I have always had a soft spot for Calvin Coolidge, America’s 30th president and New England native. “Silent Cal” was president during the jazzy, carefree decade after World War I but but before the Great Depression, and his legacy remains a muddled mix of conservative politics, quiet reserve, dry wit, Puritan frugality, and a willingness to pose for pictures, sometimes wearing a Native American headdress.
He also loved corn muffins, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Born in Plymouth Notch, Vermont on July 4, 1872, Cal went on to graduate from Amherst College in Amherst, MA before setting up a law practice in nearby Northampton. In addition to practicing law, he also jumped into politics, steadily progressing from city and state seats, to winning the Vice-Presidency on Warren G. Harding’s Republican ticket in 1920. Then, on August 2, 1923, Harding suffered a stroke and died, making Calvin the new president. Because he was visiting his father at the time in Vermont, President Coolidge was sworn in by lantern-light on the family bible. It doesn’t get any folksier than that.
Coolidge was your stereotypical Yankee, and thus, utterly endearing. In the midst of great economic extravagance, Coolidge stubbornly maintained his silent, conservative demeanor and droll personality. Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter Alice once remarked that Cal looked like he had been “weaned on a pickle,” and I confess she had a point. President Coolidge believed his countrymen wanted a solemn president, and he fit the bill nicely.
The most famous Coolidge story has it that he was seated next to a society woman at a dinner party, who chattered on for a time, then paused to reveal she had made a bet with friends that claimed she wouldn’t be able to get more than two words out of the President all evening. Without looking at her he replied only, “You lose.”
Great animal lovers, the Coolidge family had an absolute menagerie of pets, which intensified during their years in the White House, where gifts of exotic pets were a Presidential perk. Several birds, cats, dogs, a bear, tiger cubs, a wombat, fish, and even a raccoon named Rebecca made their homes in and around the Executive Mansion. The president himself was fond of wandering the corridors with a cat named Tige draped around his neck. Just pause for a moment and imagine that!
No slouch in her own right, First Lady Grace Coolidge’s official White House portrait shows her in a striking roaring twenties red dress with collie Rob Roy (his female companion was named Prudence Prim) at her feet. Grace was charming, chatty, and the ideal counterpart to her silent, watchful, albeit very humorous husband.
Preferring things simple, Cal enjoyed a casual White House kitchen with menus reminiscent of his Yankee upbringing. For breakfast he preferred homemade hot cereal, griddle cakes, and especially cornmeal muffins. He had such a love for the cornmeal muffins he had grown up with that a recipe had to be sent down to Washington from a New England Inn to satisfy the President’s craving.
To pay tribute to Calvin Coolidge in a culinary fashion could only be to make corn muffins. It doesn’t have to be his favorite recipe….it just needs to be New England in origin, and undoubtedly delicious. I looked no further than my newly acquired copy of “The Best Recipes From New England Inns,” where sure enough, the iconic Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA had a recipe to share.
These corn muffins use more bread flour than cornmeal, making them less gritty than your average corn muffin, and the baking powder helps give them glorious domed tops. I am sure President Coolidge would have approved, though he probably would have done so with silence.
I could live with that.