Food for Leaders

Abraham Lincoln’s Health

Thomas Hall Shastid, a young Lincoln contemporary, wrote that Lincoln showed up at his family home one evening as the family anxiously awaited a meal of fresh-killed quails: “Abe sat down at their hearty invitation in the place of honor at the head of the table and soon the platter of quails was placed before him. At first Abe not only ate voraciously, but talked vivaciously. After a little he fell suddenly into deep thought. One by one the quails disappeared into the vast Lincolnian reservoir. A gesture from grandmother kept all the rest from calling for quail. After a short time Abe, still abstracted, reached out his fork for the very last quail, took it to his own plate, and began to eat it. Then my father, who at this time was still very young, burst suddenly into tears, and cried out: ‘Abe Lincoln, you’re an old hog!’”1

“Indeed, he never knew what he did eat,” recalled Lincoln friend Joseph Gillespie. “He said to me once that he never felt his own utter unworthiness so much as when in the presence of a hotel clerk or waiter.”2 With age, Mr. Lincoln’s interest in food seemed to decrease. Contemporary Philip Wheelock Ayres, who as a child lived near the Lincolns wrote that to Lincoln “the matter of food was always one of comparative indifference. When called to meals he came when he was ready, and seemed never just ready to come.”3

Although careless about his own food consumption, Lincoln was careful to observe the food needs of others. For example, before he delivered his three-hour Peoria speech in October 1858, he made sure that he gave the crowd time off to get dinner. Attorney John O. Cunningham wrote of a campaign event in Urbana during the 1858 senatorial campaign: “I was one of the marshals of the day in control of the multitude of people who, in procession, met the speaker at the railroad station, two miles or more from the grounds where he was to speak. The escort was lengthy and occupied a long time in making the distance. When nearing the fair ground, I was riding upon horseback near the carriage of Mr. Lincoln, when he called me to him and asked, “Will there be a dinner served upon the grounds?” The question raised the presumption in my mind that, as it was then nearly twelve o’clock, he was feeling the need of refreshment, so he was answered, “Yes, Mr. Lincoln, you will be served with a good dinner as soon as we reach the grounds.” He at once replied, “That is not what I wanted to know for. If dinner is to be served, feed the people at once and then let me talk to them.” At the entrance to the grounds he was met by a committee of ladies and escorted to a seat at the head of the table supporting an abundance of barbecued food, at which particular seat had been placed the best of the spread for the use of the honored guest. He took the seat prepared for him, while the long tables were assailed by his followers, and began eating his dinner. Looking around, he saw an old woman standing not far away looking intently at him. He at once recognized her as a waiter and dish-washer at the hotel in Urbana, whom everybody knew as ‘Granny.’ He said to her, ‘Why, Granny, have you no place? You must have some dinner. Here, take my place.’ The old lady answered, “No, Mr. Lincoln, I just wanted to see you. I don’t want any dinner.” In spite of her protestations, Lincoln arose from his seat at the head of the table and compelled her to take his place and have her dinner, while he took his turkey leg and biscuit and, seating himself at the root of a nearby tree, ate his dinner, apparently with the greatest satisfaction: meanwhile Granny Hutchinson filled the place at the head of the table and ate her dinner as he had insisted she should do.”

This episode was characteristic of Lincoln. It required no unbending of assumed dignity, for. while he was at all times manly, he put on no airs of dignity. Instinctively he sympathized with the lowly wherever he met them, and the look of the lowly woman, standing aloof from those who were being fed, with no one to speak to her, appealed to his sense of right and he placed her in his preferred place, he taking for himself the lowly attitude. It was that same instinct that made him the friend of the black slave, and the emancipator of the race.4

Mr. Lincoln’s informality was attested to by a young woman Missouri who was invited to dine at the White House: “When a dish of anything was brought, he reached out for it, handled the spoon like an ordinary farmer, saying to all in his reach: ‘Will you have some of this?” dishing it into our plates liberally. And so it was throughout the whole dinner, as he said, truly informal.”5 A Lincoln aide recalled: “During busy times, and when Mrs. Lincoln was away, he would have his breakfast, his lunch, and frequently his dinner brought to him in his office, where he would work patiently, thoughtfully and untiringly, from early morn until late at night – his whole manner conveying to an observer the idea of a man who carried a load too great for human strength; and, as the years went on and the load grew heavier, it bowed him into premature old age. He was the American Atlas.”6

“He was very abstemious – ate less than any one I know,” recalled another aide. “Drank nothing but water – not from principle, but because he did not like wine or spirits. Once, in rather dark days early in the war, a Temperance Committee came to him & said the reason we did not win was because our army drank so much whiskey as to bring down the curse of the Lord upon them. He said dryly that it was rather unfair on the part of the aforesaid curse, as the other side drank more and worse whiskey than ours did.”7

Churchill could accept second-rate food when necessary, but never second-rate cigars. (Winston Churchill had developed a taste for cigars when he visited Cuba in 1895. Abraham Lincoln didn’t smoke.) Churchill secretary Elizabeth Layton noted: “It was no good trying to palm off Mr. Churchill with anything but the best cigars, and Sawyers was always scurrying about to keep a sufficiency in store.”8 He did not like to wait to be fed, however. “When one wakes up after daylight one should breakfast; five hours after that luncheon; six hours after luncheon, dinner.” He ate, his said “on tommy time.”9 Food was important to Churchill. Historian Richard Holmes wrote: “Winston usually awoke at about 8.30 a.m., and enjoyed a proper breakfast (cold game was a favourite) before spending the morning reading the most important daily newspapers, and then studying the papers in his despatch box, often in bed. A decent lunch was accompanied by champagne (he had a particular affection for Pol Roger) and after it he retired for a nap. The second phase of the day began when he awoke and began sipping weak whisky and water. It continued through meetings that often went on till 10 p.m. or later, and he retired only after informal conversation that ended well after midnight.”10 Churchill colleagues were often ready for bed after a late dinner – only to realize that the prime minister was getting a second wind.

“When I dine after a hard day’s work, I like serenity, calm, good food, cold beverages,” he declared. He liked “fine, well prepared meals, consisting of plain food as that term was understood by his class of the day” wrote Cita Stelzer.11 Churchill liked simple if expensive food; he didn’t like sauces or creamed soups.. The head of the White House Secret Service during World War II recalled that Churchill “ate, and thoroughly enjoyed, more food than any two men or three diplomats; and he consumed brandy and scotch with a grace and enthusiasm that left us all openmouthed in awe.”12 In World War II, Churchill was lucky that Georgina Landemere, a noted chef, volunteered to be the family’s full-time cook, much to the family’s delight.13 The head of the White House Secret Service during World War II recalled that Churchill “ate, and thoroughly enjoyed, more food than any two men or three diplomats; and he consumed brandy and scotch with a grace and enthusiasm that left us all openmouthed in awe.”14

Churchill’s aides were frequently invited to dine with the Churchills and their valued this intimacy. Not so with Lincoln. Even Lincoln’s two close aides who slept just down the hall at the White House seldom ate with their boss. Instead, John G. Nicolay and John Hay took their meals at the nearby Willard’s Hotel. But that arrangement may well reflect the fact that Lincoln placed much less emphasis on meals or the social aspects of dinner conversation. Even Lincoln’s longtime legal partner, William H. Herndon, seldom dined at the Lincolns’ nearby Springfield home. The lack of dinner invitations may also have reflected the fact that Lincoln’s closest collaborators like Nicolay and Herndon were out of favor with Mrs. Lincoln. Eating with Churchill could be a drama. John Colville wrote of a night in December 19480 when “the tastelessness of the soup so excited his frenzy that he rushed out of the room to harangue the cook and returned to give a disquisition on the inadequacy of the food at Chequers and the fact that ability to make good soup is the test of a cook.”15

Churchill was concerned about everything – not the least of which was the diet of Britain’s citizens. Historian David Dilks wrote: “The Minister of Food was instructed to look at the production of rabbits, for everything must be done to sustain the meagre meat ration. ‘Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like,’ the Prime Minister informed him, ‘have died prematurely after a long period of senile decay.’ Churchill himself, who is recording consuming for a single breakfast two eggs, ham, chicken, coffee, toast butter, marmalade, two oranges and a glass of juice, shook his head over the strange diets favoured by Lord Cherwell and Sir Stafford Cripps, whom he greeted thus when the chanced to arrive late: ‘Well, gentlemen, if you have finished toying with your beetroot, we will get on with more important matters.”16

During World War II, Churchill was careful to stick within Britain’s rationing rules – applying to the Ministry of Food for extra ration coupons to feed special dinner guests. He was fortunate that well-placed friends made sure that he received food and liquor gifts. “Churchill shored up Britain’s willingness to endure the hardships of shortages of food and most civilian goods in order to win the war,” wrote Stelzer. “His management of the rationing scheme was one of his least remarked and most important contributions.”17 Still, Churchill did like good food. Aide John Colville wrote: “Clementine Churchill thought that her husband’s least admirable characteristic was a yearning for luxury so pronounced that he would accept hospitality from anybody able to offer the surroundings and the amenities he enjoyed. Lord Birkenhead had made the much-quoted quip: ‘Mr. Churchill is easily satisfied with the best.’ It was a side of him abhorrent to Clementine’s principles, and there was undeniably an element of truth in her criticism.”18

For Further Reference

  1. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 65 (Thomas Hall Shastid, Nation, February 20, 1929).
  2. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles, p. 462 (Joseph Gillespie). P.462.
  3. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 86 (Philip Wheelock Ayres, Review of Reviews, February 1918)
  4. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, pp. 120-121 (John O. Cunningham, speech before Fireland’s Pioneer Association, July 4, 1907).
  5. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 378 (Anna Byers-Jennings)
  6. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 149 (Sketch 2).
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 331 (Letter from John Hay to William H. Herndon, September 5, 1866).
  8. Elizabeth Nels, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 23.
  9. Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate, Volume IV, pp. 727-728.
  10. Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Churchill: A Study in Character, pp. 232-233.
  11. Cita Stelzer, Dinner with Churchill, p. 182.
  12. Jean Edward Smith, FDR, p. 543-544.
  13. Cita Stelzer, Dinner with Churchill, p. 189.
  14. Jean Edward Smith, FDR, p. 543-544.
  15. John Colville, The Fringes of Power, p. 309 (December 12, 1940).
  16. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 46-47
  17. Cita Stelzer, Dinner with Churchill, pp. 218-233.
  18. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 271.
Posted in Essays