How to Eat Like the President of the United States

See Kennedy’s chowder, Eisenhower’s vegetable soup, Reagan’s jelly beans and Nixon’s last White House meal

Richard Nixon's last meal at the White House. Photo by Robert L. Knudsen
Richard Nixon's last meal at the White House. Photo by Robert L. Knudsen Courtesy of the National Archives

The National Archives’ show What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? takes a look at how the government has shaped the American diet. Offhand we think of an alphabet soup of bureaus and organizations—the FDA, USDA, etc.—as being the predominant federal entities that regulate our food. But as another influence on how we eat is found at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington, D.C. The presidents have their favorite dishes or foods that define them in some way, and here are a few highlights from exhibition of the nibbles known to satisfy a commander in chief’s stomach.

Dwight Eisenhower: This administration is represented by Ike’s meticulous recipe for vegetable soup—an affair that takes two days to complete. But I love the tone of the instructions, with the warm timbre of an advice columnist rather than the detached tone of your standard cooking recipe. “Your vegetables should not all be dumped in at once,” he writes. “The potatoes, for example, will cook more quickly than the carrots. Your effort must be to have them all nicely cooked but not mushy, at about the same time.” (Though personally, when I think of this era, my mind goes to Mamie’s Million Dollar Fudge.) Also on display from this era is a letter from Queen Elizabeth II, sending her regards to the president along with her recipe for scones, which he apparently enjoyed during a 1959 trip to England. (I stood in the exhibition hall scribbling down the recipe, I neglected to notice that some of the measurements—teacupfuls of this and that—don’t translate to American measurements. And she also didn’t indicate the temperature at which to heat an oven or the cooking time. But thankfully this blogger took the guesswork out of making this teatime quick bread.)

John F. Kennedy: An episode of The Simpsons lampooned JFK’s love of chowder. Freddy Quimby, whose mop of red hair and thick Boston accent evokes the 35th president, ribs a French waiter for pronouncing chowder with, well, a French accent. In real life, New England-style fish chowder was one of Kennedy’s favorite dishes, the recipe for which is currently on display at the National Archives. You can also see a digital copy and make it in your home kitchen.

Richard Nixon: This president was eating his share of humble pie when he resigned his office in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But his actual last meal at the White House was a simple affair: slices of pineapple arranged around a plop of cottage cheese, paired with a glass of milk and served on a silver tray. Somehow I don’t think this particular dish will catch on in popularity, at least given the context in which it was served.

Ronald Reagan: This former commander in chief started eating jelly beans in the late 1960s as a means of helping him kick a smoking habit—and his affection for the candies grew to the point that, in 1973, he wrote to the chairman of the Jelly Belly company saying “we can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around the jar of jelly beans.” Video on display shows Reagan heading a cabinet meeting with his hand perpetually dipping into a glass jelly bean jar.

Michelle Obama: One of the closing images of the show is of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden on the south lawn. First planted in 2009, it was the first vegetable garden to grace the executive mansion’s property since the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. (The Clintons kept a small garden on the White House roof, but were told that planting a bona-fide garden on the grounds would break with the formal aesthetic of the White House property.) The 2011 garden includes a melange of vegetables such as spinach, peas, broccoli and lettuce. The produce will be used in the White House kitchen.

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