MUGWUMP IN A HOLE? – February 14th

Frederick Douglass

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! For me (Abena), Valentine’s Day has taken a backseat ever since I found out that February 14th is/was the wonderful Frederick Douglass’ chosen birthday. And of course, our friends of the NCNW had a handful of suggested recipes to celebrate the illustrious abolitionist and former enslaved man. From a “hot tomato juice cocktail,” to a “coeur a la creme fraisette” (which is apparently a no-bake cheesecake), the suggestions were strange and not as appetizing as I had hoped for one of my favorite historical figures. We decided to do the “Mugwump in a Hole” simply because the name is kind of whimsical and one of the more obscure things we have had the opportunity to make. 

Mugwump was a new word to both of us. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “mugwump” refers to someone who is politically independent, who “remains undecided or neutral,” in political affairs. “Mugwump” is an anglicized version of a Native American word used among the Massachusett Indians, which meant “war leader,” and in early America was used, in jest, to refer to someone who was the “head guy.” The term took on significance during the 1884 presidential election in which Republicans who chose to support Grover Cleveland, rather than their own party’s candidate, were referred to as “mugwumps.” An 1830s humorist defined the term comically as “a bird who sits with its mug (face) on one side of the fence and its wump (behind) on the other.” So, then, it seems that the title “mugwump in a hole,” could be a reference to Frederick Douglass as a leader, or a comic reference to his independence and consistent critique of all political parties, institutions, and organizations that worked against the improvement of life for African Americans. The book does not make this clear, simply describing it as “an old recipe much liked in Frederick Douglass’ time.” 

 Before we get into the recipe, let me wax lyrical about Douglass for a while. Born in 1817, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland. Separated from his mother while still an infant, Douglass’ memories of his mother were few but meaningful. With her son sold off to a different plantation, Douglass’ mother would work a full day, then walk several miles most nights to visit her son. In his first autobiography, Douglass recalled how her night time visits shaped his identity and sense of self: 

I learned the fact, that I was not only a child, but somebody’s child… I was victorious, and well off for the moment; prouder on my mother’s knee, than a King upon his throne.

Although severed by the vicious institution of slavery, Douglass’ mother’s love, was made known in his earliest memories and was carried with him throughout his life. It is said that Douglass, not knowing his birthday but believing he had a right to one, chose Valentine’s Day as his birthday because his mother used to call him her “Little Valentine,” and he enjoyed the festivities of the day. 

As a notably smart child, Douglass was initially taught by his mistress, until her initial generosity gave way to cruelty and she stopped teaching him, becoming “even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself.” Nonetheless, having initial learning, Douglass identified education as a bridge to freedom and pursued friendship with white boys in the city of Baltimore, to the end of making them his inadvertent teachers. By the age of twelve Douglass had acquired a copy of “The Columbian Orator,” a book of speeches and writings on the subject of natural rights and equality. Reading these combined with his harrowing experiences of enslavement; he determined to learn to write, and began to dream of running away. 

Douglass experienced and witnessed much violence while enslaved, and lamented his existence as a man with no rights and a bleak future. After multiple failed attempts, Douglass escaped slavery by impersonating a sailor when he boarded a northbound train to New York City, with the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman who would later become his wife.

After this, Frederick and Anna Douglass moved to Massachusetts where they began their family, and working as laborers in New Bedford. Douglass soon began attending abolitionists meetings where he would share about his experiences of slavery. A gifted speaker, Douglass quickly became a well-respected abolitionist orator, and became an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He traveled across the North and Mid-west, as well as to Scotland, where he spoke out against the ills of the slave regime. His staunch abolitionism led him to create the North Star newspaper, and bump heads with major abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, and with those who advocated colonization for emancipated peoples. Douglass even knew the notorious John Brown, whose plans to attack Harper’s Ferry he famously denounced. 

Douglass’ career was long, advocating emancipation and recruiting African American soldiers to the Union army, including his own sons. He even met with Abraham Lincoln to press him to ensure the Union paid its black soldiers. After emancipation Douglass pushed for citizenship and voting rights, including advocating for women’s suffrage. In the Reconstruction era he served as President of the Freedman’s Bank and board member of Howard University. Beyond Reconstruction Douglass became Minister Resident to Haiti, and U.S. Marshal for D.C. despite whites rapid curtailing of African American political service and rights. 

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center).

In 1882 Douglass’ wife Anna died suddenly of a stroke. Douglass remarried only two years later, making the countercultural and illegal choice to marry Helen Pitts, a white woman twenty years his junior. Pitts had been an active suffragist and advocate for rights for all, and was the daughter of abolitionists. Douglass’ personal and public life were politicized for the cause of equality, and he stands as one of the most prolific writers, orators, and activists of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Douglass is the most photographed man of the nineteenth century, having sat for over 160 portraits and photos. He allowed so many in an effort to, like his writing and speaking, to create depictions of black manhood that were not degrading or comical as most presentations of black men were at the time. He presents as serious, stoic, and well put together in every image throughout his life. 

Frederick Douglass, The New Marshal of Washington D.C.

The Dish:

I know we have said in previous posts that the instructions were somewhat lacking for other dishes, but this is the first recipe we made where basic information fully eluded us. 

1 pound of fatty meat with bone (beef preferred)
1 pint of milk
1 cup of flour
1 egg
Salt and pepper to taste

One note is that, because we intended for it to feed ourselves and our guys, we doubled the recipe, both the meat and the batter. This might have been a mistake, but let’s walk through this in the order in which things occurred; NO SPOILERS. 

So, as I said, we had no real sense of what this dish was and how it was supposed to turn out. The book had a list of ingredients and instructions to make what seemed like a batter, but no temperature for the oven, nor cook time. Essentially it said: make batter, butter dish, pour in batter, put the meat (well seasoned) in the middle, and bake. None of this really made clear what the outcome was supposed to be and our many attempts, individually and together, to Google what this dish was supposed to be, came up with nothing. So we decided to just follow it and wait to see the outcome. 

We started by seasoning the meat using a secret family blend of seasoning spices and herbs from Kayleigh’s family, since the recipe gave no instructions regarding how the meat should be seasoned. As I did that, Kayleigh made the batter by combing the egg, milk, and salt, which she then poured over the flour and beat until it was a smooth batter. At this point we thought that the batter would cook a lot quicker than the 2.5 pound cut of beef, so we put it in the oven first for 20 minutes to get a head start on the batter. After that, we then took it out of the oven, poured the batter into the dish around the beef, and returned it to the oven. I have to say, the amount of batter seemed way more than we needed, but after altering the quantity of bacon on the vegetable pie crust and regretting it, we kept pouring until the beef was almost fully submerged. It really didn’t look appetizing, especially since the batter had no seasoning besides a pinch of salt. 


We decided to set the oven to 350, and to cook it for 45 minutes, a true shot in the dark considering we didn’t have any suggestions from the book. After 30 minutes we checked it and it was still swimming in raw batter than the fat from the beef was bubbling and contributing to the swelling liquid. 15 minutes later, the batter seemed to have cooked a bit but still looked very pale. Kayleigh decided to use a wooden skewer to see if the batter was cooked on the inside, and it was not, so we returned it to the oven for another 20 minutes. After this, I realized that the batter, which was still not cooked, looked familiar and I realized that the unnamed batter was, what we call in the UK, a Yorkshire Pudding. Yorkshire puddings a savory side for a Sunday Roast, usually made up of some kind of roasted meat, mashed potatoes, steamed vegetables, and gravy. You can buy frozen Yorkshire puddings or make them yourself. They are usually dollops of batter, made exactly the same way the recipe lays out, poured into a muffin tin and baked in the oven. After they bake, they are light, fluffy little puddings usually high around the outside and hollowed out in the middle, where people typically put in meat and slather with gravy. They are my sister’s favorite so I remember them well. I quickly googled them and saw that the recipe for the batter matched up with ours, and showed Kayleigh the pictures. We agreed that this seemed to line up with what we had done and were looking at, and that we had wildly underestimated how long the batter would take to cook.

The point at which we decided to take the meat out

Most recipes we were looking at said around 50 minutes at 450 should do it, and we had been cooking it for 45 minutes at 350. So we decided to put it back in, taking the meat out for fear of drying it out too much.

We probably put it back 3 or four more times, taking its cook time to a total of anywhere between 1 hour 30 to two hours. It developed a brown crust, but as soon as we cut into it, we found that the top layer which appeared cooked, hid a very wet, totally uncooked middle, throughout the whole dish. 

The light fluffy batter we presume was intended, never came to pass, and we both conceded that our efforts had failed. It just didn’t work out for us. Besides the potential incorrect temperature for the batter (which would have been too high for the beef), our only thought is that perhaps because we doubled the recipe, the batter was too deep to be adequately cooked through in the oven. That might be what went wrong. 

I will say that the beef roast without the batter did come out fairly well. We had expected it to be a bit more tender than it was but presume the toughness came from time cooked and perhaps from a lack of moisture, but we’re not sure. Additionally, Kayleigh’s family blend really did add a lot to it, as the flavor was lovely. We plan on repurposing the cut for some kind of stew or soup in which it will become more tender and have some supporting flavors to make this endeavor worth it. 

Final Thoughts

We chose this one out of curiosity, and that curiosity did not pay off in a tasty meal, but in lessons learned about what we would or would not do if we were ever to make something like this again. As a Douglass lover, I was pretty disappointed, since if there was an entry in the cookbook I was looking forward to, it was one honoring him. It was simple to make, in terms of prep, but without the specific temperatures and cook times, it was impossible that this would come out well. C’est la vie!

Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass! We hope that if he ever ate this, that it came out much better than ours did!


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