Saturday, December 5, 2015

Molly & Kit Make FDR's Inexpensive Christmas Cake

A slightly weird, very authentic recipe from harder times!

I've been trying to make an effort to visit more local and semi local historical sites lately. I'm lucky to be in a place with a lot of cool history around me, and yet there are so many places I've never visited!

One I've always wanted to go to was Franklin D. Roosevelt's Presidential Library and home in Hyde Park, New York, especially after this recipe for a Christmas cake popped up in the cookbook I purchased while at the National Archives last year. Although there's no note in the book that it's Roosevelt's personal recipe for Christmas cake, the recipe is attributed to the FDR Presidential Library's archives. I knew I wanted to make the cake, and figured hey, sounds like as good a reason as any to go check the library out.

So my mom, dad, Kit, Molly and I got in the car, and went on a field trip.

Presidential Libraries probably seem like a natural part of a president's legacy to most modern Americans, but they're actually a fairly recent invention. While other presidents have left behind their papers and collections of books - Thomas Jefferson's is what started the Library of Congress, and John Adams' is safely stored at his family home in Quincy, Massachusetts - some did not, and an alarming amount of those important documents were lost to history. Roosevelt didn't want the same thing to happen to his papers or other ephemera he'd acquired over the years, and so began planning and building a place to store everything which could be open to the American people while his second term in office was winding down. At the time, he wasn't really planning on running for a third election, and thus expected the library to comfortably fit all his stuff in the one building.

And then World War II happened, and running for a third term suddenly was very much on the table.

Therefore, unlike a lot of other presidential libraries since Roosevelt, the building isn't really as big as you might expect it to be. I've only ever been to one other presidential library, but Kennedy's is way bigger than Roosevelt's, which seems kind of crazy when you remember one was only in office for three years, and the other was in it longer than anyone else before or since, or ever.

It's still a really nice facility, though, and the building was designed by Roosevelt himself! Designing buildings is one of his lesser known interests. It also is the only library that a president actually worked in while he was in office! Former presidents (and their wives) often take an interest in their library and how it's being run - Harry Truman used to give guided tours and answer the phone at his library, giving visitors directions and information about the hours from "the man himself", which just about the cutest thing I've ever heard, and Eleanor Roosevelt gave tours at Hyde Park after Franklin died and when she wasn't busy saving the world - but because the library was actually finished when FDR was still president, he actually got to use the building while he was still in office.

You can visit the library and museum (presidential libraries are virtually always both a museum and a research center) pretty much all year round, and while you do have to pay to get in, you don't need to be with a tour when visiting the museum. The reading rooms are closed on weekends, but do have hours for the public if you want to do some research on your own. There's a visitor's center close by with a gift store, small cafe and an introductory video about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Nearby is the home Roosevelt grew up and lived in for most of his life, and you can also drive a short way away to visit Val Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt's private cottage and the only National Historic Site dedicated to a First Lady. Both Val Kill and Roosevelt's home are managed by the National Parks Service, while the Library is managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Unfortunately, it was a gloomy, rainy November day when we visited, so we didn't get a ton of time outside to enjoy the grounds. I'd definitely like to go back sometime when the weather's nicer and the leaves are back on the trees!

Entering the library, the first things you see are a giant wall with letters to the Roosevelts, and busts of Franklin and Eleanor.

The museum starts off by giving you the background of the situation the country was facing when Roosevelt was first running for president. There's an introductory video that explains how the Great Depression wasn't an event that was solely experienced by the United States. Economic collapses in Europe and Asia (partially caused by Germany effectively destroying their economy to make paying reparations to the Allies easier) plunged nations all over the world into periods of unemployment and laid the ground work for World War II.

For a nine year old kid like Kit, the exact Why of how the Great Depression happened probably would have been a little difficult to wrap your head around. Fortunately, the museum has some interactive displays to help make it easier to understand.

The first exhibit hall has lots of artifacts from Roosevelt's first bid for presidency. While he wasn't a newcomer to the political scene by any stretch of the imagination, he promised hope and change, to get the nation back on its feet, and reminded us in his first inaugural address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself".

The best part about visiting places like this is that not only do you get to see a lot of neat political campaign memorabilia, but you also have artifacts like Roosevelt's actual hat he wore on the campaign and you've no doubt seen in pictures, as well as copies of the speech with Roosevelt's notes written on them. They also have a podium where you can read the first inaugural address to your fellow museum goers.

The exhibit backtracks a little by telling you about Franklin and Eleanor's early lives, complete with baby pictures, wedding photos, artifacts belonging to their children, and discussions of Franklin's early political career and battle with polio. It then jumps right back into the Great Depression, and Roosevelt's plan for getting us out of it.

Not going to lie, walking through this exhibit hall and seeing posters, artifacts and clearly labeled descriptions of all the different programs Roosevelt put into effect during the New Deal years made me wish I'd come to visit here when I was taking AP US History. As much as I love history, periods like the Depression where everything has an alphabet soup abbreviation are definitely difficult to keep entirely straight when you're also juggling three other upper level classes and hanging on to all the information you needed to learn about the Teapot Dome scandal and the XYZ Affair because the AP exam is still a couple months away!

Throughout the exhibit - and the museum as a whole - there's also discussion of Eleanor's amazing political career, detailing how she would often be her husband's eyes and ears, while also promoting causes she felt passionately about, even if her husband didn't always agree, or at least couldn't be seen publicly doing so. It was exciting to see that the museum paid almost equal tribute to the two of them, as each likely would not have been as successful without the other.

Some of the coolest parts of the museum were the different artifacts relating to the use of the radio during Roosevelt's presidency. We all know that's pretty much what was so revolutionary about him: talking on the radio in a frank, but almost casual way with the American people made him come into their homes in a way other politicians hadn't before, and it helped build trust and confidence in a man who always seemed optimistic and intent on getting things done to benefit the common man. They had a microphone he actually used to record some of his famous fire side chats, and a fake 1930's kitchen where you could sit down, press a button, and listen to one of the recordings like you were actually there in 1933 listening to Roosevelt on the radio.

Most people seem to have a memory that fireside chats were a regular, common occurrence during Roosevelt's presidency, but this is a memory that's been kind of distorted by time and nostalgia. There were actually only 30 "real" fireside chats between 1933 and 1944, and Roosevelt did this intentionally. He knew if he was on the radio every Friday night like clockwork, people would get bored and tune out. Spacing them out and saving them for important moments meant that he could get everyone's attention. People have described how if you were ever out at night when he was giving a speech, you could hear the whole thing coming out of the radios of every home on the street.

Two fireside chats were hosted at the library, and were recorded and broadcasted in his study, which is the only room with real furniture from Roosevelt's time here:

The room is identical to the way it was after Roosevelt's death. Only the drapes and the desk have been replaced. The portrait is of Roosevelt's mother Sara, who he was very close to and technically owned the property the family home and the library stand on until her death, meaning Roosevelt wasn't actually the owner of his own home until 1941. When Roosevelt wanted to borrow some land for his library, he had to ask her permission to do so, and one of her conditions upon accepting the terms was that he keep a portrait of her in his study.

The next part of the exhibit was - predictably - right up my alley.

Roosevelt knew the war was coming before most Americans were willing to admit we'd need to get involved. He subtly tried to get Americans more conscious of troubles in Europe (his primary concern) and in the Pacific, and came up with programs to assist Britain and eventually the Soviet Union in their stand against the Nazis, comparing the loaning of trucks, ships and other equipment to lending your neighbor a hose if their house was on fire. He'd said in 1936 at the Democratic National Convention that this generation had a rendezvous with destiny, and it's amazing looking back on it how true that turned out to be.

Just about everyone knows Roosevelt's quote on December 8th about Pearl Harbor - "a date which will live in infamy" - during the declaration of war against Japan, but most people don't know that Eleanor Roosevelt was actually the first person to speak to the American people about the attack, letting them know what was going on in Washington and that Congress and the President were in the process of deciding where to go next and directly addressing the women and young people of America. You can listen to the speech on Youtube, and I would really recommend giving a listen if you've never heard it before.

Again, the collection is pretty impressive. There's an interactive war room where you can view battle plans and test your knowledge of World War II, a draft of the "Four Freedoms" speech, and Eleanor Roosevelt's Red Cross uniform.

And there's another radio room, this time set up to look like a 1940's household where you can sit and listen to more radio addresses.

There are also a lot of artifacts of Fala's, the Roosevelt's Scottish terrier, who is probably the most well known presidential pet of all time. A lot of people are kind of under the impression that Fala was around for most of Roosevelt's presidency, and thus the popularity of Scotty dogs in 1930's clothing and art. I've definitely seen people say that's why Kit's Christmas dress has a Scotty dog pin!

In reality, Fala was born in 1940, and thus is much more of a World War II icon than a Depression Era icon. Fala is so closely linked with FDR's image that he's included in the larger FDR memorial in Washington, D.C., the only presidential pet so honored.

Also included in the Museum are Roosevelt's desk from the Oval Office, exactly as it was on the day of the President's death in 1945 during his fourth term in office. On the desk are pictures of all four of his sons, who were all serving in the military during the war.

The exhibit continues to discuss Eleanor's work after her husband's passing. She was one of the first delegates to the UN, and was instrumental in developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She continued to fight for Civil Rights, helped bring down the bosses at Tammany Hall, and openly despised McCarthyism. The FBI had a huge file on her, as J. Edgar Hoover thought she might be a Communist, which she wasn't.

Kit was most excited to see her typewriter. Eleanor was a prolific writer, running a newspaper column and writing several books, just to name a new achievements, and got 35 honorary degrees from a variety of universities, even though she had never had the opportunity to attend college.

The library also has a decent sized space for temporary exhibits, showcasing some of the artifacts in the collection that don't always get out in regular rotation. While we were there, they were featuring some of the thousands of gifts the Roosevelts received from people all over the world, from normal Americans like the makers of these ragdolls dressed as a member of the WAC, the WAVES, the SPARS and the USMC Women's Reserve and this wood carving of a cowboy showing Hitler who's boss..

To foreign leaders and celebrities like Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse!

The cell is a birthday present to FDR signed as being from Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney!

Not far from the library is Springwood, the Roosevelt family home. Much like the John Adams National Historic Site, visiting the house requires signing up for a tour and being led through the house with a tour guide. You can reserve tickets online, and honestly, I'd recommend it. Even on a cold, rainy November day, tours were sold out and ours was fully booked.

While members of the public did know that Roosevelt had suffered from polio, the extent of the damage it had done was a closely kept (but somewhat widely known) secret. Therefore, there are no obvious signs on the outside of the house that this is the home of a man in a wheel chair. There are no ramps, no secret back entrances. Roosevelt's car would drive up to the front near those white stairs with banisters, and he would climb out using them for support. There's also a hand operated elevator inside, which Roosevelt would operate himself, as he was worried an electric one might cause a fire and he didn't want to be trapped inside.

Seeing the inside of the house made me think two things: it's totally not true that all American homes pale in comparison to the houses of wealthy families in Europe, and the Roosevelts were clearly my people. I say that because Franklin in particular was a huge collector of things, from paintings of ships and other Navy paraphernalia to birds he stuffed himself to books to stamps. The whole house has a very tastefully cluttered feel to it, with art work and china and books just about everywhere on the first floor.

The lighting was pretty dark both because of the clouds outside, and because they obviously want to control how much light the collection is exposed to over time, so the pictures are a little dark, but hopefully you can get the gist of it. We got pictures of the dining room (and breakfast nook in the back), the library, the rooms where guests like the King and Queen of England were received, the bedroom the Queen stayed in, Franklin's bedroom and Eleanor's.

After seeing Eleanor's couch like bed, it's no wonder she wanted her own house to herself. (Well, that, and having an unfaithful husband...)

The exterior is really beautiful. My dad snapped a couple more pictures with some of the trees in the foreground.

Both Franklin and Eleanor were buried here in Sara Roosevelt's rose garden. Their gravestone is a simple one, with an engraving that's difficult to see in this lighting. Fala and one of their other dogs are also buried near by.

The Roosevelt National Historic Site was really a lovely place to visit and totally lived up to my expectations. If the weather had been nicer, it would have been an absolutely perfect trip, and I'd love to go back. I'd really like to drag my brother with us at some point because I really do think it helps you internalize some of the minutiae of the time period by showing you actual examples and relating it to things you might find more interesting. Springwood is beautiful, and while we didn't have time to go see Val Kill, I'd really like to next time we come by for a visit! Maybe this spring or summer we'll have to head back.

So, where does this Christmas cake come in, you ask?

Kit also got a button that says "I want Roosevelt again" at the gift shop!

Eating with Uncle Sam is a book that's full of recipes from the National Archives. As the presidential libraries are managed by the same department, several of the recipes included come from their archives as well. There's Dwight Eisenhower's favorite vegetable soup, Ronald Reagan's Monkey Bread, JFK's fish chowder (something you will be seeing on this blog at some point, because it is delicious), and Michelle Obama's vegetarian lasagna, just to name a few. This Christmas cake is one of the few - if not the only - recipe from the FDR library, and being who I am and what I'm interested, I wanted to give it a try.

There's no information about where exactly this came from. It's definitely not Eleanor Roosevelt's personal recipe. She hated to cook, and honestly probably never really needed to learn how to, coming from an age where it was normal for wealthy families to hire a cook and other servants. It's possible it came from Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt, the family cook, who would often intentionally make meals FDR said he didn't like repeatedly, which Eleanor loved because the Roosevelts had nothing if not a complicated marriage. Mrs. Nesbitt favored simple American food, and this definitely fits that bill. It's also possible it's just a recipe from a Depression or World War II era cookbook or campaign to try and encourage people to be smart consumers!

Like many old fashioned recipes, this one is a little vague by our standards, and it took some guess work to get it working. First, I measured 1 1/2 cups of molasses into a bowl and added 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda. The recipe says to "let it become foam". I let it sit for a bit, and then decided this is probably when the recipe wants you to add 1 1/2 cups of boiling water into the bowl. I did, and it instantly started to foam up!

The rest of the ingredients are pretty straight forward: 1 cup of brown sugar, 1 pound of cut raisins, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 4 1/2 cups of flour all get mixed together. Oh, and a half pound of finely chopped salt pork. Did I forget to mention that?

I know, I was a little afraid too.

The recipe says you can also add candied citron, lemon and orange peel or other fruit if you want, but I decided to keep it simple this time.

This makes a lot of batter, so I had to split it between two loaf pans.

There is no baking time and the only temperature instruction is to leave it in a moderate oven. I baked it at 350 degrees for half an hour, and then let it cook in 15 minute intervals to see if it was done yet. It finally finished around 50 minutes or so, but I'd just keep checking. It's a fairly wet batter, so it might take a bit to set up.

The cake is very dark and pretty moist, with lots of raisins and some odder bits where the salt pork is. It didn't have much of a crust, which made cutting it easy.

I'm guessing this is an inexpensive Christmas cake because it doesn't require eggs, milk or white sugar, and thus could fit into the budget and/or ration coupons of just about any housewife during Roosvelt's presidency. I actually really love making eggless cakes. That's one of my favorite things running this blog has introduced me to! And this one is actually pretty nice in that it's moist and doesn't have a tough exterior. It's chewy, and there are a lot of raisins in it, so if you were to add extra fruit like the recipe suggests, I'd maybe recommend cutting down the raisins a little bit so you actually have some cake in there, too.

The only thing I didn't like was the salt pork. Or, maybe didn't like is too strong a phrase? I just kept sort of forgetting it was in there, so I'd take a bite and suddenly get a chewy, salty thing that just totally caught me off guard. It wasn't bad, but it was definitely unusual, and I think the fact that it's not something I've had before is what's kind of tripping me up. If I'd grown up eating cake with salt pork in it, honestly, I think this one would have been a winner for me. It's molassesy and sweet without being too sweet, and the raisins are very tasty and pair well with the molasses. It definitely tastes like Christmas! I might just leave out the salt pork next time.

So, there you have it. A weird but tasty(ish) cake, and a fun historical site to visit. What better way to really get the holiday season going? 

Special thanks to my parents for coming with me to Hyde Park, and specifically to my dad for taking the pictures and touching up the dark lighting, and to my mom for helping get the cake thrown together in a hurry. It's very much appreciated!

Time to settle in for a fireside chat!


  1. This was a very interesting read! I live near two presidential libraries and have visited both many times, each time I learn something new. I think I'll check out 'Eating with Uncle Sam', I especially want to try Ronald Reagan's Monkey Bread.

    1. Me too! It sounds delicious. Let me know if you give it a shot! :D