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Changing Political Palates

There's been a lot of talk lately about what, and where, the First Family eats. Whether it's about their organic garden, their in-house chef, their "politically palatable" restaurant choices, Michelle's cooking comments or simply what's on Barack's burger, the media—and the public, apparently—gobbl...

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President Obama ordering a burger at Rays Hell Burger in Arlington, VA. Photo by Pete Souza, Official White House Photostream on Flickr


There's been a lot of talk lately about what, and where, the First Family eats. Whether it's about their organic garden, their in-house chef, their " politically palatable" restaurant choices, Michelle's cooking comments or simply what's on Barack's burger, the media—and the public, apparently—gobbles up any crumb of news with the keywords "Obama" and "food." There's even an entire blog called Obama Foodarama.

Why do we suddenly care so much about what's on our president's plate in the most literal sense? In part, of course, because there's a star quality to the Obamas, a sense of glamour mixed with down-to-earth niceness, but it's also a sign of the globalized times. People are realizing that, as Mark Bittman writes, food matters. It matters in ethical, environmental, and yes, political ways. (At Gourmet, Barry Estabrook writes a great weekly column called " Politics of the Plate" that delves into many of these issues.) So while we once saw it as a sign of power and prestige to demand exotic and expensive menu options regardless of their source, that now comes across as selfish, or at least clueless.

It's a fairly recent zeitgeist shift.

Searching through Proquest's historical newspaper database, I came across a Washington Post article by John J. Daly, titled "Dining Was an Art in Those Days." It paints a rosy picture of an old boys' club of military and political bigwigs that gathered often in the late 1800s and early 1900s to sup on canvasback duck, diamondback terrapins, and "rough and ready oysters." The reporter interviewed the sole survivor of this so-called Canvasback Club about the "glory days" of "good dining and good wining" in Washington, a time when "colored boys walked along Pennsylvania Avenue with the birds slung over slumping shoulders, selling them at 25 cents apiece." The club met at Harvey's Restaurant, the famous oyster house which played host to every president from Grant to FDR.

By the time the article was written in 1931, canvasback ducks had become a federally protected species under the Migratory Bird Act, which the author implies is rather a shame: "Today, it would cost about $15 to get a brace of bootlegged canvasback ducks...The only time it may be served is when some gallant hunter presents his friends or family with a supply."

That same year, Harvey's Restaurant was displaced from Pennsylvania Avenue to make way for a new IRS building (the restaurant closed for good in 1991). As Daly wrote ruefully, "times have changed."

Or had they? I was startled to read John Kelly's Post column last week about a similar group called the Anteaters Club, which was around as recently as the 1960s. Members of the DC club ranged from politicians and journalists to restaurateurs (including the latest owner of Harvey's Restaurant). They met weekly to sample the meat of exotic animals like elephants, elands (African antelope), bears, kangaroos, iguanas, rattlesnakes, hippos, whales and harp seals (no mention of narwhal, though). The part that really surprised me was the host: the Smithsonian's own National Zoo!

I think it's pretty clear that the Obamas would avoid joining either the Canvasback or Anteaters clubs if those still existed, and they're not fans of fast food or major chain restaurants. (I wonder what's in their fridge?)

To repeat a question I spotted on the Washingtonian's Best Bites blog, where do you think the Obamas would enjoy eating?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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