New Yorkers to the core, a friend and I went on a tour of Gracie Mansion, home of NYC’s Mayor. Too bad that the docent shepherding us was both uninformed and so dull she could have made being inside a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain boring. However, what we saw of the house (partly off-limits as Mayor DeBlasio was “at home” hosting meetings) was dandy.
The house was built in 1799 by Scottish merchant Archibald Gracie, as a country abode; Gracie then fell on hard financial times and sold it. The house changed hands many times before Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, a man who usually got his way, decided it should be the official residence of the city’s mayor. In 1942 Mayor Fiorella La Guardia and his family moved in. The property is now run by the Gracie Mansion Conservancy and was elaborately restored and renovated starting in 2002 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg elected to live in his own wonderful house on East 79th Street. (It’s widely thought that Bloomberg paid for the renovations himself but this is neither confirmed nor denied.)
The current exhibition is called 1942 to honor the 75th anniversary of the Mansion serving as the Mayor’s official residence and it’s a bit of a mish-mash. A photo of Martha Graham; a white metal civil defense hat (like what my father wore as a WWII air raid warden); costume sketches for the Broadway show, On the Town; a Philco Radio and a quartet of works by Norman Rockwell do not exactly a cohesive exhibition make.
The most striking part of the Mansion is the entrance foyer where the floor is painted to resemble marble; in it is striped wallpaper, a wonderful chandelier and a few elegant pieces of furniture. During the (long) time I worked for the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, I once went to a luncheon at Gracie Mansion. Held on the lawn, the lunch was followed by a photo session (known in the trade as a “grip and grin) where I had my photo taken with my boss, the then- head of HHC, Ben Chu M.D., and our super-boss, Mayor Bloomberg. The photo still hangs in my office.
As to food, in 1942 we were in the middle of a war with serious rationing. Sugar, butter, meat and lots else was either hard or impossible to get so there was a lot of make-do. This is a recipe for sugarless cake. Anyone who watches historic drama will recognize it or, at least, the concept.
Wartime Sugarless Cake
3 cups sifted cake flour
4 tsps. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups corn syrup
3 egg yolks
2 tsps. grated orange rind
1 cup milk
3 egg whites
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Stir shortening until creamy and add one cup of the corn syrup slowly until it becomes fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat well. Take turns alternating adding the dry ingredients and milk, stirring between each addition, then add the orange rind.
Beat the egg whites until stiff and add to the rest of the corn syrup gradually, beating until there are stiff peaks. Fold the batter until completely mixed. Bake in a greased cake pan at about 375 °F for 25 to 30 minutes.
Most wartime cakes had no icing since there was almost no sugar available. I’m unclear about how delicious this cake would be but back then people were both very good at improvising and relatively uncomplaining. Three cheers for them.