Westward, Ho! Cake named for American explorer who mapped routes to Pacific Coast

By Merry Post

Special to The Ellsworth American

The European custom of naming foods after famous people gave us dishes such as Beef Wellington and Tournedos Rossini (named for the Duke of Wellington and the Italian composer, respectively). Americans usually reserved their honorific food names for desserts. Presidents Washington, Madison, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Lincoln and Grant all had pies or cakes named after them. Daniel Webster had a punch named after him and Henry Clay a cake. A fundraising cookbook published in 1898 by the Unitarian Church of Waterville, Maine, included a recipe for Frémont cake.

Like Webster and Clay, John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) aspired to the presidency but didn’t achieve it. The spice cake with dark and light sections that was named after him seems appropriate for one who led an adventurous life punctuated with strokes of luck and sudden calamities.

His father died when he was 6; fortunately, John Charles Frémont was able to attend the College of Charleston where his skill in mathematics was noticed. Through the politician Joel Poinsett, Frémont obtained a position teaching mathematics on a warship for two and a half years as it cruised along the coast of South America. When Poinsett became secretary of war, he commissioned Frémont as second lieutenant of the U.S. Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers to assist Joseph Nicollet’s expedition to explore the upper Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Nicollet was a scientist who gave Frémont valuable instruction in astronomy, topography and geology so that he could calculate latitude and longitude and record scientific observations about the land they traversed.

In Washington, D.C., Frémont met the beautiful, well-educated Jessie Benton (1824-1902), daughter of the influential senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton. They married secretly in 1841. The senator was not pleased but accepted the inevitable and helped his son-in-law’s career. Jessie Benton had done editorial and translation work for her father. Jessie and John became a writing team; she polished the prose in his expedition reports and later his books.

With his father-in-law lobbying for Senate appropriations for surveying expeditions, Frémont was given his own expedition in 1842 to explore and map the route from St. Louis to the Pacific. His second expedition for the army was to explore routes to Oregon and Northern California. His reports on these expeditions were published and widely read. These were the first reliable guides for routes to California and Oregon and included details about soils, timber, water sources, climate; and useful or characteristic plants; as well as accurate measurements of latitude and longitude, topological features and descriptions of native people. John’s reports were edited by Jessie and are still highly readable. Here is a sample:


“A few miles brought us into the midst of the buffalo, swarming in immense numbers over the plains, where they had left scarcely a blade of grass standing. Mr. Preuss, who was sketching at a little distance, had at first noted them as a large grove of timber. … We had heard from a distance a dull and confused murmuring, and when we came in view of their dark masses, there was not one of us who did not feel his heart beat quicker. … Everywhere they were in motion. Here and there a huge old bull was rolling in the grass, and clouds of dust rose in the air from various parts of the bands, each the scene of some obstinate fight.”


Frémont’s expedition reports fired the imaginations of Americans who were already conceiving that they had a divine right to expand the U.S. borders, conquer Mexican and British territories and dispossess any native tribes who got in the way of their possession of desirable lands to the West. The reports Frémont published of his adventurous explorations made him famous and served as roadmaps for settlers moving westward.

Frémont’s career had dramatic ups and downs. He helped complete the military conquest of California but was court-martialed over conflicting appointments and the confusion of who was the rightful military governor of California. President Polk pardoned him.

He was elected as a Democrat to be one of the first two senators to represent California. Frémont ran unsuccessfully in 1856 as the first Republican candidate for the presidency and a staunch abolitionist. He was appointed major general of the Department of the West in the Civil War but was relieved of command when he refused Lincoln’s request to rescind an order emancipating all slaves in the border state of Missouri. Lincoln wished to delay emancipation there to avoid alarming the other border states. Frémont later served as the territorial governor of Arizona from 1878 to 1881.

When gold was found on his Mariposa ranch in California, John C. Frémont became a millionaire. When he speculated in railroad stock, he lost the family fortune. To help their finances, Jessie stepped up and started writing popular stories and books about their adventures in the West.

The recipe for Frémont cake was an interesting way to make a decorative cake with just one ordinary loaf pan and no special equipment.

Steuben artist Camille Boisvert created the accompanying illustration. Her paintings can be seen at: artclb.blogspot.com.


Fremont Cake


Dark batter:

1/3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. cloves

2/3 cup currants or raisins

¼ cup molasses

2 Tbsps. milk


Light batter:

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

2½ tsps. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

¾ tsp. nutmeg

¾ tsp. ginger

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

½ tsp. vanilla extract

¾ cup milk


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Just before baking, spray a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with vegetable oil or grease it with shortening (no butter, no flour coating).

For the dark batter, mix 1/3 cup of flour with the cinnamon and cloves in a medium bowl. Stir in the currants (or raisins) and molasses. Set aside until light batter is mixed. Stir one third of the light batter into the dark molasses mixture.

To make the light batter, sift the 2 cups of flour, baking powder, salt, ginger and nutmeg together into a large bowl and set aside.

Cream the butter until light in a stand mixer. Add the sugar and mix well on medium speed until fluffy. Add the eggs and mix well; add the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture alternately with the milk. Mix just until smooth.

Assembling the cake. Pour about one-third of the batter into the bowl with the currant mixture and blend thoroughly. To create a marbled effect, drop several spoonfuls of the light batter into the loaf pan. With a separate spoon, drop a couple of dollops of the dark batter on top. Alternate spoonfuls of dark and light batter until all the batter is in the loaf pan.

Bake 50 to 55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 20 minutes. Then invert onto a wire rack and let it cool completely before serving.


Merry Post

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