First Lady Michelle Obama works hard to make the country aware of healthy food and good nutrition. She even grows vegetables outside the White House back door. But the Obamas aren’t the first presidential family to make food history. For at least for the last hundred years, the presidential palate has been public record.
Thomas Jefferson, our third president, brought pasta to this country after seeing this street food on a trip to Italy. He also brought tomato seeds to grow in his vegetable garden. Generally considered poisonous in the early 1800s, the tomatoes didn’t catch on for a long while.
First ladies did not do the hands-on cooking in the White House. And its kitchen was not the place for a cook to achieve fame. Back in the Great Depression FDR often complained about his cook. Mrs. Nesbitt was a thrifty home cook who Eleanor brought to Washington from home. She served up a constant stream of leftovers which the President didn’t like one bit. But Mrs. Roosevelt is the only first lady actually on record as cooking in the official residence. As was the custom of her class, on Sunday evenings she gave the cook the night off. Still wearing her pearls, she scrambled eggs at the table in a chafing dish to serve with her famous burnt toast.
Some presidential favorites match the man’s character; others explode the myth. Harry Truman, who followed Roosevelt, indulged in meat loaf and tuna casseroles; Ike went from World War II General to Commander-in-chief, without stocking a supply of Spam, the canned meat that got the troops through the war.
Julia Child made her TV debut in the Camelot years. Home cooks took to her TV cooking lessons and preparing the latest culinary craze, beef Stroganoff, said to be JFK’s favorite. The White House finally got a real chef, French Chef Rene Verdun, who stood front and center when the press covered Jackie’s glittering galas.
By the Seventies, the nation was washing down nouvelle cuisine with new blush wines and sampling its first spicy Szechuan noodles. Richard Nixon, who opened relations with China was indirectly responsible for the Szechuan invasion. And, after a minor dust-up over a new White House china, Ronald Reagan’s elegant first lady Nancy, brought back “monkey bread,” a comforting pile up of soft dough, sugar, cinnamon and butter.
George H. W. Bush did not monkey around with fashionable food. President “#41” came down squarely against broccoli. His aversion to the vegetable caused a ruckus among farmers, but made him a hero to American youngsters. The kids launched a letter-writing campaign of support and his press office answered every one.
William Jefferson Clinton never met a green vegetable worth mentioning. On his daily jog around the Capitol, Secret Service in tow, the president was known to break for a Big Mac. Those burgers took their toll and he later underwent surgery on his cholesterol-clogged heart.
Oh, there’s more history, but non as good, comforting and warming as this recipe:
2 pounds lean beef, cut into thin strips
½ cup flour, for dredging
4 tablespoons butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled, cut in half crosswise, and sliced
1 pound white mushrooms, thickly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1-1/2 cups beef stock
1 cup sour cream
1-1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1. Place four and beef in a paper bag and shake to coat the beef. Remove the beef and shake off excess flour.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons butter. Add beef and brown on all sides. Remove from skillet and set aside, covering with foil to keep warm. Add remaining butteer to skillet. Add onions and mushrooms. Cook, stirring often until onions are golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Return beef to skillet. Season. Stir in stock bringing barely to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently, about 20 to 30 minutes until beef is tender. Reduce heat again, to low, and stir in sour cream and dill. Taste for seasoning, and continue to cook very gently until heated through. Serve this over lightly buttered egg noodles.