March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849
“If I should be so fortunate as to reach the White House, I expect to live on twenty-five thousand dollars a year and I will neither keep house nor make butter.” – Sarah Childress Polk
Though we still haven’t had a woman president (it’s coming; I feel it), we have had women who ran presidents. Sarah Childress Polk was one of them and she was all business. With an advanced education for a woman of her time and no children, Sarah was ambitious to the core. It was rumored she told President Polk during their courtship that she wouldn’t marry him unless he ran for office. That’s one way of doing it.
When her “dark horse” Jacksonian husband beat the famous Henry Clay of Kentucky on a platform of Manifest Destiny, she was ready to put in serious hours to help her significant other. The presidency turned out to be one which added vast lands to America but not without conflict (most notably the Mexican-American War and increased tensions over slavery in the West). All the while, she was his sounding board and helped research issues, gauged public sentiment, and attended sessions at Congress. She even shared his office in their quarters. Sarah was; however, always careful not to cross the line of what was acceptable for a lady of the time, lest she be mistaken as an equal. Gasp!
With that schedule, who has time to party? In terms of the social calendar and menus during his term, Sarah did host but followed her strict Presbyterian sensibilities and got rid of the hard liquor, dancing, and lavish meals. Events took on a very formal tone, as she was more interested in conversation than cakes (much to the dismay of the District’s society ladies). What they did serve reflected their Tennessee roots. It was simple fare: slabs of meat, gravy, and breads. In her attempt to cut costs, she even bargained with local vendors to let them put “official flour provider to the president” (or the like) on their products for a discount. Genius. At the end of the day, work was their sustenance and food meant very little to either Polk. Lord knows what Sarah could have accomplished if she had a microwave.
President Polk said all along he was only interested in one term and, after it was over, they embarked on a goodwill tour of the South on their way home to Nashville, culminating in a visit to New Orleans. New Orleans is my absolute heaven, teeming with fried foods and ladles of cream. To James Polk, it was a nightmare and one journalist noted that he “died of an overdose of Southern hospitality.” It was, in fact, a hardcore case of cholera, but nevertheless Polk was brought down by The Big Easy.
In keeping with the Polks’ lack of interest in food and love of penny-pinching, the original recipe from the time was horrifically dry. No amount of jelly or honey could save it. In order to give cornbread the praise it deserves, I have made substantial changes. There is also a real debate whether cornbread should have sugar or not. This version is without, but my all means add a large spoonful of sugar (or two) if you have a sweet tooth. If you are going the savory route, I suggest adding 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese and chopped jalapenos (to taste). It will give it a real Texas feel.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp Salt
3 tsps baking powder
2 Eggs, beaten
1 cup whole milk
¼ cup shortening (Crisco or the like)
Preheat oven to 375F
Sift cornmeal, flour, and salt together
add beaten eggs
add baking powder
Combine until smooth
put in hot greased skillet (grease with Crisco or butter)
place in bottom of oven until done (about 25 mins)
Optional: Place under broiler for a few moments until brown