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Stirring up memories


Putting on the Ritz
August 29, 2007

Any Decatur County resident, whether from Georgia, or Indiana, or Iowa, or Kansas or Tennessee, on a visit to our nation's capital needs to make Decatur House on Lafayette Square—right down the street from the White House—a priority item on the itinerary.

These two Decatur County folks from Georgia certainly did on our recent trip. In fact, we became so enamored both of the house and of its story we went twice, the second time for the full tour.

This house, one of the first private residences built in Washington D.C., is now home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The perfect setting for it is indeed a national treasure.

The house has taken up this corner since 1819. Susan and Commodore Stephen Decatur chose as their architect Benjamin Latroub, who also worked on the Capitol Building and St. John's Church just down the street. They wanted a great house, suitable for the lavish entertaining that the great American naval hero of the War of 1812 planned to offer as he anticipated a long public career.

But alas, the couple enjoyed their new home for only 14 months, and then Stephen lay dying in a field in Maryland (the state where he was born) fatally wounded in a duel. He was returned to his home and died there that night. Thousands, including the president of the United States, attended his funeral. He was 41.

Even after his death, his country continued to honor the popular hero. In 1823, the State of Georgia gave his name to this newly formed county in Southwest Georgia.

This is not the story of Stephen Decatur—maybe another time, maybe next time. I've become so fascinated by him that I am reading his new biography. Today's story is of the house.

By the time Decatur County, Georgia, received its name, Susan Decatur had fallen on hard times. She could no longer stay in her home, but she refused to sell. Instead, she moved to smaller lodgings and began to rent out the rooms of her house. But this was no ordinary boarding house. Her guests were the powerful of the nation.

In 1827 while serving as the secretary of state, Henry Clay wrote to a friend, "We are now residing in the best house, I think, in the city, that of the late Commodore Decatur, with the most spacious apartments and extensive grounds attached to the dwelling."

Martin Van Buren, another secretary of state resident, put a new twist on instant messaging during his stay. He had a window cut into his bedroom, giving him a good view of the White House. He left his curtains open at night, so that a lamp in a White House window could send him scurrying back to work at any hour.

Finally, in 1836, Susan Decatur sold the home to John Gadsby. He added on extensively. When he died in 1844, history repeated itself. His widow began to welcome paying guests—including Vice President George Dallas and Sen. Judah Benjamin.

In 1861 the Union Army rented the house. No more fancy parties or important guests. Rather, it served as a warehouse and offices and sometimes sheltered soldiers.

After those gloomy days, the good times returned in 1872 when Edward and Mary Beale purchased the house from the Gadsby estate and threw open the doors to parties again as the rich, the famous and the powerful vied to be invited. The best and most beautiful entertaining days began in 1903 when the Beales' son, Truxtun, both inherited the house and took a bride.

Marie Chase Oge Beale was a descendant of Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase; this Californian quickly made herself known in Washington. Early in the marriage the Beales spent most of their time on their West Coast ranch, but in 1912, they moved permanently to Washington and society changed. Standing in the large reception room, our guide, Sue O'Neal, pointed out a plaque above the fireplace listing the important guests who visited in the first half of the 20th century—presidents and senators, ambassadors (Truxtun was one himself) and governors, movie stars. It's a long list.

Marie Beale cared for more than entertaining. She realized what a treasure her home was. Both during Truxtun's lifetime and after she inherited the house in 1938, she devoted herself to preserving and maintaining it. The formal dining room boasts 16 different woods, all from her native state of California. In 1944 she began an extensive project restoring the house to the Federal appearance it claimed during the short and happy time of Stephen and Susan Decatur.

(The period was "plain as a ship," guide Sue told us. She explained the Federal entry hall reflects the arch of the entrance to the Old Senate Chamber, also a Latroub design.)

Marie Beale ensured her home, the last private home on Lafayette Square, would remain a national treasure. When she died in 1956 she left the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1960 the Department of the Interior declared it a National Historic Landmark.

Today its doors are open not only to the rich and powerful but to all who wish to come and gain an appreciation of the house, its history and all of the interesting people who have dwelt here.

Sue told me a bit more about Marie's entertaining. She kept excellent records of both her guest lists and what she served. I wish they'd put out a cookbook. Sue went on to say that it must have been the heyday of Ritz crackers, because so many of the recipes feature them. So here we go putting on the Ritz with three classic cracker recipes.

Classic Deviled Ham Spread
1 small can (6-ounce) deviled ham
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons minced onion
Fresh ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well. Serve on Ritz crackers. You can bring the recipe into the 21st century by using low-fat (not fat-free) cream cheese.

1940s blue cheese chili appetizer
½ cup blue cheese (crumbles are fine)
1 8-ounce package cream cheese (low-fat works here, too)
¾ cup chili sauce
¼ cup lemon juice
dash hot pepper sauce

Blend the blue cheese, crumbled, with the cream cheese, chili sauce, lemon juice and hot pepper sauce. Heat until smooth, and then chill. Serve on Ritz (or other) crackers.

And finally, here's that intriguing American back-of-the-box classic. Mention Ritz crackers and most cooks think of this immediately.

Ritz Mock Apple Pie
2 prepared pastry shells for a 9-inch deep-dish pie
36 Ritz Crackers, coarsely broken (about 1¾ cups crumbs)
1¾ cups water
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
grated peel of one lemon
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Place cracker crumbs in prepared crust; set aside. Heat water, sugar and cream of tartar to a boil in saucepan over high heat; simmer for 15 minutes. Add lemon juice and peel; cool. Pour syrup over cracker crumbs. Dot with butter, and sprinkle with cinnamon. Place second crust over the pie. (Follow the package instructions for thawing.) Trim, seal and flute edges. Slit top crust to allow steam to escape. Bake at 425 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until crust is crisp and golden. Cool completely before serving with wedges of cheddar cheese.

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network