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Plate of the Nation

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Plate of the Nation
Illustrations by Jason Wallis

With this November’s election looming, little is certain, apart from the fact that half the country will be elated with the results and the other half stark raving mad—it’s the political salt and pepper that keeps our democracy well seasoned. Either President Barack Obama will stay put or a lucky winner will prepare to move into what President Gerald Ford dubbed “the best public housing I’ve ever seen.”

If the latter happens, some drama will play out in the kitchens of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Chefs and kitchen staffers will tremble in their plastic clogs as they await their professional fates. It is customary for each individual to turn in their resignation, then wait to see if they will be rehired. The “Casa Blanca Gang” (a term coined by one-time White House Chef Leland Atkinson) essentially have to re-interview for their jobs. If they are asked to stay, they’ll need to literally reinvent their jobs, for no president shares the same tastes for food or drink, and each First Lady has a radically different notion of public entertaining.

Life as a White House chef has one thing in common with life as president-elect—the job is certain to add gray hairs to your head. The Casa Blanca chefs work in a cramped high-volume kitchen with menus changing daily to suit the tastes of the First Family or visiting dignitaries or house guests or congressmen or religious leaders with strict laws about how their food is prepared. Impromptu events are commonplace (“Oh, Chef! We just invited twenty people to join us after the Kennedy Center performance—can you whip something up?”) and sanitation is a challenge when hauling food to Camp David only to have the vehicle torn apart by sniffing dogs. Kitchen purchases are scrutinized by the press. Chefs must learn the idiosyncratic ticks of each president or First Lady, such as the fact that George W. Bush wouldn’t eat anything green and wanted his food to hit the table the instant his posterior hit the chair.

Security adds another challenge: all food has to be ordered through third-party secret servicemen from vendors who have passed background checks, then is delivered to a warehouse, then picked up by secret servicemen in an unidentified van for clandestine delivery to the White House. The kitchen is repeatedly subject to security sweeps, sometimes by nosy, unwelcome bodyguards of foreign delegates. And while working in the kitchen, chefs always have to wear their security cards so as not to get slammed up against the wall by anxious security guards (as was the case for the poor pastry chef the day that Reagan was shot). Imagine all this, then factor in the holiday season when roughly 25−30,000 visitors traipse through the “People’s House” expecting finger foods and libations.

A stressful post, yes, and yet it is a proud position that offers a unique window into the private and public worlds of our presidents. Whether a president be celebrated or vilified, knowledge of secret indulgences or routines somehow makes him (and maybe one day her) more human.

Were it not for the memoirs of former White House chefs and kitchen staff, we wouldn’t know that George W. Bush sometimes tiptoed into the kitchen to avoid joining his wife’s luncheons. Or that when Hillary Clinton left town for a business trip, President Clinton’s butler would quickly appear to say, “Poppa wants a steak and onion rings.” Or that at Camp David, Reagan never went outside without his pockets full of acorns for the squirrels. Jimmy Carter often returned from fishing trips beaming with pride at his trout catch, unaware that the secret service had preceded him earlier that morning to stock the lake to his advantage. We wouldn’t know that Rosalynn Carter took over the kitchen to show the chefs exactly how to cook Jimmy’s fried chicken. That Lyndon B. Johnson was a buttermilk addict. That Eisenhower liked to thumb through cookbooks and experiment with cooking his own soups. Or that Herbert Hoover was such a rapid eater his staff would make bets on how quickly he could wolf down a meal. We wouldn’t know that Ulysses Grant refused to eat any fowl (“I never could eat anything that goes on two legs”) or that he was quite childish at family dinners, lodging little bread balls at his children and apologizing (if he hit them) with kisses. We wouldn’t know that Lincoln had little to no appetite at all for food or drink. And that despite the lavish dinner spreads on George Washington’s table, all he really wanted was “a glass of wine and a bit of mutton.”

Perhaps one of the more poignant presidential culinary moments happened early one morning at the White House, when Richard Nixon, still in his pajamas, stood waiting for Executive Chef Henry Haller to arrive in the kitchen. In lieu of his usual wheat germ and coffee, Nixon enthusiastically requested something quite out of the ordinary: poached eggs and hash. And he asked that it be brought up to his favorite Lincoln Sitting Room. There he savored his meal in quiet before announcing his resignation later that morning.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said to Ronald Reagan, “Do you ever have times when you think of other heads of state and you think, oh, they must be so brilliant, so marvelous, and so extra special? And then you realize that you’re a head of state, and you think, I’m just an ordinary person.” We are indeed all human, and we need to eat. What can the presidential palates tell us about the person?

THE POLITICS OF FOOD

When George and Martha Washington embraced their roles as host and hostess of our new nation, they aimed to impress. Their table needed to rival the established elegant cuisines of European dignitaries, lest we be perceived as a nation of country bumpkins. Meals were served “family style”—the table so smothered with food one could barely see the tablecloth: platters of hams, duck or goose, turkeys, small roasted pigs, hot roast beef, mutton chops, fried tripe, a myriad of side dishes such as hominy, cabbage, potatoes, peas, asparagus, salads, pickles, and condiments such as nut ketchup or mushroom ketchup. And that was just the first course. Washington would often serve himself just a bit of meat and some cornbread. Of course, with his ill-fitting dentures, he may have been too self-conscious to chow down.

Although Washington’s meals were lavish, he personally insisted against serving anything that reeked of “luxury and extravagance.” Thus began the tightrope balance of wanting to impress guests with fine cuisine but wanting to retain a more humble identity as a “man of the people.”

Thomas Jefferson, a truly passionate Eater-in-Chief whose years in Paris greatly influenced his American table, was accused by rival Patrick Henry as having “abjured his native victuals in favor of French cuisine.” True, Jefferson introduced many European foods and French recipes to our side of the pond, but by the same token, he adored our Southern staples: fried chicken, Virginia ham, grits, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, and corn bread. We think of mac-and-cheese as being Southern, but we have Jefferson’s European curiosity to thank for this dish. He became obsessed with pasta after visiting Italy, ordered a pasta machine, and tinkered with it to make his own macaroni. Other Jefferson accusers deemed him unqualified for the presidency because he had been “raised wholly on hoe-cake made of coarse-ground Southern corn, bacon and hominy.” It’s no wonder Jefferson referred to his eight years in office as “the splendid misery.”

The press tried to paint Jimmy Carter as an unsophisticated country peanut farmer with a hankering for daily grits, then Ronald Reagan as an elitist (after he publicly complimented a French soup). Shortly after the Reagan story hit the papers, the White House released this recipe for public consumption: Ronald Reagan’s Hamburger Soup with Canned Hominy. A publicity stunt? Yes and no. This hamburger soup was indeed a favorite of Reagan’s—on the day he moved into the White House, he arrived with frozen bags of it.

Of all past administrations, the Clintons were the most original and forward-thinking with their public cuisine. Hillary worked closely with Executive Chef Walter Scheib to design menus that celebrated the very best of American cuisine while nodding respectfully to the food cultures of visiting dignitaries. For example, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was served Vodka-Marinated Salmon with Kasha Pilar; the queen of Thailand was served Tea-Smoked Breast of Duck with Lemongrass and Basil Infusion; the president of Mexico was served Pepita-Encrusted Bison with Poblano Mashed Potatoes and Apple-Chipotle Sauce. With the visit of French President Jacques Chirac, however, Hillary and Chef Scheib decided to do something completely revolutionary: serve purely American cuisine to a French president. Chirac dined on Thyme-Scented Lobster with Roasted Eggplant Soup, Rack of Lamb with Pecans and Sweet Potato Puree, and American wines. His response? “If this is American food, it’s okay with me.” A turning point in culinary diplomacy.

TO SERVE OR NOT TO SERVE

Alcohol has been an integral part of presidential entertaining since George Washington uncorked multiple bottles of wine, porter, and beer for statesmen and total strangers alike, finishing off each meal with glasses of Madeira and even more wine for endless humdrum toasts (“Health, sir,” “Health, madam,” “Thank you, sir,” “Thank you, madam.”). Washington, like Jefferson, was unsuccessful in trying to grow his own vineyards but did have success with hard cider and whiskey.

John Adams drank hard cider daily and sometimes enjoyed beer for breakfast. Thomas Jefferson was a great connoisseur of wines and spent himself into a hole importing the finest vintages (he died greatly in debt). He even experimented with making persimmon beer. James Monroe gathered friends around the punch bowl, singing merrily and keeping time with his fork. John Quincy Adams loved his “hard buttered cider rum.” The crowds got sauced at Andrew Jackson’s inauguration and stormed the White House. Jackson had to crawl out of a window to escape.

As a knee-jerk reaction to the inebriated “mobocracy,” in 1837 Martin Van Buren put a damper on things: no more whiskey punch for the eager masses. It cost him the next election. His successor William Henry Harrison’s dinners were called “regular hard cider affair(s),” but he died one month into his presidency.

In 1845, the Victorian, moralistic Polks from Tennessee ruled out fun completely: no drinking, eating, dancing, or card playing in the White House. Lincoln didn’t deny wine to visitors, but he didn’t care for it himself. Ulysses Grant typically abstained but fortified his guests with Roman punch and champagne. Teddy Roosevelt loved a mint julep but didn’t care for bourbon, so his “Rooseveltian Julep” was primarily mint and sugar (sacrilege!).

Prohibition put an abrupt halt to public consumption. White House guests were instead served a “squall” of fruit punch. But in private, President Warren Harding kept his liquor cabinets well stocked for himself and personal guests. FDR prepared for Prohibition by ordering four cases of Old Reserve, then after setting foot in office finally freed the country from “the drought.” FDR was particularly fond of martinis himself, and his buddy Winston Churchill drank up all the Scotch during his lengthy White House visits as they strategized the Allied attack in World War II.

Things loosened up considerably after that, but although alcohol was served at official functions over the next few decades, the nation hadn’t quite gotten over its collective guilt, and the White House bar remained discretely hidden from view. JFK and Jackie made the bold move to restore it to plain sight.

With Jimmy Carter, spirits were once again out. Teddy Kennedy lamented in his memoir True Compass: “You’d arrive at 6 or 6:30 p.m., and the first thing you would be reminded of, in case you needed reminding, was that he and Rosalynn had removed all the liquor from the White House.” Reagan enjoyed a good cognac, George H.W. Bush sipped a martini, and the Clintons promoted American wines. The next teetotaler was George W. Bush, but only because he had abused alcohol in his youth. Obama enjoys a good brew or glass of wine from time to time. And if Romney were to win office, alcohol might once again get the boot, or the pour (down the drain).

THE FIRST GARDEN

When First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the South Lawn in spring of 1999 to establish a fruit and vegetable garden, she echoed a “local palate” sentiment shared by our very first president. George Washington’s farms covered 8,000 acres and provided most of the produce and meat required for his entertaining (and then some). He experimented with crop rotation, fertilizers, and livestock breeding. He cured hams in his smokehouse. He ran a fishery. Martha preserved candied violets from the garden. Although he imported some specialty items (chocolate from Mexico, olives from Italy, pickled mangoes from India), at heart he was a gentleman farmer who loved nothing more than to get up at dawn and survey his farms on horseback.

Thomas Jefferson’s green thumbery knew no bounds. He grew more than thirty varieties of peas in his Monticello kitchen garden, raised Virginia sweet corn in his Paris garden, and cross-bred pigs with such success that he earned the mock title “the hog governor.” He exchanged seeds with international colleagues, smuggled rice grain home from Italy in his pockets and coat sleeves (a crime punishable by death had he been caught), added fruit trees to the grounds of the White House, and grew pots of strawberries, figs, and orange trees in sunlit rooms. He allowed cattle to graze cattle on the South Lawn. It really is stupefying what the man managed to accomplish, apart from drafting the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, orchestrating the Louisiana Purchase, designing Monticello, collecting and classifying fossils, inventing mobile clothing racks for White House closets, and conceiving revolving dumbwaiters.

Washington and Jefferson set the standard: quality, local, fresh, unadulterated food. A few other presidents dabbled in local sourcing. Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and later Taft all had on-site cows for their fresh dairy needs. Teddy Roosevelt had a mint patch, which Coolidge then flattened for his chicken coop. There were a few First Ladies who initiated gardens as well (Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory garden and Hillary Clinton’s rooftop garden), but Michelle Obama’s “First Garden” has deep roots, with certain plots growing produce from Thomas Jefferson’s seed collection and other plots featuring American Indian heirloom corn and squash. On any given day, the garden provides vegetable courses and salads for up to 140 White House guests. Roughly one-third of the annual harvest goes to a local soup kitchen for the homeless. White House honeybees help pollinate the garden and now produce 230 pounds of honey annually, served with meals or presented as gifts to global guests. The most valuable and perhaps least measurable shockwave of all is the garden’s effect on the local elementary schoolchildren who have helped break ground, plant, weed, observe, harvest, clean/prepare, then eat the “people’s produce.” In a modern world where we have become distanced from our food sources, Michelle Obama has done more than her part to close the loop.

TURKEYGATE

It took a while for our Thanksgiving tradition to take hold, long after the famous gathering of pilgrims and Indians in 1621. The first president to gather folks around a Thanksgiving table was James Polk. The press reported, “The President had some friends to dinner—This new idea of a Thanksgiving in Washington was well observed and gave such general satisfaction as to lead to the deduction that it will be an annual custom hereafter.”

But the custom didn’t really take (at least not with regularity) until Abraham Lincoln. In the grips of our Civil War and on the wake of Gettysburg, Lincoln moved to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, perhaps a willful gesture to encourage us all to “get along.” It took another seventy-five years for Congress to ratify the official date.

Legend has it that Lincoln too was the first president to pardon a turkey after his son Tad begged him to spare “Jack.” The next lucky bird was spared in 1963 by President Kennedy just days before his own assassination. Nixon sent his to a petting zoo.

George H.W. Bush gave the first official presidential pardon to a turkey in 1989, sending “Katie” on to (ironically) Frying Pan Park in Virginia. The turkey pardoning ceremony is now a White House tradition, with twenty-three turkeys pardoned to date (typically both a primary turkey and a back-up or “vice turkey”). The turkeys are groomed from birth, specifically conditioned to be able to endure the paparazzi-filled ceremony—trained to withstand large crowds, loud noises, and flashing bulbs.

Of course, Thanksgiving being Thanksgiving, a more humble bird dedicated to serving his nation rather than basking in accolades and honors will undoubtedly end up on the president’s table.

THE ETIQUETTE HANDBOOK

An official White House Cookbook was issued in 1887 outlining tips on table etiquette:

  • Be careful to keep the mouth shut closely while masticating the food. It is the opening of the lips which causes the smacking which seems very disgusting.
  • Never ask to be helped to soup a second time. The hostess may ask you to take a second plate, but you will politely decline. Fish chowder… is said to be an exception which proves this rule…
  • Corn should be eaten from the cob; but it must be held with a single hand.
  • Don’t, when you drink, elevate your glass as if you were going to stand it inverted on your nose. Bring the glass perpendicularly to the lips, and then lift it to a slight angle. Do this easily. Drink gently, and do not pour it down your throat like water turned out of a pitcher.
  • (When eating fried chicken) One may pick a bone at the table, but, as with corn, only one hand is allowed to touch it; …and to take her teeth to it gives a lady the look of caring a little too much for the pleasures of the table…
  • [Do] not blow a thing to cool it. It is an inelegant and vulgar action intrinsically, [and] it may be offensive to others.
  • The stout woman…should shun champagne. She should hate ice cream.

A GLOSSARY OF PRESIDENTIAL FAVORITES

Boula-Boula / JFK’s favorite soup with green peas, sherry, and cream
Bouncing Babies / Nickname for breakfast popovers with maple syrup inhaled by Taft
Cats’ Tongues / Buttery cookies enjoyed by Ronald Reagan and George Washington
Coca-Cola Jello / An Arkansas recipe enjoyed by the Clintons each Christmas
Drunken Loaf / Wine-soaked bread with mac-and-cheese, a Jefferson recipe
Fat Rascals / Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite biscuits
Flummery / Pudding of bread, fruit, and cream loved by John Adams
Hen’s Nest / Old Virginia recipe for lemon pudding served at James Madison’s inaugural ball in 1809
Hoecakes / George Washington’s favorite breakfast: battered cornmeal pancakes fried on a griddle (he ate them slathered with fresh butter and local honey)
Kedgeree / Dish of whitefish, rice, eggs, butter, and cream enjoyed by FDR
Meat Jelly / Gelatin mold with beef stock and port wine enjoyed by Andrew Jackson
Pompetone / Layered dish of meat, veggies, and eggs eaten by John Adams
Rail Splitters / Abraham Lincoln’s corn muffins, one of the few items he truly enjoyed eating
Russian Cigarettes / Chocolate-tipped sugar cookies favored by the Reagans
Sack Posset / Milk punch with sherry served by Washington
Scotch Collops / Veal scallopini with mushrooms and asparagus ragout served by Washington
So-and-So / George W. Bush’s nickname for his lunch favorites; “Chef, I’d like a so-and-so” translated: either grilled cheese with Kraft singles on white bread, a hamburger, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, or a BLT, each to be served with Lay’s Classic potato chips. He rarely ate anything else.
Yard of Flannel / Old Virginia punchbowl recipe with ale, sugar, eggs, nutmeg, and rum or brandy enjoyed by James Madison