Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lincoln Cottage: Washington, D.C.'s Hidden Gem

A truly humbling aspect of living in a place like Washington, D.C. is that the city is a living, breathing shrine to history. Monuments, memorials and museums scattered throughout the city tell stories of mere mortals that built a nation from ground up and of their triumphs and tragedies that hold significance centuries later. The museums that line Constitution Avenue house artifacts that bring history alive, the cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin are a living testament to the strength of the relationship between nations.

Lincoln Cottage, from the front.
But every once in a while, no matter how long you’ve lived in the area, you come across a witness to history that somehow managed to remain off the beaten path.  The Lincoln Cottage, a home on the grounds of a residence for military veterans, a few miles from the White House and the Capitol, is one such gem.

During some the most intense periods of his presidency, in the summers of 1862, ’63 and ’64, this cottage served as the Lincoln family home, and an escape from oppressive Washington summers and from the stranglehold of DC politics and society.

The cottage itself is a simple home – especially when compared to the surrounding stone structures (one of which looks like a castle) of the Armed Forces Retirement Home – with the usual complement of rooms in the upper and lower floors, and a porch.

A sculpture of Lincoln and his horse.
What sets it apart from all those other monuments and memorials is that it is almost completely bare. Save for a few chairs and tables, the rooms are empty. And this, oddly enough, turns out to be Lincoln Cottage’s strength.

It allows your imagination to fill in the gaps and ease into the times Lincoln must have paced these rooms mulling over the war the gripped the country; or sat out on the porch with his breakfast looking on to the grassy expanse dotted with soldiers’ tents as his eyes settled on the horizon and on the Capitol that was being built; or received guests and favor-seekers who followed in his path when they found he’d left the White House for the cottage.

The field that held soldiers' tents. Beyond the trees is a
view of the Capitol
Much of the information about Lincoln’s time at the cottage is gleaned from the diaries of the soldiers who camped out in the field beyond the porch at the back of the house and from the personal notes of Lincoln’s visitors. The soldiers formed part of his security detail and wrote of what must have been mundane interactions for them then but now provide us with rich insights into daily life in the Lincoln household.

The knowledgeable tour guides at the cottage also paint a vivid picture of Lincoln’s thought process as he poured all his energies into the war and into the drafting and passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Those were tough times in the Lincoln White House and in the Lincoln household, as the family also struggled to come to grips with the loss of a son and brother.

The cottage, located as it was away from the center of all the action and at an elevation that provided succor from the muggy heat of the swampy area near the White House, was a welcome refuge.

Any history buff or Lincoln fan is fortunate indeed to have this portion of the President’s life preserved and restored to how it must have looked during his life there. Because of its size and non-official nature, the cottage seems to afford a much more personal connection to the man who just happened to be one of the most important thinkers and leaders of this country.

The back of the cottage.


Lincoln Cottage is located at the intersection of Upshur Street and Rock Creek Church Road in NW Washington, D.C., on the campus of the Armed Services Retirement Home. For visitors’ hours, tour information and tickets (required), visit their website.

Friday, April 17, 2015

South Indian Vegetarian Homestyle Cooking: A Guide to Essential Spices

My new essay on the basic spices used in South Indian vegetarian cuisine includes a recipe for Potato and Onion Curry. An excerpt is below. The entire essay is on The Aerogram.

Indian cuisine is vastly diverse, not only in terms of ingredients, traditions, and techniques, but also in terms of levels of complexity — ranging from simple curries and chutneys to the biryanis that demand multiple discrete steps and hours to cook.

Most Indian home cooking, however, particularly vegetarian home cooking, boasts of a repertoire of recipes that allow one to achieve sophisticated flavors with a few basic fresh and dry spices and herbs. Those recipes and a few slightly higher on the complexity spectrum — from the South Indian kitchens of my childhood and now my own — will be the focus of this essay and the ones that follow.