Food historians take note: There's a world of culinary history in the White House. Through the years, presidential palates have influenced food trends.
We often associate certain foods with presidents: Ronald Reagan's sweet tooth for jelly beans, peanuts and Jimmy Carter, and cherry pies and George Washington. But the truth is that each family that has lived in the White House has left its own special culinary mark.
Andrew Jackson loved a tall, cool glass of milk; Zachary Taylor is said to have craved Creole cooking, and Teddy Roosevelt had a taste for imported teas.
All of the U.S. presidents have had the comfort of living in the White House except for one: George Washington. Construction on the building didn't begin until 1792, during his term in office.
Therefore, George and Martha Washington dined and entertained at their home in Mount Vernon, in Virginia. According to authors Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks in The Presidents' Cookbook (Funk & Wagnalls, 1968), Mount Vernon Cornbread served with cheese, fruit compote, nuts, and sherry or port wine was a favorite light supper eaten around 9 p.m. before retiring.
Some recipes, such as Martha Washington's Crab Soup, have come down through the years. It later became a favorite of Franklin Roosevelt and was served to Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. It is even reprinted in former White House Chef Henry Haller's The White House Family Cookbook (Random House, $27.50) and was served during the Gerald Ford years.
Actually, President Washington was known for his simple eating habits. Thomas Jefferson was the true gourmet, who is credited with bringing to the United States macaroni, vanilla, and waffles. He was a dedicated gardener who liked to grow vegetables as well as eat them.
Jefferson is also credited with popularizing Baked Alaska, the combination of hot and cold desserts that he wrote about in 1802. Alaska-Florida was the name of the dessert, which was popular at New York's Delmonico Hotel in the late 19th century. But the layers of cake and ice cream, topped by meringue and then browned, was called Baked Alaska in the 1909 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Baked Alaska was still served in the White House during the years of President Kennedy, according to Dede Wilson, author of much of the May/June, 1998, issue of Chocolatier mgazine, which was devoted to White House desserts.
Ms. Wilson researched each president's administration for the magazine article and came up with ideas for recipe development. “For Reagan, it was a light California style, low fat, low cholesterol, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said in a phone interview from her office in Massachusetts. “LBJ (Lyndon Johnson) had a penchant for deer sausage and down-home, country-style cooking. Certain things came with (the presidents).”
According to Ms. Cannon, Jefferson liked jambalaya, the New Orleans dish with crab, shrimp, rice, and vegetables. Jambalaya and gumbo have been White House favorites many times.
“Each family has their culinary quirks, not because they are presidential. It's just families. These are real people. [The White House] is their home. They eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner just like we do.”
“Especially after his trip to China, Nixon liked Chinese food. And Mexican,” she added.
She said that Mrs. Nixon “threw the chef into a tizzy” because “he had to send someone out in the middle of the night to a deli” to purchase cottage cheese - such a simple food in a gourmet kitchen.
The White House Desserts issue of Chocolatier was so well received that now Ms. Wilson and Chocolatier publisher/president Michael Schneider are doing a full-fledged book, which will be called Dinner & Diplomacy. It is expected to be published next fall by Lebar Freidman.
Unlike the magazine issue, which had recipes adapted from historical recipes, “the book will not be recipe-driven,” said Mr. Schneider. “It will be about how entertaining has played a role. It will show [presidential dinnerware] plates, menus, and have phenomenal stories about food and entertaining.” Much of the dinnerware is from the personal collection of Set Momjian, whose collection was also featured in the movie An American President, according to Mr. Schneider.
As for those historical recipes, “ingredients today are so different, ovens are different,” he said. “You can't make antique recipes.”
I found this true when I made Miss Eliza Brown's White Cake, a favorite recipe from President Hayes and his wife Lucy. The batter is beaten to a smooth paste similar in consistency to a cookie dough; then six egg whites are whipped and incorporated into cookie-dough consistency. The result is a heavy cake that does not rise as much as today's confections. Instead of frosting, a lemon syrup is poured on top, which makes the dessert similar to a pudding cake.
One would expect that recent White House culinary history would be voluminous. “Not so,” said Ms. Wilson. “The White House policy is not to discuss what practices are. It is easier to get older material that has been documented. Plus, we can't mention brand names or even where food is from, i.e. California strawberries or if a fruit is from Chile.”
Thus the authors are working with White House staff, the Library of Congress, and various presidential libraries to document their book, which has been 10 years in the making due to the time needed to get permission to use the information. The actual time writing is short in comparison.
Mr. Schneider said that despite its popularity, the magazine issue from 1998 will not be reprinted due to the cost.
However, Ohioans can do their own culinary research through cookbooks at public libraries as well as presidential libraries, such as the Hayes Presidential Library in Fremont and the McKinley Museum in Canton, which has preserved recipes from President William McKinley. (In fact there have been seven presidents born in Ohio: Hayes, James A. Garfield, McKinley, William H. Taft, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and Warren G. Harding.)
You'll find that recipes reflect the regions of the country such as Jambalaya with Creole Sauce from Louisiana, family recipes such as Spritz cookies from Mamie Eisenhower, gourmet classics such as Baked Alaska, and historic foods such as Martha Washington's Crab Soup.
Foods of the presidents are really history in the making. And a new chapter is about to begin.