The release of The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton’s World arrived at the perfect time—and not just for the reasons you might think.
There is currently a convergence of pop culture’s portrayal of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s life in a Tony award-winning Broadway hit and a contemporary reexamining of our nation’s history and meaning of our historical symbols. Context is critical for processing and understanding historical events.
Coming into this project with a bias toward current popular culture, I expected to delve into favorite recipes from actor/playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and other cast members of the Broadway phenom Hamilton. However, the Jewish author of this cookbook, Laura Kumin, has created something with much more substance and significance. Kumin’s book is well researched and thoughtful, half historical context and half cookbook.
“This isn’t just a cookbook,” Kumin said. “This was an opportunity to learn about Hamilton and his food. I’ve never seen the play Hamilton, and I didn’t listen to the music until after I wrote the book. I said, ‘This will be my take,’ and I started to research.”
We should also take the book’s author in context; this is a book about an attorney written by an attorney—and dedicated to her attorney spouse. File this story under Romance/Only in DC: “Doing the research connected to my life as a young person in Washington. When [my husband] Kevin and I dated, we had no money, and he took me to the Library of Congress on dates.”
In her research, Kumin found herself back at our nation’s library and on its online catalog where a longtime friend and librarian helped her navigate a trove of 18th-century cookbooks and other documents. Kumin’s background in research, analysis and logic offer readers a comprehensive overview of the challenges of food storage, cooking and eating in Revolutionary America.
Using this extensive research, 12 pages of the book are devoted to an insightful timeline of Alexander Hamilton’s life in context with contemporaneous events and food-related facts.
Kumin explained, “There are tons of letters to his wife, kids, but not what he liked to eat. A lot of what we know is about the time period, not hi[s tastes] personally.” There is one dinner, however, that Kumin describes in her book as a meal that changed history, and it is well documented.
On June 20, 1790, Hamilton and James Madison were invited to Thomas Jefferson’s home for a dinner where the three men reached a historic compromise. Hamilton agreed to locate America’s capital city in the South along the Potomac River, and in exchange, Madison rallied support for Hamilton’s federal monetary policy.
Following the meal of rooster stuffed with Virginia ham, boeuf à la mode, a bevy of side dishes and more, Hamilton is reported to have been most thrilled by what Kumin described as “vanilla ice cream enclosed in pastry—like Beef Wellington, but with ice cream inside.” Just seven years prior to the dinner with Jefferson and Madison block ice was made available for shipping, thus revolutionizing methods of refrigeration and freezing, making it possible to make and serve such a dessert.
In addition to the methods of cooking and serving meals, Kumin goes into some detail regarding the contrary ideas Hamilton held about eliminating slavery yet benefiting from it personally, especially at the dinner table. For example, the French-trained chef who made the exquisite meal at Monticello was, in fact, James Hemings, Jefferson’s slave and Sally Hemings’ brother.
There is also a Jewish context to the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton. Historians have documented that Hamilton attended Jewish day school on the Caribbean island of Nevis, learning the Ten Commandments in the original Hebrew.
What is not yet widely accepted or published is new research unearthed by Dr. Andrew Porwancher that he claims proves Alexander Hamilton was Jewish by birth, and that his mother’s first husband Johann Michael Lavien’s last name was actually Lavine. The theory goes that Hamilton’s mother, née Rachel Faucette, would not have been able to marry Lavine had she not converted, and once converted, she was Jewish thereafter. Ergo, her boys Alexander and James, Jr., though not fathered by Lavien/Lavine, were born Jewish. This potentially riveting research is due to be published in Porwancher’s forthcoming book under contract with the Harvard University Press, The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life.
All of this historical background is preamble to a trove of more than 20 recipes, the majority of which are vegetarian, kosher style or can be modified to accommodate for kashrut. As for the design of this portion of the book, Kumin noted, “I wanted people to see the original [18th-century] recipe. I included the page from the original cookbook and then my recipe explaining how to make it in your kitchen.”
Choosing recipes to include in the book was a challenging process. “I stayed away from recipes with eels, turtles, pigeons.” Modifying recipes for the 21st-century cook involved a lot of trial and error because foods were more heavily spiced back in the days before widespread refrigeration, and often the spices were used to mask the taste of spoiled meats.
Kumin has crafted a book that will be appreciated by history enthusiasts as well as those who are enchanted with Miranda’s Hamilton and crave additional context.