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Thomas Jefferson's Maple Sugar Love and More Presidential Food Facts

Tasty nuggets of presidential trivia include little know facts, including the answer to who was the first locavore president

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This week an IBM computer system named Watson proved it could handily win a game of Jeopardy! against the toughest human competitors, causing one of them to joke, "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords." But how would Watson fare in the nastier game of presidential campaign politics? On the one hand, he probably wouldn't make the gaffes that recent candidates have made, like blanking on simple questions during a TV interview or forgetting how many states there are. On the other hand, would you want to drink a beer with him/it?

Speaking of which, do you know which past president drank beer or hard cider for breakfast? I bet Watson does. It was John Adams. And here, in honor of Presidents' Day weekend, are a few other tasty nuggets of presidential trivia:

Washington Ate Here (No, Really): You can still grab a pint and a bite in the same tavern where George Washington bid his officers farewell after the Revolution, the Fraunces Tavern and museum in lower Manhattan. (In case you missed it yesterday, see Jesse Rhodes' look at the first president's eating habits—and dental woes.)

The First Locavore President?: Thomas Jefferson, influenced by the abolitionist Benjamin Rush, was an early proponent of cultivating maple sugar as a domestic alternative to cane sugar from the West Indies. In a 1790 letter, during his tenure as Secretary of State, Jefferson wrote of the sugar maple, "What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary."

What, No French Fries?: If Bill Clinton was the president most famous for his deep appreciation of junk food, the most ascetic eater to occupy the White House may have been John Quincy Adams. The sixth president was often too absorbed in his work to think about food. Early in his career, he wrote in his diary, "Five or six small crackers and a glass of water give me a sumptuous dinner."

I Didn't Ingest: Speaking of Clinton, his recent health problems have convinced him to change his eating habits, giving him a new distinction: he is now the first (almost) vegan ex-president.

The Hard Cider Candidate: I wrote a few months ago about the practice of "swilling the planters with bumbo," or bribing the electorate with booze. Opponents of William Henry Harrison, by contrast, suggested that the candidate himself be given "a barrel of hard cider" and a pension to retire to his log cabin rather than run for president. He was promptly dubbed the Log Cabin and Hard Cider candidate.

All Gingerbread Men Are Created Equal: The folksy childhood anecdote has been a mainstay of presidential campaigning since at least Abraham Lincoln. During a debate, Lincoln told a story about sharing a gingerbread man with a poor neighbor friend, who then remarked, "I don't s'pose anybody on earth likes gingerbread better'n I do—and gets less'n I do."

A Royal Weenie: Seventy years before Michelle Obama's royal blunder—touching Queen Elizabeth II without invitation—another first lady was criticized for not showing proper deference to royalty. During the King and Queen of Britain's 1939 visit to the United States, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt served them hot dogs at a picnic on the porch of the first couple's Hyde Park home.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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