Presidents’ Day Revised

Get to know a little more about the office we celebrate on Feb. 20.

February is traditionally a time when we wax patriotic and remember the great leaders of our past. This year, that tradition is more important than ever. If nothing else, we should remind ourselves that, as a country, we have endured, despite our electoral blunders.

The third Monday in February is a federal and state holiday; in California, it’s called Presidents’ Day. Our state leaders agreed it was better to have one all-encompassing day than to celebrate Lincoln on the 12th and then Washington about a week later on the 22nd. I am sure this was economically motivated to keep people at their desks, but the joke’s on them — because many institutions still take off the traditional birthdays, in addition to the newer Presidents’ Day. California still lists both birthdays on calendars, but state employees no longer get both days off as paid holidays. California — keepin’ it classy and ambiguous.

How you spend your Presidents’ Day holiday is entirely up to you. I fully expect the majority of Californians to turn it into a long weekend of skiing or theme-parking. But may I suggest that, in this tumultuous time, you spend this Presidents’ Day getting in touch with some of our past leaders. If you do, I think you may find that our current situation, though dire, is not without precedent.

Historically, our country has often elected the famous over the populist. And it is not unusual for our choices to perform less illustriously than promised. George Washington, of course, was beloved by the masses as a warrior and gentleman farmer, though the farming part was really just theoretical until his retirement, at which point he still left the actual labor to his hundreds of slaves. Not exactly how we like to celebrate him. We prefer to make up legends about honor and cherry tree preservation.

Jefferson was well known for his Francophile ways and his bouffant wig. And while he penned our most cherished egalitarian document, he personally preferred not to mingle with the common folk. He has been celebrated as a proponent of ending the importation of slaves, but those views were based not on his desire to end slavery, but rather to increase the value of his in-house slave-breeding program.

Lincoln is often considered our greatest president. But while the Great Emancipator despised slavery, he was unwilling to do much about it until it became clear that emancipation would give him leverage against the Confederacy, by eliminating its labor force. Also, he condescendingly referred to Sojourner Truth as “Aunty,” a catch-all name for household servants. He is also known to have referred to slaves in general as “Cuffie” — a demeaning variation on the West African name Kofi. Not cool, Uncle Abe. Not cool.

Andrew Jackson was super-popular after defeating the British at New Orleans during the War of 1812. He was the first to ride mistrust of the political establishment to victory, promising to directly represent the common man. But once in office his lavish banquets earned him the nickname “King Andrew.” He also ushered in the spoils system of political patronage (jobs in return for political support), effectively killing civil service as it had been known. Not exactly a step toward good government. Also, Old Hickory killed a guy in a duel, threatened to kill many others and initiated the Trail of Tears, the forced relocations of thousands of Native Americans in the Southeast. So much for the Man of the People.

In the election of 1876, New York’s Democratic governor, Samuel J. Tilden, beat Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote by nearly 300,000. But contested Electoral College votes in several states kept the results in dispute well into January. (Sound familiar?) Congress set up an Electoral Commission, which determined the Electoral College count at 187-186 — in favor of Hayes. The victor was, for the remainder of his term, known as “His Fraudulency.”

Warren G. Harding got the job because the Republican Party thought he looked presidential. Unfortunately, his looks were the only presidential thing about him. His oratory skills were subpar, and his speeches were described as “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.” (Again — sound familiar?) In addition to his communication deficit, he was known for tawdry extramarital affairs, illegitimate children and the Teapot Dome scandal, in which the interior secretary received payment for secretly and exclusively leasing federal oil reserves to the Mammoth Oil Company. And he had the worst nickname ever — “Wobbly Warren.”

So, my fellow Americans, the White House has a long history of arrogant, aggressive, morally confused inhabitants. Luckily, we have always been able to balance it with sobriety, discipline and restraint, though not necessarily in the same administration. I have every expectation that we will come out on the other end a stronger, smarter nation.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at

Sour Grapes Salad

Here’s a suggestion for the inaugural party I am sure you are totally having


1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon celery seed

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

1 pound seedless grapes (green and red, mixed if possible), halved

1 Fuji apple, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

½ red onion, sliced

1 large cooked chicken breast, shredded

1 cup walnut halves, roughly chopped

½ cup golden raisins


In a large bowl combine sour cream, lemon zest and juice, celery seed, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl, and toss to evenly coat. Adjust seasoning if needed. Serve on a bed of lettuce leaves — and with a positive attitude.

Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at