The White House Cookbook

Feedloader (Clickability)

The other day at the library I came across a copy of The White House Cookbook by Janet Halliday Ervin, from 1964. This is not to be confused with the 1987 version, a revised and updated centennial edition of the original White House Cookbook, by Mrs. F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, which came out in 1887, during the Cleveland administration. Frances Cleveland, the trend-setting new First Lady, had a copy and, according to Ervin, "it was a book no fashionable bride or matron would be without."

While the centennial edition updated the original recipes to conform to 20th-century sensibilities (lower in fat and less time-consuming), Ervin presents them as they were, in all their Victorian-era peculiarity. So, for instance, a recipe for turtle soup begins with the advice to "kill the turtle at night in winter and in the morning in summer," then goes into a detailed description of how to process and cook the meat and shell. All that comes before the actual instructions for making the soup, which should "commence early in the morning" with the cooking of eight pounds of beef. Probably not a recipe the modern cook—much less the present First Lady—has the time or inclination to follow, but it makes for interesting reading.

There are recipes for Election Cake (offered with no explanation, though a 2004 article in the Washington Post says it was supposed to keep up people's strength during what used to be a festive, multi-day civic affair), Hasty Pudding—the cornmeal mush, not the Harvard theatrical group—and some pretty exotic-sounding beverages, such as Koumiss, made from fermented milk.

The book also includes a section on 19th-century etiquette that seems a little harsh by current standards: "be genial, animated, sympathetic, and cheerful, or do not go into society. Dull and stupid people are but so many clogs to the machinery of social life." And its health tips are a bit dubious: "both tea and coffee powerfully counteract the effects of opium, and intoxicating liquors."

Aside from the original 1887 material, Ervin added a section on each of the presidents' wives and hostesses, from Martha Dandridge Custis Washington (whose guests wondered if they should call her Your Elective Majesty) to Claudia Alta "Lady Bird" Taylor Johnson (a Texan whose favorite recipes included pickled okra and Pedernales River Chili).

The centennial edition is said to include Hillary Clinton's cookie recipe (the ones she famously didn't stay home baking, I assume). Now that we once again have a trend-setting First Lady, I wonder how long it will be before a new edition of the cookbook comes out, complete with Michelle Obama's healthy broccoli soup?

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.