President’s Day Picks: Food Facts From the White House Archives

| February 21, 2011 | 7 Comments
  • 7 Comments

Obama Foodorama - The Year in White House Food - 2010
Time will tell how history views the current President and First Lady’s legacy on the food front.

Though it’s probably fair to say that the family now calling the White House home have never had their eating habits, food policy, or culinary preferences more thoroughly documented and photographed as Barack and Michelle Obama. For that coverage we have the prolific Eddie Gehman Kohan, the voice behind the self-explanatory blog Obama Foodorama, to thank.

Of course, for every pundit singing the praises of Obama’s anti-obesity Let’s Move campaign, the White House garden, and Sam Kass in the kitchen, there’s a critic lamenting the Administration’s rulings on genetically engineered salmon and alfalfa, worrisome stance on importing processed poultry products from China, a country not know for its stellar food safety record, or its ties to big biz players like global retailer Wal-Mart over the cultivation of small, local farmers.

And despite their healthy food stance, the Prez’s favorite foods appear to be pizza, beer, and ice cream.

But since President’s Day is about honoring leaders from history, we’ll focus on the palate preferences and food initiatives of presidents past and offer a week’s worth of food facts for today’s holiday:

1. Founding Father’s Food Challenge: By the time he was president George Washington (1789-1797) had lost most of his teeth and could only manage to eat soft foods, despite wearing hand-crafted dentures made from animal and human teeth. Washington also had a slave chef, Hercules, who has been described as immaculate, impeccable and a bit of a dandy. One wonders if he made apple sauce for the chomping challenged Washington, known to be a big lover of that fall fruit.

2. The Roots of a Holiday Food Tradition: Abraham Lincoln‘s (1861-1865) longest-running food legacy may well be the presidential pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey, a tradition that began when Lincoln spared a bird that had become the beloved pet of one of his sons.

3. Obesity Problem Nothing New: William Taft (1909-1913), who was a little too fond of rich, fatty food, has been the U.S.’s largest president to date, weighing in at a whopping 300 to 332 pounds. He got so fat he got stuck in the White House bathtub.

4. Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays: In 1917, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1917) urged all Americans to observe Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays to conserve food at home and help feed the troops fighting abroad during World War I. In recent years, the Meatless Monday campaign has been resurrected as a global health and environment initiative.

Victory Garden posters

5. Victory Gardens: A response to the Great Depression and World War II when food was scarce, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) and his wife Eleanor encouraged people to grow their own food and preserve excess harvest crops for the lean winter months. Since history is destined to repeat itself, the Victory Garden concept has made a comeback in recent years. See a theme emerging here?

6. Veggie Bashing: At a news conference in 1990 George Herbert Walker Bush (1989-1997) was famously quoted saying: “I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli,” clearly traumatized after being forced fed the nutrient dense green as a child. Needless to say, some folks in the produce lobby got a little steamed by this anti-veg outburst.

7. The Pleasures of the Table: Former movie star Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), delivering his Farewell Address from the Oval Office, pronounced “all great change in America begins at the dinner table” in the daily conversations between parent and child. That’s the kind of sentiment likely to garner strong bipartisan support during any administration.

Resources for presidential political history buffs with a culinary interest who want to learn more:

Kitchen Sisters

Radio: Hercules and Hemings: Presidents’ Slave Chefs (NPR) by the Bay Area’s Kitchen Sisters focuses on some of the African-American cooks who have served in the White House, including the enslaved chefs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Who knew that Sally Hemings, a Jefferson slave alleged to have had a relationship with the president, had a chef brother James Hemings? Also a Jefferson slave, James Hemings studied French culinary techniques and assumed the role of chef de cuisine in Jefferson’s kitchen on the Champs-Elysees when he was minister to France.

The History Chef

Blog: The History Chef! by Suzy Evans, a lawyer in Newport Beach who holds a PhD from UC Berkeley and is working on a book about presidents’ favorite foods. Her blog, which goes by the domain name lincolnslunch.blogspot.com, includes fascinating food factoids from the archives, like this one: Ronald Reagan asked for his favorite comfort food — mac&cheese — while recuperating from injuries sustained during an assassination attempt.

Book: All The Presidents’ Pastries: Twenty Five Years in the White House: A Memoir by Roland Mesnier with Christian Malard (Flammarion, $24.95) dishes up White House dirt along with over-the-top desserts from the French pastry chef who served five presidents from Jimmy Carter to Bush junior during his 25 year tenure cooking for the country’s top commander-in-chiefs.

Obama Foodorama

Blog: Obama Foodorama: There’s no food news related to POTUS and FLOTUS (that’s Barack and Michelle) to minute to report on this site, which includes policy analysis, events, speeches, videos, recipes, menus, edible ephemera, and lots of food shots too. Eddie Gehman Kohan serves up side dishes of food news from the USDA and The Hill in a blog cataloged by the Library of Congress.

Cookbook: Capitol Hill Cooks: Recipes from the White House, Congress and All of the Past Presidents by Linda Bauer (Taylor, $26.95), a collection of dishes from appetizers to desserts from two centuries worth of policy wonks. Profits from the sales of the book benefit Homes for Our Troops, an organization that helps injured veterans build or adapt their homes for handicapped access.

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Category: food history and celebrities, politics, activism, food safety

About the Author ()

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers' market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies' Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.
  • http://atravelerslibrary.com Vera Marie Badertscher

    Interesting round up and you obviously took quite a bit of time with it. Thanks.

    I’m glad that you shared some of the blogs and books related to President’s chefs and the eating habits. I’m much more interested in that than hearing about policies during their term, since the times and the Congress have more to do with policies than the President himself. I like my history personal.

  • Sheryl

    Fun post, thanks. It’s nice to get into the culinary habits of the higher-ups in history. But nothing about Clinton’s former propensity toward all-the-wrong foods?

  • http://chezsven.blogspot.com Alexandra

    What a fun post! I think we need to bring back the victory gardens to avoid the synthetic chemicals that are in most food these days and causing disease in our bodies.

  • http://www.reellifewithjane.com/blog/ Jane Boursaw

    Cool story! And I actually knew that about William Taft. The guys in my house love the History channel, so maybe some of it’s being absorbed by osmosis. :-)

  • http://www.MyKidsEatSquid.com MyKidsEatSquid

    I had no idea Meatless Mondays went back to WWI. Amazing how things circle back.

  • http://frugalkiwi.co.nz Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi

    I love seeing the old Victory Garden posters. There seems to be quite the upsurge in those being reprinted. Wouldn’t mind having a few of them myself!

  • http://mothering.com/jennifermargulis/ Jennifer Margulis

    Fun trivia. I can’t believe my hero George Washington had lost all his teeth!