Memorial Day honors all who sacrificed their lives while serving in the U.S. military, but it started as a Civil War remembrance. In the spring of 1866, a year after the war ended, people in towns in the North and in the South placed flowers on the graves of the war dead, calling the practice “Decoration Day.”
The first large national observance took place on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. Union General (and future U.S. President) Ulysses S. Grant attended the first Memorial Day observance. Children and veterans placed flowers on the graves. This was a fitting place to honor soldiers from both sides of the war, as the cemetery started when Union soldiers took over Arlington House, the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and buried their dead on his lawn. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington (our nation’s original First Lady) were married in the parlor there in 1831. The Lee family lived there until the Civil War started in 1861.
To honor the original spirit of Memorial Day, and my family roots on both sides of the Civil War – Virginia and West Virginia – I made a recipe from General Grant and another from General Lee. The Food Timeline maintains an extensive database of Presidential recipes, which is where I found out that Grant’s favorite dessert was rice pudding. According to The First Ladies Cookbook by Margaret Brown Klapthor, many of President Grant’s state dinners consisted of 29(!) courses with a break after the entree for Roman punch to fortify the guests.
How fitting that one of the recipes from the Lee family posted by the National Park Service, which now operates the Arlington House, is for Roman punch. Using a base of tea, sugar, and currant jelly, the thick punch gets its kick from rum and brandy. My husband and I found the Roman punch too thick and sweet, but easily solved that problem with more rum. When the rice pudding tasted somewhat bland, that proved easy to solve, too: a tablespoon or two of Roman punch sprinkled over the top. Here’s to national unity as well as a somber remembrance of all soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in our wars.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Favorite Rice Pudding
(Adapted from The President’s Cookbook, by Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks, 1968)
3/4 cup long-grain white rice
1 1/2 quarts (6 cups) milk
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup slivered almonds
Cinnamon and nutmeg, to taste
Zest of 1 lemon (optional – this was my addition)
- Place the rice in a saucepan. Add the milk and simmer very slowly, stirring occasionally, until the rice is soft, about 2 hours. Add the butter, remove from heat, and cool.
- Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, beat the eggs well and stir them into the rice mixture. Add the sugar and mix carefully.
- Pour the mixture into a large greased baking pan and add 1/2 cup slivered almonds, mixing them gently into the pan.
- Bake in a medium-warm (325 degrees) oven until the custard sets, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle a mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg over the top and serve. Delicious either warm with cream or chilled.
Robert E. Lee Family’s Roman Punch
(Adapted from a Lee family recipe in The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book by Anne Carter Zimmer, great-granddaughter of Robert E. Lee)
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts
1 1/2 scant cups sugar
1/2 cup seedless blackberry jelly (original recipe calls for currant jelly but I couldn’t find it)
3 1/2 cups water
Juice of 3 lemons
1/2 cup brandy
1/3 cup black rum
3 tablespoons or 3 bags of green (or black) tea
- Heat 1 3/4 cups water in a saucepan with the jelly and sugar, stirring to dissolve.
- Boil the remaining 1 3/4 cups water and make the tea.
- Combine the tea and jelly mixtures in a heat-proof container. Let cool to room temperature.
- Add the lemon juice, brandy and rum, stirring to combine. Cover and leave overnight at room temperature, or store up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Freeze if you like.
Notes from the original recipe: Unsweetened peach brandy is best, but a medium-priced regular French brandy will do. Made with 70- to 80- proof rum (35 to 40 percent alcohol), this becomes a smooth, soft sorbet, a delightful summer dessert. More alcohol and less sugar produce a daiquiri-like cocktail that semifreezes. Or still-freeze it to a slushy consistency and pour it without more ice into a punch bowl.