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Broccoli, Opossum, and Gingerbread: Presidential Food

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Today’s post is written by science librarian and culinary specialist Alison Kelly. She has provided her expertise in a number of Inside Adams blog posts related to food history and cooking such as Early American Beer, and Early Mixology Books.

White House China. Carol M. Highsmith Archive.
White House China. Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

Abraham Lincoln liked gingerbread cookies, William Howard Taft enjoyed roast opossum, and Ronald Reagan always kept a jar of jelly beans nearby.  From George Washington’s cherry tree to George H. W. Bush’s ban on broccoli, favorite — or not so favorite — foods associated with presidents often catch the public’s attention.  But presidential food is sometimes more than a list of favorites.  Like Dolley Madison’s fancy ice creams, which smoothed the way for many a political discussion, food can help to set the stage for diplomacy or cultural exchange with impressive grandeur or down-home simplicity. A menu can be part of a formalized political institution, such as the inaugural luncheon which accompanies the formal transfer of power from one president to the next; food and setting can also convey a sense of informality, as when Barack Obama ducked out of the White House for a working lunch with visiting dignitaries at a hamburger joint.


Image of case from the Presidential Food display, Thomas Jefferson Building, February 2017. Photo courtesy of Alison Kelly.

From inaugural luncheons to the White House Easter Egg Roll, from formal state dinners to private solitary breakfasts, food has played a supporting role in American presidential history. Not every meal or menu enjoyed by our first families has been recorded, but presidential food is well documented in news stories, magazine articles, blog posts and photographs — and in cookbooks, recipes and the memoirs of former chefs, ushers and housekeepers.

Samples of these historical sources are on exhibit until early April in a display case in the Jefferson Building, where selected books, images, and objects related to presidential food show a sample of presidential food history from George Washington to Barack Obama.  Assembled by the Science, Technology & Business Division, the display includes objects from the general collections, Prints & Photographs Division collections, and the Manuscript Division.

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt cutting birthday cake, with Lana Turner and Deana Durbin on her right,

Food can be wrapped in meaning or symbolism, with state dinners often setting the scene for diplomacy. In a drawing of George Washington’s farewell dinner, the outgoing president is seen surrounded by weeping guests who are loathe to let him go, while he stands to propose a toast to the incoming president, John Adams.  Lyndon Johnson’s first state dinner, in December of 1963, was held, not at the White House, but at the LBJ Ranch in Texas. West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard journeyed to the ranch, sometimes referred to as the Texas White House, where guests ate barbecue and beans prepared by pit master Walter Jetton.

In another example of culinary diplomacy, Richard Nixon, as part of the preparation for his historic trip to China in 1972, spent months mastering the art of eating with chopsticks. He displayed his expertise at a banquet for 600 in the Great Hall of the People, hosted by China’s Premier Zhou Enlai and televised live at home. And then there was the luncheon for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Franklin Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home in the Hudson Valley. This was the first visit of a reigning British monarch to this country, and the menu included Virginia ham, smoked turkey, hot dogs and beer.

Grace Coolidge and Girl Scouts at White House, Washington, D.C., 1923.
Grace Coolidge and Girl Scouts at White House, Washington, D.C., 1923.

Celebrations, holidays and other occasions at the White House are often marked by special foods. There have been 17 weddings in the White House, but Grover Cleveland is still the only president to have been married there. He was 49 years old when he married Frances Folsom on June 2, 1886 in the Blue Room—and she was only 21. The newlyweds actually had two cakes, as was the custom.  A large frosted bride’s cake, weighing about 25 pounds, was served at the wedding, while the groom’s cake—a fruitcake—was divided into about 150 satin-lined boxes designed by Tiffany and Company and manufactured in New York City by the Spooner Company. The souvenir boxes were given as wedding favors or sent to those who were unable to attend the ceremony, and one of these boxes, on loan from the Manuscript Division of the Library, is on display.

The Presidential Cook Book by F. L. Gillette, 1895.
The Presidential Cook Book by F. L. Gillette, 1895.

One holiday tradition at the White House is the annual gingerbread house. There is a long history of gingerbread and presidential families, going back to Martha Washington and Dolley Madison, who each had special recipes for soft gingerbread.  Beginning in the early 1970’s, and continuing today, White House pastry chefs have created ornate gingerbread houses and scenes, often weighing several hundred pounds for display each Christmas.  A pop-up gingerbread house from a book by Chef Roland Mesnier, pastry chef at the White House for 16 years, illustrates this sweet tradition.

Some presidents have been more hands-on than others when it came to food. Thomas Jefferson brought back his own drawings for a macaroni machine from his travels in Italy.  Dwight D. Eisenhower loved to grill and had a special method for charring steaks directly on the coals. And Gerald Ford became famous for toasting his own English muffins and pouring himself orange juice in the White House kitchen before heading into the Oval Office each morning.

President Gerald Ford eating breakfast at the White House. Marion S. Trikosko photographer, 1975.
President Gerald Ford eating breakfast at the White House. Marion S. Trikosko photographer, 1975.

Sometimes food connects with a political message.  During World War II, in support of the war effort, Eleanor Roosevelt supervised a victory garden on the White House lawn, motivating thousands of Americans to follow suit. But the largest kitchen garden project was undertaken by Michelle Obama, in 2009, when her kitchen garden on the South Lawn of the White House was planted. In May 2012, the First Lady published American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, a book detailing her experiences with the Kitchen Garden, which sparked a national conversation on how we eat and feed our families and contributed to the growth in school gardens across the country.

If you are in D.C. and plan to visit the Library of Congress, please come see the Presidential Food display cases which are located on the first floor of the Jefferson Building and will be in place until April 3rd. You can continue your study of presidential food next door in our beautiful art deco Adams Building, where many more presidential food resources are displayed in the Science and Business Reading Room on the 5th floor.

For more, see the guide to Presidential Food Resources from the Science Reference Section:

Comments (3)

  1. We have over 100 photographs, prints, cookbooks, as well as suggestions for creating State dinners at home in the Science and Business Reading Room as well as print copies of Alison’s Presidential Food.

  2. Do you know what china pattern President Taft used?

  3. I love The Library of Congress. Thank you
    so much. It’s a privilege born 1955. Great History. To me That was then, This is Now, all so Great for the eyes to see & read.

    Debra Ivey

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