Presidential eating habits are a hot topic, though the most interesting ones to read about are generally the quirks and the faux pas, from Reagan’s jelly bean dependency to Bush Jr. choking on a pretzel, and from Obama being accused of elitism for liking Dijon on his burger to the well-documented (and derided) culinary proclivities of the current commander-in-chief.
The Original White House Cook Book: Cooking, Etiquette, Menus and More from the Executive Estate, $19.99 at Target
Plenty of presidential cookbooks came after, but this was the first compendium of recipes (plus etiquette and cleaning tips) from the White House, originally published in 1887—with a whole section on Catsups.
Of course, every administration hosts fancy State Dinners, but not every presidential meal is so high-falutin’—or even all that appetizing in some cases. To wit, and in no particular order, here are some of the humbler—and hence, generally more interesting—White House food moments you may have missed.
FDR’s Awful Cook
The most infamous cook in White House history was Henrietta Nesbitt, who worked for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and once served hot dogs to British royalty (King George IV and Queen Elizabeth). The hot dogs were probably passable since Mrs. Nesbitt presumably bought them ready-made, but her home-cooked meals like liver and string beans were legendarily bad—so much so that it was common for White House visitors in the know to eat before they arrived. Eleanor liked to take the reins herself on Sundays, when she often cooked communal batches of scrambled eggs in a chafing dish at the table, which sounds like a rather charming relief.
LBJ’s Hummus and Fresca (and Lady Bird’s Rice Krispies Cheese Crackers)
President Johnson didn’t eat any of these together, that we know of, and obviously there’s nothing weird about hummus itself, but he pushed the limits of his fancy French chef (René Verdon, a holdover from the Kennedy years) with his abiding love for barbecue and other down-home vittles that the Gallic gastronome deemed inappropriate for entertaining White House guests. When LBJ asked for “cold garbanzo bean dip” at one meal, it was the last straw, and Verdon quit.
No word on what Monsieur thought about Lady Bird Johnson’s cheese wafers recipe, which calls for 2 cups of Rice Krispies cereal, but he probably didn’t approve. Ditto the president’s unquenchable thirst for Fresca, which was so great that he had a button installed in the Oval Office that summoned a staffer to come bearing the diet soda. (Other sources say it was a literal Fresca dispenser, but either way, that’s dedication—or addiction.)
Nixon’s Cottage Cheese with Ketchup
Tricky Dick is still the only president associated with California (so far!), and they are known as health nuts, so that explains the cottage cheese at least, but…ketchup? Apparently soup was out of the question because he couldn’t eat it without making a mess, and he couldn’t eat his wife’s lean ground beef meatloaf all the time. So: ketchup and cottage cheese. Nixon wasn’t alone in his love for this questionable combo, either; Gerald Ford reportedly ate cottage cheese covered in catsup (though some say it was A-1 steak sauce) for nearly every lunch.
Eisenhower’s Prune Whip
Dwight D. Eisenhower was, by all accounts, a good cook and often made his own meals, like cornmeal pancakes and charbroiled steaks, but one of his favorite desserts was prune whip, which you may never have heard of, which is probably for good reason. It’s basically just prune pulp (and sometimes gelatin) mixed with beaten-fluffy egg whites. While that does not sound terribly appetizing, Elaine Liner for the Dallas Observer says it’s “light, slightly chewy, not too sweet and tastes sort of delicately old-fashioned.” Still, may we suggest our Drunken Prune-Mascarpone Trifle for a fancier and more modern alternative?
Chester A. Arthur’s Rhode Island Eels (and Macaroni Pie with Oysters)
You probably don’t think of eels as a distinctly American ingredient, or even as food, if you think of them at all, but they were an important historical food source in New England, starting well before the colonists came on the scene and continuing for some time after—in fact, there was even a period in which little-regarded lobsters were used as eel bait. At least as late as the 1880s, noted gourmand Chester A. Arthur still ate eels with relish (not literally, although maybe). Another dish he enjoyed was fried macaroni pie with oysters, and while we’re not sure what exactly that might have tasted like, there is at least one extant modern recipe for oyster mac and cheese if you’re tempted.
Clinton’s Congealed Coca Cola “Salad”
Pre-bypass Bill Clinton was known to love lots of fatty, delicious food, like cheeseburgers, and even chocolate cake (although he was allergic)—but a less comprehensible dish he and Hillary enjoyed, in the words of their own chef, was an “atrocious concoction of Coca-Cola-flavored jelly served with black glacé cherries.” This is known as Coca Cola Salad and actually looks rather deceptively pretty when made in a ring mold. Honestly, if you like Jello shots, you should like this, but calling it a salad is a step too far.
Jimmy Carter’s Molded Cheese Ring with Strawberries
Most of Carter’s tastes seem pretty pedestrian, and broadly appealing; lots of Southern staples—he liked grits so much he named a dog after the dish. But this party-ready Rosalyn Carter specialty stands out for its combination of cheese, capers, onions, and strawberry jam. The sweet preserves are spooned into the middle of the savory cheese ring, and salty-sweet is always good. Plus, fruit is often paired with fromage, and even the pickled capers could find a place on a cheese plate, so really, this makes a lot of sense—at least, aside from the onions and mayonnaise. Still, this is a definite contender for our next party snack.
James Garfield’s Fermented Mare’s Milk and Squirrel Soup
Okay, so the koumiss (a drink made from fermented mare’s milk), was doctor-ordered, and apparently so were raw beef sandwiches, but Garfield actively enjoyed squirrel soup. William Henry Harrison was also a fan of squirrels as sustenance—or at least he often provided veritable vats of burgoo (a thick hunter’s stew usually containing squirrel and other game), to his supporters. It was a different time, for sure. And to some, squirrel stew still sounds better than overdone steak with ketchup.
If you find some of these faves hard to swallow, wash ’em down with knowledge about Thomas Jefferson’s winemaking habits, George Washington’s whiskey distillery, and why Madeira was popular with the Founding Fathers.