What Abraham Lincoln Ate

Abraham Lincoln loved popcorn, oysters, and a strong cup of coffee. Doesn't that make you love him even more?

Abe sits in the thick of things, right where he liked to be, on Vine Street in Lexington, in this spectacular Eduardo Kobra mural.

So Abe had an umami palate. Just like me. Like a few billion people around the world, across about 150 years, I feel an awed, loving kinship with Abraham Lincoln, though not with his great capacity for compassion—that defies understanding.

I just finished reading Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The author makes a case that a life of what we would now call depression contributed directly to Lincoln's greatness in the face of impossible personal and societal suffering. The book barely mentions food, although at one point in his presidency, Mr. Lincoln shrugs off a call to dinner because he's enjoying telling jokes, one of his forms of relief from relentless grief. Poetry was another.

In the afterword Shenk shares his discoveries about Lincoln's food preferences and more tidbits about this extraordinary Kentuckian that didn't fit in a long inquiry into how a person governed by deep sadness still functioned at extraordinary levels of thought, action and judgment. A rewarding, recommended read.

I bumped into the book through recommendations from another trusted source—Parker Palmer, the treasured public intellectual and teacher of peace and wholehearted living who spent a season at Berea College (of course!) some years ago. Palmer's book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, is central to a new project of mine. Palmer doesn't mention food either, but even so, this book and his others, including the first, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life, bring the quiet, persistent strength of deep hospitality to the work of building a civil society that welcomes all of us to a big table.