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.
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:
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.
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.
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.