Presidents Day is not a big food holiday. Sandwiched between the wings-n’-guac of Superbowl Sunday, the noodles and dumplings of the Lunar New Year, and the kings’ cake and jambalaya of this Tuesday’s Mardi Gras celebrations, this long weekend in February is known more for white sales and ski-resort deals than for anything on the plate. Still, by the highly public and influential nature of the office, every President’s personal culinary leanings, however quirky, end up making a cultural impact on our country’s food. (Just ask California’s broccoli growers, who in 1990 sent 10 tons of the stuff to then-President George H. W. Bush, after the President went on record with his hatred of the vegetable, which he’d banned from meals served on Air Force One.)
For a President, even an innocuous, man-of-the-people gesture like grabbing some Chinese takeout, as Obama did last week at San Francisco’s Great Eastern restaurant, can have political repercussions: as soon as word got out about his pork-bun run, reporters noted that Great Eastern in one of a only a few restaurants in the state still serving the California-banned shark fin. Not that the President went for the $48 shark-fin soup; instead, he stuck with a much easier-to-swallow array of buns and dumplings, but the proximity alone was enough to make a story.
Of course, the real Obama food story of the week was the President’s private fund-raising dinner, prepared by Quince chef Michael Tusk. The menu–nettle tortelloni; chicken with black salsify, savory cabbage, and chanterelle mushrooms; squash puree; marble potatoes; chocolate cremeux–put the spotlight on local farm produce and products from around the Bay, including cheese from Barinaga Ranch (Marin), vegetables from Marin Roots Farm (Marin), Tierra Farm (Sonoma), Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm (Yolo), and dairy from Straus Family Creamery (Marin).
Nettles! For the President! It takes some chutzpah to serve the POTUS what some would call a common stinging weed, despite its off-the-charts nutritional value and minerally, earthy tang. If you want to try making some nettle pasta yourself, you can usually find it for sale at Star Route Farm’s stall at both the Ferry Plaza and Marin Civic Center farmers’ markets. Or forage it yourself, being sure to wear gloves and harvest only the youngest, tenderest shoots for best results. (Cooking neutralizes the sting, just in case you wondering; this is not something for your raw-food friends.)
But, if you really want to go back to basics, you can look back at the kitchens of our earliest presidents, which were most often staffed by African-Americans. What about our very first President, George Washington, whose February 22 birthday was established as a federal holiday in 1879? (The official observance was shifted to the third Monday in February in 1971, and while Washington’s birthday remains a federal holiday, a fuzzier celebration of both Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays was later melted into a general Presidents’ Day long weekend). Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, has a new food-centric exhibit, Hoecakes & Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington. But according to writer Ramin Ganeshram, the real star of that 18th-century kitchen was Hercules, the African-American man (and slave), whom she calls George Washington’s celebrity chef. Thomas Jefferson was, of course, our most sophisticated President at table, with both a refined palate and a passionate interest in agriculture, farming and gardening on his estate. His kitchen in Monticello was also run by African-American men: first by James Hemings, who travelled with Jefferson to France and trained as a chef there, and then, after James petitioned Jefferson for his freedom, by James’ brother Peter.
There’s no shortage of food tales spread through the double-plus centuries of the American presidency, from First Lady Dolly Madison’s storied introduction of ice cream to her guests to Jacqueline Kennedy’s appointment of Rene Vardon, a French chef, as the White House chef. (After a brief, unhappy stint under the Johnson administration, he came to San Francisco and, in 1972, became the chef for Le Trianon, a fine-dining fixture much loved by San Franciscans until its closure in 1987.) For all the hoopla surrounding the Obamas’ Alice Waters-inspired vegetable beds on the White House lawn, his obituary last year in the New York Times noted that “He shocked Americans used to canned vegetables and iceberg lettuce by tending his own vegetables on the White House roof and arranging for the White House garden designer to plant herbs in the flowerbeds of the East Garden.”
But for me, there’s only one real dessert to serve in honor of Presidents Day, and that’s something made with cherries, most deliciously cherry pie or cherry cobbler. Did Washington really chop down that cherry tree, then confess to it in a fit of remorse? We’ll never know exactly. But it’s still a perfect excuse to bake (or buy) a shiny-red, lattice-crusted cherry pie or a sweet, easy biscuit-topped cobbler. Now, to make the best cherry pie, you need sour cherries, smallish and light red, not the big, dark, juicy Bings so good for eating fresh. Luckily for us, sour cherries can well, and are available by the jar or can in many supermarkets and specialty stores. Cobbler, I’ve found, is a little more forgiving, and can be made beautifully even with frozen sweet cherries. Here’s a kid-friendly recipe perfect for snacking on all through the long holiday weekend.
Recipe: Cherry Almond Cobbler
Summary: A light, buttery biscuit dough tops plump, almond-scented cherries, giving a fresh-picked flavor even to frozen fruit.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30-40 minutes
Total Time: 50-60 minutes
Yield: 1 cobbler, serves 6-8
5 cups pitted cherries, fresh or frozen
3 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp almond extract or 1 tsp almond liqueur, such as Amaretto
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
6 tbsp butter (3 oz), frozen in one piece
1/3 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
a few drops almond extract
Glaze: 1 egg yolk, beaten with 2 tsp water
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sift 3 tablespoons of sugar and cornstarch together. Toss sugar mixture with cherries, lemon juice, and almond extract. Spread cherry mixture into an 8″x8″ baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, sift flour, baking soda and powder, salt, and sugar together. Using the large holes on a box grater, grate butter into flour mixture. Toss grated butter lightly to coat evenly with flour. Add almonds and toss gently to mix.
3. Add half the buttermilk and extracts. Stir lightly to moisten the flour, adding additional buttermilk as needed to make a soft dough.
4. Dollop biscuit dough over fruit; fruit doesn’t need to be completely covered. Brush with egg glaze and sprinkle with up to 1 tbsp additional sugar.
5. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until fruit is bubbling and biscuits are golden brown and cooked through. Let cool until just warm, then serve with vanilla ice cream.