The Culinary Lives of John and Abigail Adams: A Cookbook features foods the Adams family enjoyed—together and separately—as described in the thousands of letters the couple exchanged during the course of their 54-year marriage.
A dish best served old
Recreating recipes from the past wasn’t simple for Rosana Wan, BA ’11, who earned her degree in American history. It took thorough research and lots of trial and error. To make her recipes authentic, she cross-referenced the foods Adams ate to American and European recipes of the same time period. She also wanted to stay true to the 18th and 19th century cooking experience as much as possible. So, like Abigail Adams, the self-proclaimed “foodie traveler” created the recipes using old-style methods of cooking, such as making roast turkey stuffing from scratch and using a whisk to make whipped cream.
Yet Wan doesn’t expect the same of her readers. She modernized the recipes by updating measurements, cooking temperatures, and techniques, since most modern cooks are not using wood stoves or brick ovens in their kitchens.
The dishes that readers can hope to enjoy range from the familiar roast chicken and mashed potatoes to the more unusual whipt syllabub and grog. Wan even includes guides for recreating dinner parties that would be fit for any 18th-century event.
Making history more palatable
Wan’s venture into the culinary world may seem unexpected. But while history is her love, food has always been a major theme in her life. As an immigrant from Hong Kong, one of the ways Wan learned to speak English was by learning the names of foods she came across in a relative’s New York restaurant. Her interest in food only grew from there. Now, as a sergeant in the Army National Guard, she puts her food savvy to use as a military food service specialist.
So it was only natural that she was intrigued by the Adamses’ culinary habits given her personal interests and years of research into their lives. From reading and rereading her favorite biography, John Adams by David McCullough, to yearly visits to the Adams National Historical Park, to eventually working at the same park as a seasonal park ranger, Wan learned so much about the “dynamic, extraordinary couple” that they became like family.
But as much she enjoys investigating the Adamses’ unique history, Wan recognized that some people view history as a monotonous catalog of dates, times, and facts. Wanting to change that, she used the one thing that people always seem to enjoy—food.
“I use food as a way to invite people,” she says. Food became her way to make history “more interesting and approachable.”
She hopes that her cookbook will show people that, beyond facts, history is about “stories of people’s lives.” And because all the different kinds of foods Adams ate are recorded in his biography, diaries, and letters between him and his wife, there are plenty of stories for Wan to share.
Key ingredients for success
It was a three-year-long “marathon” that took The Culinary Lives of John and Abigail Adams: A Cookbook from an idea to publication.
When Wan first considered writing a book about the Adamses’ culinary lives, she took her idea back to her Suffolk mentors. She was met with encouragement from history Professors Patricia Reeve and Robert Allison, the department chair, both of whom continued to mentor her during the writing process.
Moved by their support, Wan noted her appreciation of “the folks in the Suffolk community who speak out and help their students to dare to dream for a better future. And so I was fortunate to have some great professors to work with.”
Wan relied on self-motivation, faith, and support from friends and mentors to keep her going as she dealt with rejection and setbacks.
“Publishing a book, first you have to be patient, you have to be committed, and you’ll find disappointment along the way,” Wan says, “It’s not easy.”
The final course
Despite the hurdles, The Culinary Lives of John and Abigail Adams: A Cookbook was released last year—fittingly on Oct. 30, John Adams’ birthday.
“Something like this comes out and you start a talk — a dialogue — and it inspires other to come into the conversation. And that’s what I wanted to do,” Wan explains, “start this talk, get the interest out there, get people excited about it.”
Even though she is now officially a published author, Wan is still adjusting to her new title. “It’s a new thing. It’s a little weird,” she says. “Being a new author it’s...I think the word is cool.”