With the President’s Day holiday upon us, a food writer’s thoughts naturally turn to… well, cookbooks. We don’t typically prepare any special dishes to honor presidents, but let’s celebrate a few of the books that give us glimpses into the kitchens that have fed our leaders, their families, and guests.
The White House Cookbook: A Comprehensive Cyclopedia of Information for the Home was first published in 1887. Authored by White House steward Hugo Ziemann and Mrs. F. L. Gillette, the book has more than 600 pages of recipes, remedies, household hints, and instruction that covers everything from butchering mutton to curing croup to the proper seating chart for a state dinner with 50 attendees. (In case you’re wondering, the president’s seat is No. 8 on the chart.)
The book is dedicated “To the wives of our presidents, those noble women who have graced the White House, and whose names and memories are dear to all Americans.” But these recipes were collected not from the first ladies, but rather in tribute to them. So we’ll never know if Edith Roosevelt actually liked the Clam Soup from the recipe on the page facing her portrait.
Consider the menu for “Mrs. Cleveland’s Wedding Lunch” on June 4, 1886. A procession of consommé, crabs, sweetbreads, and snipes on toast was followed by a lettuce-and-tomato “salade” and finished with fancy ice cream, cakes, and fruits. There’s no indication what her husband, President Grover Cleveland, thought of the meal.
Original editions of the book are pricey and rare but several updates and reproductions are available from online sellers. Even better, the whole sprawling thing has been digitized by the Gutenberg Project. It’s in the public domain so anyone can freely download the recipes for stewed terrapin and tincture of opium, assuming you can find the ingredients.
All the Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty-five Years in the White House, A Memoir by pastry chef Roland Mesnier, contains a few selected recipes but plenty of stories about day-to-day life under five presidents, from Carter to G. W. Bush.
Nowhere in real life would presidents and politicians coexist as nicely as they do in the pages of
Capitol Hill Cooks: Recipes from the White House, Congress, and All of the Past Presidents by Linda Bauer. Only in an index of recipes would we expect Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Chocolate Mousse) to allow being placed below Rep. Ron Paul (Date and Nut Bread). It’s not surprising that many presidents are represented by recipes attributed to their wives. It’s hard to picture Abraham Lincoln baking Mary Todd’s Vanilla Almond Cake, or George Washington whipping up Martha’s Sherry-Crab Soup. Still, it’s great fun to imagine John Adams digging into Abigail’s Apple Pan Dowdy, or the Reagans and Obamas sitting down to a bubbling dish of macaroni and cheese (both families have recipes for it).
Attorney Adrian Miller had worked in the White House on a project under President Clinton but admits he didn’t become interested in presidential food history until several years later. He’d done prodigious research for his book Soul Food (which went on to win a James Beard award) when he discovered an untold story: the legacy of African-American chefs who had worked in the White House. The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas was the result. It’s a significant work that “explores the effect that African Americans have had on ‘presidential foodways’ – places where culture, history, cooking, eating, and the presidency intersect.”
And that brings us to another important point: President’s Day is fleeting, but Black History Month continues till the end of February. The culinary contributions of African Americans are immeasurable. Next time here on WFAEats, we’ll celebrate those stories – and the ways we can learn to understand their impact.