Election Confections: Harrison Cake and Other Historical Political Treats
As the 2016 presidential election heats up, undecided voters might consider an unusual proposition when considering which candidate to endorse: what kind of sweet confection best represents each contender? If campaign managers were to create custom desserts to sway the electorate towards the partisan of their choice, how might a Trump Tart taste? A Clinton Cookie? What about a Bernie Brownie?
If this proposition sounds absurd, it is an absurdity well-grounded in American culinary history. Throughout the nineteenth century, food was an important component of political culture. Utilizing food for political purposes dates back to the colonial era, as American women even before the Revolution baked "Election Cakes" to bring their communities together to celebrate election day (see this wonderful post on the history of election cakes by Gina Halkias-Seugling). By the time clear political parties formed in the 1800s, Americans put their culinary talents to use in more divisive ways—women showed support for their favorite politicians by cooking up creative desserts in their honor.
The first and best-known American political cake is undoubtedly the one commemorating George Washington. Widely circulated following Washington's death in 1799, the recipe went through countless iterations as the cake evolved across the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Other sweet treats created with particular politicians in mind lacked the popular longevity of Washington Cake but highlight the diversity of American desserts as much as the diversity of American politics: Madison Cake, Jackson Jumbles, Clay Cake. These confections promoted political candidates during elections and memorialized them for years to come as the tastiest recipes circulated in both published and unpublished forms.
The presidential election of 1840 was a fascinating moment in American political—and confectionary—history. Pitting incumbent Martin Van Buren (a Democrat) against William Henry Harrison (a Whig), the depressed economy ensured the ousting of Van Buren. While Harrison's status as a well-known war hero almost certainly contributed to his victory, I like to believe that his popularity was further bolstered by the cake created in his honor.
An 1846 cookbook, The Young Housekeeper's Friend: Or, a Guide to Domestic Economy and Comfort provides one of the earliest published recipes for Harrison Cake. Like all the versions that emerged in the 1800s, this recipe produced a fruit-studded spice cake more akin to a modern quick bread (like banana or pumpkin bread) than what we today associate with cake.
Dense, spicy, with a rich molasses flavor, Harrison Cake is, much like William Henry Harrison himself, old-fashioned, frugal, yet deeply underrated. Some lambasted the "Harrison pone of 1840" (Democratic Standard, March 12, 1844). Yet, most others noted that it was an "excellent cake, far better than some which is [sic] more costly" (The Young Housekeeper's Friend, p. 148).
Indeed, the best case we can make for the appeal of the cake comes from manuscript cookery books. These hand-written recipe compilations testify to what appealed to individual palates at any given moment in time. It is safe to assume that cooks only took the time to record those recipes that pleased their taste buds. Thus, a hand-written copy of a recipe for Harrison Cake demonstrates that some thought this cake delicious.
The manuscript copy from "Miscellaneous recipes for cookery and household prescriptions," held in the NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division, served as the basis for my modern-day recreation of Harrison Cake. These two bound volumes of hand-written recipes are unattributed and undated, but presumably come from sometime c. 1830-1850. The inclusion of Harrison Cake in the first volume indicates that its owner added to it in the years following the 1840 election. My own research, moreover, suggests that the volume originated in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Many authors of manuscript cook books habitually noted what friends, neighbors, and family members provided the recipes they copied into their volumes. Using the names scribbled in the marginalia of this volume—names like Lucretia Pearse, Mary Penhallow, and Mary Sherburne—I corroborated this book's point of origin by using the 1850 census. Regardless of the place or date of origin, however, it is clear that its owner enjoyed the cake created to promote William Henry Harrison in the election of 1840.
My version, updated to reflect the preferences of modern taste-testers, cuts back a bit on the raisins and molasses of the original manuscript version and includes a hint more sugar. Overall, however, it is faithful to the spirit and taste of its nineteenth-century inspiration. While most of us lack the time to compose original recipes in support of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, it takes little more than an hour to recreate a piece of American culinary history. In celebration of this election cycle, try baking up your own batch of William Henry Harrison Cake.
4 c. flour
½ c. sugar
2 c. molasses
½ c. milk
½ c. brandy
2 sticks butter at room temperature
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
2 c. raisins (mix in 1 tbsp. flour to prevent from falling to bottom of cake)
½ tsp. each ground cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg
powdered sugar for serving
Preheat oven to 350º F. Grease and flour a bundt pan.
Whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, incorporating well between each addition. Beat in molasses. Add in half the dry ingredients, mixing well. Beat in milk, then the remaining dry ingredients. Beat in brandy. Stir in raisins by hand.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 60 minutes, until a skewer inserted comes out with just a few crumbs. Remove from pan and let cool on rack. Sift on powdered sugar prior to serving.
Emily J. Arendt is Assistant Professor of history at Montana State University, Billings, and was a 2015 Food Studies Fellow at NYPL. Her broad research interests include early American political culture and gender history. More particularly, her latest project is interested in exploring how food history can illustrate women's involvement in politics in nineteenth-century America. The Food Studies Fellowships are funded by the Pine Tree Foundation.