Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th, 1809…207 years ago. He went on to become one of our most storied presidents. And the legislative actions he took shape our nation’s food system even today.

As we approach the Presidents’ Day weekend, UC Food Observer provides a brief history lesson about Abraham Lincoln, his impact on the nation’s food system…and a bonus recipe from food historian Rae Katherine Eighmey.

Lincoln’s influence on the American food system is evident even today. He signed into law the Morrill Land Grant Act, the legislation creating land grant universities, the primary place where American agricultural research and education occurs. This legislation was the genesis of America’s system of public higher education, including the University of California.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He also signed the Homestead Act and Railroad Act, which had enormous implications for American agriculture, opening up vast tracts of land to settlement and farming. Lincoln created the USDA, making it a cabinet-level agency. (Today, the USDA Secretary is included in the presidential succession, oversees more than 100,000 employees working in 17 agencies domestically and abroad…and manages an annual budget of more than $150B). The position is arguably one of the most overlooked  – but most important – positions in the President’s Cabinet.

Lincoln also cooked.

I learned this by reading Rae Eighmey’s Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times.

Rae is a food historian, and a prolific author. She’s kind of a big deal, as you can learn from NPR The Salt’s interview with her a couple of years ago. Rae is also an accomplished cook, recipe re-creator and engaged civic eater. Here’s how she describes herself and her work:

“For me, food is the stuff of memory and of discovery. The cultural studies label is “foodways,” but I think the best word is “cooking.” And for the past two decades, cooking with century-old recipes, then eating meals made from them, has been my path for understanding and interpreting social trends and historical events.”

The following recipe is provided by Rae. We hope that you make it with those you love and relish it. If you do, please post pictures so that we can share them on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. You can also Tweet them to us @ucfoodobserver.


Abraham Lincoln’s Gingerbread Men – Recipe by Rae Eighmey

These tasty gingerbread men are a perfect way to celebrate President’s Day.  Let the kids or grandkids help. The men are as easy to make as playing with clay.

They may also be the recipe closest to what Abraham Lincoln actually ate.

Lincoln described the ingredients and texture when he lived in the White House. Earlier, during the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, senatorial candidate Lincoln used an anecdote about how his poor Hoosier neighbor boy loved gingerbread more than anyone and never got any, reflecting that as a poor lawyer, he seldom heard praise and was so overcome by that heaped—insincerely—upon him by Senator Douglas that Lincoln lost his train of thought and forgot to get angry. At least that’s what Honest Abe said. His reverse ridicule won over the crowd in Ottawa, Illinois that summer day in 1858. And, although he lost the election, he was on his way to winning the hearts of the nation.


  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup sorghum syrup or light or dark molasses
  • 3 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold salted butter


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Lightly grease 2 baking sheets. Pour the milk into a glass measuring cup. Add the sorghum syrup and stir the two together. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda and ginger. Slice the butter into small pieces and cut into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter or 2 knives until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Add the milk-and-sorghum mixture and stir well with a fork or spoon, kneading until smooth like children’s play clay.

To make gingerbread men about 4 inches high, break off a piece of dough a little larger than a golf ball. Place it on the work surface and roll it lightly under your palms to form a pencil-thin rope of dough about 12 inches long. Break off a 4-inch-long piece and set aside: This will become the arms.

Fold the remaining rope in half to form a narrow, upside-down V. Grasp at the folded top, pinch together 1 inch down from the top and twist, forming the head and neck. Place the arm piece across the back under the neck. Gently press to secure.

Place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat these steps with the remaining dough.

Bake until the cookies are lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Watch closely as the sorghum or molasses in the dough can burn quickly.


Yield: About 18 gingerbread men