Learning in Retirement with Nina Scott: Food migration and first ladies

  • Nina Scott, of UMass, learned about first ladies and made a very complicated cake. Submitted photo

  • Katy van Geel displays a “black nut cake” she and Nina Scott made during a Five College Learning in Retirement seminar on first ladies and their favorite dishes.

For the Recorder
Published: 6/9/2021 9:50:02 AM

Five College Learning in Retirement, as you might know, offers a spate of some 25 seminars per semester. Katy van Geel and I have headed up several food-related seminars such as “Food Migration,” which we offered last semester. In that seminar, we traced where certain foods originated and how they spread around the world.

Katy and I also enrolled in a seminar on “First Ladies,” which was equally fascinating. Linda Honan, our moderator, decided that we would meet for an open-air luncheon, with everyone contributing a dish, at the end of the course.  

One of our chosen first ladies was, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt, an inexperienced cook who employed a Mrs. Nesbitt (whom she knew from Hyde Park) because she needed a job. But Mrs. Nesbitt did not shine in the kitchen.

“Mrs. Nesbitt turned out meals so gray, so drooping, and so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend,” said food historian Laura Shapiro.

Things got better when FDR headed south to Warm Springs, Georgia, for relief from his polio; here some accomplished Southern cooks made his life a lot happier.

For our luncheon, Katy decided on making FDR’s favorite “Black Nut Cake,” which is a tremendous amount of work, but there were trained cooks and bakers among the staff at Warm Springs. A wonderful Black cook named Daisy Bonner cooked for FDR when he was in residence and made this cake for him.

Katy got the recipe at the gift shop in Warm Springs — she had expressed an interest in things culinary and the man tending the cash register reached under the counter and presented her with this recipe.

While perusing the ingredients in this cake, I realized that they were perfect examples of food migration. Cane sugar originated in New Guinea and spread to India and west; beet sugar was first cultivated in Germany. Sherry (a fortified wine) comes from southern Spain. Vanilla, pecans and allspice originated in the Americas, cinnamon in Indonesia and China, and cloves and nutmeg are also from Indonesia.

Nutmeg has an especially intriguing history. It was first recorded to have been grown in the Banda islands, specifically and at first only on the tiny island of Run. In the early 17th century, the English controlled the island, but were surrounded by Dutch colonizers, which made keeping it difficult; the situation was reversed in North America, so the Dutch proposed a swap: Run for Manhattan. The English accepted.

So — you never know where foods and history will lead you.

Nina M. Scott is professor emerita of Spanish from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a member of Five College Learning in Retirement.

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