The Question: Something Smells Fishy

If Abigail Adams were planning an Independence Day feast what would she make? According to a 1964 New York Times article: “gdrawings_box2_folder7reen turtle soup, New England poached salmon with egg sauce and apple pan dowdy.” In fact, the article claims she served this fine menu to John Adams on the very first Independence Day. Is the story sounding a bit strange to you, too?

Edible Queens, a local food magazine for Queens, New York, tasked Sarah Lohman (author of the blogs Four Pounds Flour and Ephemera) with recreating an early Fourth of July menu. Research led her to the New York Times article but she had her own doubts: apples in early July? So she wrote to AAS with a question, was the article’s claim true or just a myth?

We call myth. As we all know, John was busy in Philadelphia that July 4th. And poor Abigail had an eye infection. In fact, she wrote John on July 13, 1776 from Massachusetts apologizing for a silence of nearly a month, “I have really had so many cares upon my Hands and Mind, with a bad inflamation [sic] in my Eyes that I have not been able to write.”

But dear readers, that is as far as we got. And now we need your help. Where did this myth come from? Is there truth to any of it? The New York Times article described the meal in context of its recreation for the 1964 World’s Fair.

At the Festival ’64 Restaurant in the Gas Pavilion, George Lang, director of the restaurant, came up with a meal served by Abigail and John Adams at their home on July 4, 1776. Actually the Adams family first served this meal in 1773. It was such a memorable meal that Mrs. Adams served it on the first Independence Day. (“Fourth of July Glorious as Usual, But Especially Glorious at Fair” by Philip Dougherty in the New York Times, July 5, 1964 page 44.)


Rumors of Abigail Adams’ 18th century handwritten cookbook float around, but does it exist? The Massachusetts Historical Society has an extensive digitized collection of Adams Family Papers, but we had no luck there. Given the success of our first  reference question post, we’re trying again. Anyone have any answers or thoughts? As usual we offer the weighty prizes of admiration and praise.

Even if this mystery goes unsolved, be sure to look for Sarah’s article on a historically inspired Fourth of July feast in the summer issue of Edible Queens.

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Diann Benti

Assistant Reference Librarian

6 thoughts on “The Question: Something Smells Fishy”

  1. In any case, John Adams didn’t think of July 4, 1776, as a special occasion at the time — he expected that July 2 would be celebrated as Independence Day.

  2. I’ve had salmon and peas for many years for the 4th of July. My mom said they did, too, growing up, and even had canned salmon for 4th of July during the Great Depression. It’s quite a tradition here, especially with egg sauce. I wonder if it’s because both salmon and peas are at their best harvest here in New England in early summer?

  3. Abigail Adams served a 114-pound turtle at a dinner-party for diplomats while she and her husband were in London in late 1785. She wrote home to her sister Mary Cranch about this event on 1 October.

    But as to the “very first Independence Day,” the Adamses were in separate states in July 1776. And July 1777. Charitably, the original write-up might have meant the first Independence Day the couple celebrated together, or as President and First Lady, or in the White House. But I haven’t found confirmation for any such menu on any day. Aside from the 114-pound turtle, of course.

  4. The root of this might be in sloppy or over interpretation of a passage in the “American Heritage Cookbook”. It was published in 1964 so it’s contemporary to the World’s Fair which was the focus of the NYT’s article. “American Heritage” magazine does not seem to have published any articles mentioning this. From the 1964 edition of the cookbook, p.406 (might be 203 in the 1982 edition), refereeing to a 1797 letter written by Abigail Adams: “The Adamses’ neighbors had no such problems on the 4th of July; they just served the traditional New England dinner of salmon with egg sauce, along with the first new potatoes, and early peas”. The make no aspersions that this was a traditional 4th of July dinner. As all of these would be seasonable foods in July in New England this is just a typical dinner. Their proposed dinner in honor of the 4th included apple pandowdy and used the comparatively modern description of “potatoes in jackets”, both of these seem to have stuck when this turned into a myth.
    As far as apples being available – I have seen mid-19th century references to overwintering apples until the next season’s early crop is in. While considerably later than the dates the NYT’s article implies DeVoe’s 1868 “The Market Assistant” does list apples as being available in July in the New York markets: “Apples.–This excellent, healthy, and useful fruit is found usually in great abundance in our markets throughout the year. We have the early or summer apples from the South sometimes as early as the months of May and June; one month later, we obtain them from our own district…”

  5. You’ve probably seen this, but here’s a 1989 NYT article
    casting doubt on the whole question too
    The 1797 Abigail letter referred to in the American Heritage cookbook
    seems to be the 23 June 1797 letter to her sister Mary where she talks
    about 4 July being “tedious” in the capital because of all the
    entertaining they had to do (published on p. 98 of “New Letters of
    Abigail Adams” – Google Books link at

    I think your commenter Beth Chamberlain is right. Where the American
    Heritage Cookbook uses the AA letter as a sort of distinction (unlike
    the Adamses having to worry about feeding all those people, their
    neighbors back home just ate the “usual fare”), others have read that
    as “this is what the Adamses served on 4 July,” and still others have
    read it as “this is what they served on the very first 4 July” (when,
    of course, the two of them weren’t together). Where the “first served
    this dinner in 1773” bit came from in the NYT article from 1964, I
    have absolutely no idea.

    And, sadly, we don’t know of an AA cookbook – but wouldn’t that be fun!

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