Commanders in Chef
With presidents on the mind, remember those who liked good food
While some have used the office of president as a platform to voice their dislike of vegetables, a handful of our leaders considered the kitchen cabinet as important as the U.S. Cabinet. Their gastronomic inclinations may not always have gone hand in hand with successful politics, but for these 10, good taste was the ultimate executive privilege.
1. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809). When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to ponder the miracle of vanilla ice cream, the wonder of the macaroni machine, and the knowledge that tomatoes are not poisonous, we look to Thomas Jefferson, who also experimented with wine grapes, had his slave trained in French cookery, and adored veggies, claiming that he ate meat mostly “as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”
2. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). Jackson once held a public cheese tasting in the White House foyer. A 1,400-pound block of New York cheddar, a gift to the president, was left to age for two years in the vestibule. At Jackson’s last public reception, congressmen, officers, and everyday citizens poured in through doors and windows and finished off the cheese in two hours.
3. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850). Biographers say that General Taylor and his Army horse, Claybank, shared a taste for hominy. The officer would let his animal loose to sniff out the sweetest corn from among the sacks of musty soldiers’ rations. Then, after Claybank had chewed a hole through the choicest bag, the general would have the horse stabled and ask his servants to whip up some of the hominy—since the sack had already been gnawed open. President Taylor contracted cholera and died after consuming a large bowl of cherries and a pitcher of iced milk at a Fourth of July celebration.
4. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853). Although Jefferson installed the first cooking stove in the White House, when Fillmore took office, the kitchen staff was still cooking in open fireplaces, not quite used to the newfangled equipment. The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University tells the story that, hoping to modernize the residence, the president ordered a new, hotel-size iron stove for the kitchen. When neither he nor his cook could figure out how to work the contraption, Fillmore walked over to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, read the manufacturer’s instructions in the patent application, and then returned to teach the cook how to fire up the stove.
5. Chester Arthur (1881-1885). A taste for the opulent and stylish earned Chet the nicknames “Elegant Arthur” and the “Gentleman Boss.” According to the biography Chester Alan Arthur, one of his first acts as president was to renovate the White House and overhaul the executive menus. Frequent lavish dinner parties featuring the artistry of his French chef afforded the president plenty of opportunity to make use of his 80 suits.
6. William H. Taft (1909-1913). Officially the fattest president, the 350-pound Taft once demanded that a dining car stocked with filet mignon be added to his train at the next stop. According to Real Life at the White House, during the ordeal, Taft bellowed, “What’s the use of being president if you can’t have a train with a diner on it!”
7. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). Ike liked to cook. He especially enjoyed serving homemade beef stew for company, but his painstakingly detailed recipe for vegetable soup (which calls for nasturtium stems) best conveys his competence in the kitchen. The first president to prepare his own food in the White House, Ike also cooked on top of it—occasionally grilling steaks on the roof.
8. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969). LBJ declared, “Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.” White House guests so frequently requested the recipe for the president’s favorite, Pedernales River chili, that Lady Bird had it printed up on cards, which she later claimed were “almost as popular as the government pamphlet on the care and feeding of children.”
9. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Peanut farmer Carter was the first president to appear on the Food Network, on Paula’s Home Cooking—in 2004 and again in 2006. Fellow Georgian Paula Deen invited “Mistah Jimmy” back the second time to help her make smothered quail, grits, and pecan toffee tassies. The former president told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I feel like the Paula Deen show put me on the map, a has-been politician all of a sudden back in the limelight.”
10. Bill Clinton (1993-2001). While in office, Clinton was known for his passion for junk food. Post–quadruple bypass, he is fighting for healthy school lunches and waging war on childhood obesity. During the Clinton administration, Alice Waters tried to get the president to start an organic garden on the White House lawn. He never did, but Hillary did grant her first interview as first lady to a food writer at the New York Times, and she was responsible for shifting the emphasis from French to American food on White House menus.