two men. Besides both having lived in Baltimore, and both having similar dark, brooding appearance, they were both the sons of actors and both spent significant time in Richmond, Virginia. Booth was shot by federal agents after having killed Lincoln. Poe died after an election day likely spent as a "repeater," someone hired to vote repeatedly for particular candidates. Vowell says, "In other words, both Booth and Poe died thwarting the will of the electorate."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cooking with the Presidents: Dolley Madison Cake

I have this thing called The Presidents Cookbook, from 1968. When I bought it, my plan was to sift (ha) through the different presidential recipes and make a presidential feast out of the best of them. Instead, I learned that until at least 1968, presidents ate disgusting stuff. (See my post about the Billy Possum. Sadly, this book doesn't have a recipe for possum-and-taters, but there is a recipe for Coon-and-Squirrel Pie, courtesy of Zachary Taylor.) Even the later presidents didn't have any main courses that seemed appealing.

Needless to say, I didn't have a presidential feast. The good news is there were a few desserts that looked awfully tasty. I made an okay blackberry cake a la Andrew Jackson, but the one I really loved was a Dolley Madison cake. I have made it three times now, with my third one baking as I type.

I did make a few adaptations to the recipe, which I'll share with you now in case you'd like to make your own Dolley Madison cake (and you should).

First, I've halved the recipe. Cut in half, the batter makes a perfect full-size bundt cake. For the actual recipe, you're supposed to pour all the batter (so two full-sized-bundt-cakes-worth) into one large pan and bake it at 275-300 degrees until it's done, which at that rate and temperature would probably take hours. I don't wait hours for my cakes, which is why I made it smaller (and also baked it at 350).

This recipe was written using weight rather than volume for most ingredients. I'd never measured that way before, but I did have a kitchen scale sitting unused in my pantry, so I went for it. It was actually a lot easier than fiddling with measuring cups, and I kinda wish more recipes were still written that way. But in case you're not into using a scale for your baking, I've included approximations if you'd like to use cups.

The recipe calls for citron and raisins. Halved, you should use 1/4 lb of citron and 1/2 lb of raisins, but that seemed like too many raisins, so I did 1/4 lb of each. If you're not familiar with citron (I wasn't, really, though I'm sure I've had it before in various sweet breads), it's a candied citrus peel that basically tastes like nothing. I couldn't find it in a grocery store so I ordered some from Amazon. You could probably skip the citron if you want. You also don't need to measure it too exactly. A quarter-pound is half of one of those containers, and you can just throw in a handful or two of raisins.

This recipe is also a little unusual (by today's standards) in using rosewater. That's something you don't much see nowadays outside of Middle Eastern or Indian cooking. But it turns out that in James Madison's day, rosewater was a common flavoring before vanilla became popular. I googled it and learned that the Shakers used to make excellent quality rosewater, and one of its uses was in apple pie. This was particularly interesting to me, as I'm from Shaker Heights, Ohio, and I now have "making a rosewater-apple pie" on my to-do list for this summer.

But I digress. You can probably find rosewater at your grocery store, either in the baking aisle or an ethnic-food aisle. If you can't find it there, a Middle Eastern or Indian grocery store will certainly have it. Or there's always Amazon.

The only major change I made to the recipe was not using nutmeg. I don't hate nutmeg but I'm not a huge fan of it either, so I decided to go out on a limb and use cardamom for three reasons. 1) I love cardamom. 2) It goes so well with rosewater! 3) It's not that out-there for a Dolley Madison cake. A while back I found a recipe for a cake Dolley supposedly loved...I think it was a Black Pepper-Ginger-Cardamom cake. So I figure as a spice she knew and liked, there's a chance it could have ended up in this cake, too. The actual recipe calls for one grated nutmeg (meaning you'd use half a grated nutmeg for my reduced recipe). I'm not sure what that works out to in terms of teaspoons, but I used 1/2 tsp. of cardamom. (Actually, the first two times I made the cake, I just dumped some in without measuring. That works, too.)

You'll also need butter, baking soda, eggs, and brandy. The original recipe says to dissolve the baking soda in a bit of hot water and add it after the eggs. That seemed too old-school, so I mixed the baking soda (no water) in with the flour.

Without further ado, here's the recipe I made. Keep in mind this batter will fill one normal-sized bundt pan. Feel free to use a loaf pan or other cake pans, and adjust your baking time accordingly.

Dolley Madison Cake (as modified by The Presidentress)

1/2 lb (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
1/2 lb (1 1/4 c) granulated sugar
3 eggs at room temperature, beaten
1/2 lb (1 3/4 c) all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
2 oz (1/4 c) brandy
2 oz (1/4 c) rosewater
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 lb (handful-ish) citron
1/4 lb (handful-ish) raisins

Preheat oven to 350 and prepare your cake pan(s) by buttering and flouring them, or whatever you normally do.

In a bowl, mix baking soda into the flour and set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. (I used an electric mixer, but if you want to be really authentic, you could always do it by hand.)

Slowly add the flour.

Add the beaten eggs and mix to combine.

Add the brandy, rosewater, and cardamom and mix until just combined.

With a large spoon, stir in the citron and raisins.

Pour into your pan(s) and bake until done. (You can often tell when a cake is done when it starts to smell done. It will also be a nice golden brown color, and a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean.) My bundt cake took about 55 minutes.

Let cool completely before eating.

I added a dusting of powdered sugar to my cake, but it tastes great on its own, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Follow Presidentress on Facebook

Believe it or not, not all of my presidential musings are worthy of an entire blog post, so sometimes things wind up on Facebook instead. Follow Presidentress on Facebook for exclusive content like the photo of my sharing a Coke Zero with Abraham Lincoln, or the creepy picture of an animatronic William McKinley. Sometimes there's trivia, too!

I've also added a gadget that will email you any time I publish a new post. From what I've read, the service doesn't necessarily always work, but I figure it's worth a try. The gadget is located over on the sidebar to the right (presuming you're not mobile---if you're mobile, I don't know where it is) under the Facebook thing. Just enter your email address, and never miss another post! In theory.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Hello, Amazon!

I'm pleased to announce that after my third attempt at an appeal, Amazon has reinstated my affiliate account. That, combined with my discovery that Amazon Prime has Timmy Time (it's a preschool thing, not a presidential thing) available for free streaming means that Amazon is now officially one of my favorite things again.

As for the nude photos of Calvin Coolidge...I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Goodbye, Amazon

So, last week I published a post in honor of Prime Day (which wound up kind of sucking), explaining that if people use links on this site, it would help support my blog.

Amazon then emailed me to tell me I'm not allowed to tell people that, and because of that transgression, they closed my affiliate account. I would get that, maybe, except that their affiliate program requires people to post this verbiage in order to be affiliates: 
Presidentress is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.
So, I have to explain to people that I'm using a service that provides advertising fees, but I'm also not allowed to tell people that.

The "helpful" people at Amazon told me I could reapply for a new affiliate account, which I started to do but then their site wasn't working and I was busy. While I waited for it to get working again, I decided I'm not going to bother. Even though I'll continue to spend millions of dollars (exaggeration) through Amazon each year, I'm not going to drive business their way via my blog. I might sign up for some other affiliate service at some point, but in the meantime I'll continue to run this blog out of the goodness of my heart and my compulsive need to discuss things like presidential baked goods. Also, I think Amazon doesn't allow their links on pornographic sites, and what if someday I want to post nude photos of Calvin Coolidge?

I just---literally, 10 minutes ago---got back from a trip to Northeast Ohio, during which I visited four presidential sites, so stay tuned for a post about those as soon as my fury over Amazon dies down.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Separated at Birth, part 7

All right, Ron Paul has never been president and probably never will be, but I'm including this anyway.

It's Ron Paul and John Mahoney, the guy who played Frasier's dad:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Stuff I Love: Hottest Heads of State

Today I want to share with you an amazing website that will change your life forever, or at least make you laugh for a bit. After all, what good is life without laughter?

Hottest Heads of State is a site that ranks and discusses world leaders based on how attractive they are. The site has two complete presidential listings: one ranking the presidents in order of hotness while they were in office, and one examining the presidents "when they were young and hunky." (Because let's face it: Most of them are old and gross by the time they become Commander in Chief.)

My only complaint is that they chose the wrong photo of a young and hunky Ulysses S. Grant. They should have gone with this one:

Hello, General! I'd Unconditionally Surrender to that.

Ahem. Anyway.

The people behind Hottest Heads of State also have a hilarious online novel about a vampire senator. So far they've only released the prologue and first two chapters (and some high-quality drawings), but I hope more are on the way. Spend some time clicking around. I guarantee you'll enjoy it, unless you're a dour, humorless person.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Drinking with the Presidents: Teddy Roosevelt

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a robust series of posts about drinking with the presidents! Not drinking with them, of course. More like drinking in their honor. But whatever.

A while back, I posted a meme of Theodore Roosevelt filling in for the Dos Equis guy. Someone took issue with the photo, pointing out that TR didn't drink alcohol. That wasn't the point, of course, but it got me thinking. I knew it wasn't true that TR never drank, but I did some research (read: quick google search) and found it true that he didn't drink much. He probably didn't have the time to.

We have proof that he did drink, at least a little, because he testified about it under oath. When a Michigan newspaper ran a column stating that Roosevelt was drunk in public, Teddy harnessed his infinite energy into proving it wrong. He sued the paper for libel, and during the trial person after person testified that they had never seen Roosevelt drunk. TR himself took the stand and recounted practically every drink he had ever imbibed, which was hardly the list of a drunkard. The newspaper wound up admitting it was wrong, and Roosevelt, just happy to have his name cleared, asked the judge to impose the lowest possible damages: six cents.

While reading about this, I also found a couple cocktails created in Teddy's honor. It's likely he never actually tasted them, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't benefit. So the other day, Mr. Presidentressor and I had some friends over to try a "Teddy Roosevelt's Hat." This was a recipe I found online and also in a book about the history of presidential drinking, aptly titled Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt.

Teddy Roosevelt's Hat was invented during the 1912 Republican Convention by a bartender at Chicago's Congress Hotel. That convention found current-president Taft pitted in a heated and animated race against former-president Roosevelt for the Republican nomination. A server at the hotel set the drinks in front of two delegates and dropped a lemon-peel hat into each glass, explaining it was symbolic of Roosevelt throwing his hat into the ring. The Roosevelt delegate was tickled pink, while the Taft delegate threw his lemon hat onto the floor.

The drink requires only five ingredients, all relatively easy to find: gin, dubonnet, orange bitters, raspberry syrup, and lemon peel. I'd never had dubonnet, but I found some at our local liquor store. They also had a half gallon of raspberry-flavored high-fructose corn syrup, which I didn't want, so I opted to make my own raspberry syrup. (Simmer 2/3 c water with 2/3 c sugar for about five minutes. Remove from heat and mash in 1 c raspberries--I used frozen. Let sit for an hour, then strain through a fine mesh sieve.)

The recipe for Teddy Roosevelt's Hat is as follows:

Put ice into a cocktail shaker.

A few dashes of orange bitters (I used about five)
1 oz gin
1/2 oz dubonnet
1/2 oz raspberry syrup

Shake thoroughly and strain into a glass. Add a piece of lemon peel cut into the shape of a hat. Enjoy! (You can opt to fish out the peel and throw it on the floor, too, depending on your persuasion or on how drunk you are.)

Mr. Presidentressor, our guests, and I are not big fans of gin, so we weren't sure what to expect. The result was fantastic, though. Our one friend commented that he wouldn't have known there was gin in it if I hadn't told him. The drink was fruity, a little sweet, a little sour, a little herby. I would drink it again--and will. I bet Teddy would have approved.