The Presidents’ Cookbookby Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks
Funk & Wagnalls, 1968
ISBN 978-545 pages + Presidential pen and ink caricatures $22.50
Party politics aside, there’s one thing that over two centuries of elected officials who have resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can agree on: the enjoyment of a well cooked and satisfying meal. The Presidents’ Cookbook, released in 1968, is a vintage gem that invites readers into the White House dining room to break bread with every president from George Washington to LBJ. And what a treat that is!
Often referred to as life in a fish bowl, America’s First Families have been the precedent-setting hosts of many a social gathering revolving around excellent food, exemplary service, and cognizance not only of foreign dietary customs but sensitivity to the protocol of smart seating arrangements for fostering good will. As early as 1789 when the first official White House chef was hired, George and Martha took pains to craft an ad that would attract only the finest candidates:
A COOK is wanted for the family of the President of the United States. No one need apply who is not perfect in the business, and can bring indubitable testimonials of sobriety, honesty and attention to the duties of the station.
The common assumption that our founding fathers were simple meat ‘n’ potatoes folks who noshed on whatever they could kill or grow is quickly dispelled in the opening chapters. Jefferson, for instance, took advantage of his years overseas to enthusiastically collect recipes and fine wines for what would be considered radically eclectic dinner parties by the standards of the day. Records reveal that during his stint as president, his wine bill alone exceeded $10,000. Dolley Madison, of course, is legendary for making sure that no one ever went home hungry and was known to use any occasion—even a casual drop-in visitor—as a good reason to see that her kitchen whipped up memorable refreshments. Widower Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson may have had a backwoods upbringing but wasted no time embracing the soufflés and crème brûleé served up by the French chef whom John Quincy Adams couldn’t take with him when he left office.
Anecdotes abound throughout the lively text, providing little-known insights on presidential taste buds (Ulysses S Grant liked his steaks burned to the consistency of charcoal), regional influences on the preparation of menus (Zachary Taylor’s fondness for Creole cuisine), decorating trends (Caroline Harrison’s decision to have a china cabinet installed and display all of her predecessors’ dinner plates), the consumption of spirits (Harding and his wife Flo deemed themselves exempt from Prohibition), and cost-cutting measures to set an example for the rest of the country (Mamie Eisenhower declared that leftovers—no matter how small— were not to be thrown out).
It’s not just the history buffs who will be entertained by these chapters, however. Ten or more recipes have been resurrected from each administration and, for the most part, utilize modern ingredients (just in case you were worried you’d have to run out and bag an elk or fry up a couple chipmunks), easy measurements, and utensils and cookware that are on hand in most kitchens. The names alone are worth a look:
Golden Alligator Spring House Cake
Mugwump in a Hole
Confederate Apple Pie Without Apples
Corn Chowder with Bear’s Paw Popcorn
Rutledge Tavern Squash Pie
Capitolade of Chicken
Sailors in Hammocks
Pineapple Fairy Fluff
Daniel Webster’s Punch
Fiddlehead Fern Salad
The most surprising revelation? Presidents throughout history seem to have supported something that contemporary nutritionists have been saying all along: breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. For those who love to plan parties around brunch (and that goes for baby and bridal showers, too), there’s no shortage of waffle, pancake, muffin, and crumb cake recipes as well as fruit cobblers, punches, and pies for every season.
It’s also interesting to note how early administrations prided themselves on strict punctuality when it came to mealtimes. For Martha Washington, this not only applied to when her guests sat down for a White House supper (Democrats were never high on her invitation list) but when they were expected to leave and go back to their own homes. At one particular dinner party, she rose from her place and bluntly announced, “The General always retires at nine, and I usually precede him.”
Much more direct, one thinks, than stifling yawns or trying to artfully nudge guests toward the front door after a long evening.
As of this writing, The Presidents’ Cookbook is out of print. Used copies, however, can be found at Amazon as well as used bookstores and would make a wonderful addition to the shelf of anyone who loves presidential trivia as much as they love culinary adventures.
Reviewer Christina Hamlett, a former actress and, is an award winning author and script coverage consultant for the film industry. Her credits to date include 22 books, 118 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns/interviews that appear throughout the world. She and her gourmet chef husband, Mark Webb, reside in Pasadena, California.