In author Gregory Frost’s new novel-in-progress, something is wrong in the 1840s White House* of John Tyler.
Actually, a lot of things are wrong. The place is filthy, people keep dying, and Tyler’s daughter-in-law, a former actress (pearlclutch, gasp), is in charge of throwing two parties a week, under the tutelage of D.C. doyenne Dolley Madison.
Things couldn’t get much worse. Or could they?
Oh, they certainly could, Frost assures us. But we’ll have to wait for the book to find out how. In the meantime, Frost generously agreed to visit and talk about the research he did into the 1840s kitchen of the Tyler presidency.
What drew you to research the food and recipes of the 1840s?
At the time, the President’s House threw two parties a week during the social season—which was pretty much all year until it became intolerably hot. That’s a lot of events, especially with an understaffed house. I needed to know what might have been on the menu at the time so that I could reference it.
For me, it was one of those things where I came to a certain point in the story and realized that every mid-week there was a social dinner and every Saturday they hosted a larger blowout party with music and dancing. Tyler loved to dance and he played the fiddle.
Tyler was suddenly shoved into the role of President – Congress called him “His Accidency” – when William Henry Harrison died after only thirty-two days in office. Because Tyler’s wife Letitia was ill, his daughter-in-law, Priscilla, ran the household. (Her husband, Robert Tyler, became his father’s secretary.)
How Priscilla managed it, and what they served at dinners, became one of the things I had to research, because she’s one of the central characters in the book.
But Priscilla isn’t the only central character –
No. The book is a slave narrative. I’d come across abolitionist William Still’s interviews, one of which was with a man who claimed to be the half brother of Letitia Christian Tyler, the President’s wife. With this character as narrator, I was able to take a look at the upstairs/downstairs nature of this White House, at this period in time. It’s a very unpleasant point in history. Congress despised Tyler, and wouldn’t give him any money for staffing the White House. So he brought slaves from his farm in Virginia to staff the house, including the narrator, and a cook named Mary Elena.
Tell us about the food, and the recipes:
Figuring out what residents and guests at Tyler’s White House would eat was important. President Van Buren had been known for a very genteel table and a New England style. Tyler’s presidency was a different kettle of fish. He was virtually under siege. And their meals naturally tended towards Virginia flavors, and still further south, as the character I’d invented as the cook was from Louisiana.
Still, I had little idea what they would eat. I started searching and found a number of books and names of meals, like a stew called “burgoo**” – which was, and still is, notable for cooks never being all that forthcoming about what goes in it. (The list of potential ingredients includes opossum and squirrel.)
They may have had a copy on hand of The Virginia House-Wife Cookbook. It was written by Mrs. Mary Randolph and published nationally in 1938, and regionally about a decade earlier. This was one of the first American cookbooks, and definitely the first regional cookbook to come out nationwide. They may have also had copies of The Frugal Housewife (1807) and New England Cookery (1808).
Within these books, I found a number of recipes and cooking methods that would appear in or add to the story. There was a method “of destroying the putrid smell which meat acquires during hot weather.” Multiple recipes for spruce beer, from spruce trees… sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Also a lot of pies: eel pie, pork pie. There was a recipe from 1830 for hopping john, as well as another for hoecakes – the precursor to cornbread. There are recipes for ammonia cookies. They used ammonia bicarbonate as a leavening agent.
There is an 1807 recipe for something called “Black Caps” – and I decided to make it one of Tyler’s favorite dishes. It reads: “Halve and coar some fine large apples: put them in a shallow pan: strew white sugar over, and bake them. Boil a glass of wine, the same of water, and sweeten it for the sauce.”
There are recipes for things you wouldn’t have expected to find back then in a Virginia cookbook, like gazpacho and ropa vieja. The book contains a number of Creole recipes as well. A lot of gumbo recipes, and those are essential to the story, too:
Gumbo—a West-India dish
Gather young pods of ochra, wash them clean, and put them in a pan with a little
water, salt and pepper, stew them till tender, and serve them with melted
butter. They are very nutritious, and easy of digestion.
Source: The Virginia Housewife
The cook in the novel, Mary Elena, is of Haitian and Creole descent. She’s versed in Haitian and New Orleans cooking. She’s a practitioner both of vodou and of what was called in Creole “makaya,” which is the art of herbal healing (it means “the power of leaves”). She knows Haitian vodou from her mother, and in New Orleans has trained with Marie Laveau, who was quite the celebrity. So, while she’s cooking, preparing for these parties, she’s also a mambo and healer. It’s really interesting. The layering of roles within the house is complex, anyway, because you’re working with a reduced staff. But Mary Elena is essential, and I wanted to get across that these healing arts and magic arts are all layered and subtle and not just bad B-movie “voodoo”. There’s a lot to it, and she’s synthesized African and New Orleans vodou with her knowledge of plants.
The hostess, Priscilla, is also very interesting. Dolley Madison, the doyenne of Washington, instructed her on how to be a hostess. According to my research, after the Wednesday night dinner parties at the White House, people would walk across Lafayette Park to Dolley’s house and continue the party there. It sounds like things went on well into the night.
As much as the recipes, the President’s House itself lends a gothic atmosphere to the whole tale. The novel is a ghost story, but it’s more than that. Something’s been unleashed in the White House. And the house itself at the time was falling apart. They were using furniture that’d been there since Monroe’s time. Chairs have stuffing coming out of them. There’s plaster missing from walls, and lathe showing. Of the White House ceilings, which are 20 ft high, Dickens wrote that the cobwebs were so thick you couldn’t see the ceilings. They had oil lamps—gas was still years away–and so you’d also have soot stains from those and candles. It was a very dark, grotesque house. And far too juicy a setting to pass up for the story I wanted to tell. It’s the perfect haunted house.
Other historical characters visit the White House while the story takes place, correct?
Yes, part of the story crosses paths with Charles Dickens’ visit to the House. He was appalled by the fact that slaves staffed the entire White House. As well, he found the behavior of people visiting the White House just disgusting. Chewing tobacco was quite the common practice, and men would just spit it on the floor. Dickens describes the carpets crackling underfoot from all the spit tobacco. He compared it rather unfavorably to a gentleman’s club in London.
Washington Irving also visited the White House. Tyler had named him Ambassador to Spain. In the story, they serve a meat-salad dish called “salmagundi” during his visit as a private joke. Irving wrote a story called “Salmagundi.” So, the food flavors the plot a good bit throughout.
When do we get to read Dark House?
I’m finishing up the draft of Dark House now, and teaching a full semester at Swarthmore. It’s coming along but it’s certainly not ready yet. For me, too, it’s a new direction from where I’ve been writing. It’s nothing like the Shadowbridge duology, but closer to Fitcher’s Brides in that it takes place in the 1840s. That was a revised fairy tale. This is a sort of ghost story.
Do you have a favorite recipe from the period or the region?
Here’s my recipe for Etouffee.
Shrimp Etouffee Recipe
2 Tbsp plus 1 tsp Creole Seasoning (I’ve a recipe for this, too, but you can buy it in stores)
4 Tbsp Unsalted Butter
1/2 Cup Onion, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Celery, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Bell Pepper, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Flour
3/4 Cup fresh Tomatoes, diced
1 1/2 Cups Shrimp Stock (made by simmering the tails and shells)
2 Tbsp Minced Garlic
1 bundle of Fresh Thyme
2 tsp Homemade Worcestershire Sauce
1 tsp Hot Sauce (like Crystal or Louisiana Gold)
1/2 Cup Green Onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp minced Italian Parsley
2 lb Good Quality Shrimp, Peeled and Deveined
3 Tbsp Unsalted Butter + 2 more Tbsp.
Salt & Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
1 Recipe Creole Boiled Rice
While the shrimp stock is simmering, melt butter (or bacon grease if you want the more authentic flavor of a roux) in a large cast iron skillet, add flour and stir to make a red brown roux, which takes about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and stir in a Tbsp of the seasoning, and the “Holy Trinity” (onions, bell pepper, and celery) and then the garlic and tomatoes. Set aside. (you can make it up to this point in advance if need be.)
When the stock is ready (and strained), bring one cup of it to a boil and whisk in the roux and vegetable mixture, reducing the heat to a simmer. Add a Tbsp of seasoning, Worcestershire, and hot sauce. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Have your Creole Boiled Rice ready and your serving dishes warm before starting the final step.
In cast iron frying pan melt 3 Tbsp of butter over medium heat, add green onions, shrimp and remaining 1 tsp of creole seasoning. Saute until the shrimp just start to turn pink. Pour in the gravy sauce. Add ½ cup of the shrimp stock and rest of the butter until it’s melted and incorporated, about 3-5 minutes, constantly shaking the pan back and forth (versus stirring). If the sauce starts to separate splash in a little more stock. You should have a rich brown sauce.
Serve it over a mound of the rice.
Gregory Frost is the author of novels including the Shadowbridge series (Del Rey) and Fitcher’s Brides (Tor). His short stories have appeared most recently in Supernatural Noir (Ellen Datlow, ed.) and Apex Magazine. He’s director of the fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College. Moreover, fellow Philadelphian Michael Swanwick eloquently said of Gregory in 1994 “This is what you have to know in order to understand Gregory Frost… That fire couldn’t stop him, or poverty, or neglect. That he did what it took to get where he wanted to go. Now you know and now you understand. Gregory Frost has ambitions, and they are not modest ones.“ To learn more, visit Greg’s website, http://www.gregoryfrost.com/, or follow him on twitter (@gregory_frost).
* White House aficionados will already be itching to point out that the house was “The President’s House” until 1901. Yes, it most certainly was. You’re very smart.
**Like scrapple***, you really don’t want to know.
*** You don’t want to know that either.