Sometimes you need to let your imagination wander aimlessly. What would I do if I won the lottery? Do I take it as a lump sum, or would I like the comfort of an annual chunk of money dropping into my checking account? Would it be fun to go to the Academy Awards, in a tight dress? Celebrity-wise, would I sit with Meryl Streep, who has been fêted so many times she might feel bored or jaded, attending this glittery event, or would I be more comfortable exchanging wry comments with Paul Giamatti, a seemingly unpretentious, un-precious journeyman actor, who buys second hand books, or so I am led to believe by the facile press releases I swallow, hook, line and sinker.
Which star-spangled president would I enjoy having a beer with? Or, more to our point on Presidents’ Day Weekend, if I had to have supper with one of our 46 presidents, with whom would I rather dine? What kinds of foods have been served in the White House, and would I like any of them? In honor of the upcoming Presidents’ Day, I have wandered through the White House kitchens, looking for historical clues to the appetites of our past presidents. I think we should be happy that time has marched on.
Of course, George Washington did not live in the White House, which hadn’t been built yet. He ate (and slept) at various executive residences in New York and Pennsylvania, and at Mount Vernon in Virginia. Popular legend says that George’s favorite food was hoecakes “swimming in butter,” which does sound yummy, but not my preferred dinner fare. Perhaps South Carolina Hoppin’ John for Many People, which is currently served in the Mount Vernon restaurant.
We trot along the presidential time line, past John Adams (hard cider), Thomas Jefferson (macaroni and cheese), James Madison (ice cream), James Monroe (spoon bread), John Quincy Adams (fresh fruit) to Andrew Jackson and his leather britches. Leather Britches were green beans, cooked with bacon, an accompaniment to a main dish such as roasted wild duck or wild goose, these were meals served in the White House, with French wines, with pomp and fine linens.
Briskly moving along, we drop in on Martin van Buren, who shares an icy dish of oysters with us. He was also fond of boar’s head. I’ll keep walking on to our next presidential dinner host, William Henry Harrison who spoons up a couple of bowls of his favorite, Squirrel Burgoo! Luke the wonder dog will feel right at home in this era of the White House. He might even help out with the hunting.
Time traveling past John Tyler’s Indian Pudding, John Polk’s Corn Bread, Zachary Taylor’s Calas (beignet adjacent sweet fried dough), Millard Fillmore’s plain old soup, Franklin Pierce’s Fried Clams, dancing past James Buchanan’s favorite Cabbage, and just stopping in for a nibble of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite: Bacon.
Andrew Johnson was comforted by Hoppin’ John, Ulysses S. Grant was fond of Rice Pudding, Rutherford B. Hayes liked Cornmeal Pancakes, and yet another Commander in Chief, James Garfield, endorsed the notion of squirrel as a necessary protein in his Squirrel Soup. The recipe calls for “three or four good sized squirrels”. The fried toast garnish probably helps dispel any vision of Rocket J. Flying Squirrel.
As we near the 20th century, the favorite foods of the presidents seem a little less pioneer-y and bizarre. Theodore Roosevelt liked a good steak, as did William Taft. Woodrow Wilson was fond of Chicken Salad and Warren G. Harding opted for Chicken Pie. FDR was a big fan of Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, beloved of picky American children everywhere. Remember, he also served the King and Queen of England hot dogs for luncheon, so don’t expect patrician fare if you stop by Pennsylvania Avenue during the War.
Harry Truman was another steak man, but he preferred his Well-done. Make a note: “only coyotes and predatory animals eat raw beef.” Well-done Steak
JFK liked creamy New England Clam Chowder. He preferred soup, with a sandwich, for lunch. . At a special State Dinner for the President of Pakistan held at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the guests dined on whipped avocado and crabmeat mimosa, poulet chasseur (hunter-style chicken), and raspberries with whipped cream.
Our Presidents have liked their sweets, too. Ronald Reagan ate jelly beans while quitting smoking. Then he famously kept a jar of jelly beans on his desk, from which he doled out 3 1/2 tons of the red, white and blue candies to his guests. Wowser. Jelly Beans Abstemious Barack Obama, who can portion out seven chocolate-covered almonds as a snack, is lesson to us all. Seven Almonds. Personally, I do not like coffee, but I will stop in at any Starbucks with you to buy myself an over-priced packet of salted chocolate-covered almonds, all of which I will eat in one sitting. All by myself. I show no signs of Obama-like discipline.
We would all probably feel awkward and self conscious at State Dinners, when the food is formal and French; where there are many courses and particular silverware. The favorite foods of the presidents have been varied and curious, just like the men who have held the office. This Presidents’ Day I’ll probably make the usual cherry pie, in honor of the old George Washington legend. But maybe we’ll also have a some hot dogs in honor of FDR. And seven almonds, just for Obama. Cheers!
“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
― Orson Welles