A new president means a new menu as well

September 22, 2023 | Lean Plate Club's Sally Squires on presidential food (WTOP)

WASHINGTON — With another presidential inauguration, we will likely see some changes in the food at the White House.

Sally Squires, who writes the Lean Plate Club™ blog, said each president and first lady usher in a new era of food at the executive mansion.

Ronald Reagan’s love of jelly beans was well known. In the 1960s, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy was credited with bringing French food to the White House, though Thomas Jefferson actually did that long before the 20th century. Jefferson had spent a lot of time in Paris as U.S. minister to France. He brought over a French chef and had one of his slaves trained as a French chef, as well. He also created plans for a pasta machine while touring Italy in 1787.

First lady Michelle Obama started a White House garden and made healthy eating and prevention of childhood obesity a priority, and Woodrow Wilson had a flock of 48 sheep that grazed the White House lawn to keep it trimmed during World War I.

As far as individual food preferences, Squires said, different presidents have their own favorites.

George Washington loved fish, wasn’t much for desserts, and liked to snack on nuts, especially hazelnuts. He’d wash them down with a glass of wine — his favorite was Madeira. (Interestingly, the first state dinner was held in New York on Cherry Street.) We know that mutton was served at the dinner, but we don’t have many other details.

Abraham Lincoln evidently loved bacon. He was partial to chicken fricassee for dinner, but he wasn’t a big breakfast eater. He’d have an early morning cup of coffee, then an egg and biscuit around 10 a.m. Lunch for Lincoln would often consist of a glass of milk, a biscuit, and, in the summer, a small bunch of grapes.

Lincoln also loved his gingerbread, according to one of his biographers, Carl Sandburg. First lady Mary Todd was known for making a delicious vanilla almond cake. At Lincoln’s second inauguration, news reports noted that there were edible centerpieces, including an intricate and accurate model of the Capitol. In fact, things got a little out of hand when hungry guests rushed the tables and destroyed it all within the hour, leaving a sticky mess on the floor.

The tradition of the inaugural luncheon began in 1897, when the Senate Committee on Arrangements gave a luncheon for President William McKinley. The more modern practice of a congressional luncheon for the new president didn’t really take shape until 1953.

Jimmy Carter actually canceled his luncheon in 1977 — it’s not clear why. Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural luncheon featured California salad, medallions of chicken with rice pilaf and fresh asparagus, followed by a strawberry framboise dessert.

George H.W. Bush dined on lobster ragout salad and grilled chicken with rice pilaf and asparagus; for dessert, he had brandied pear crisp with vanilla ice cream. And there was no broccoli, which he famously disliked. Bill Clinton’s first inaugural lunch featured salmon, rosemary chicken with pecan rice, and gingered carrots and broccoli (which Clinton did like). Dessert was an apple brown betty.

Food became an issue for President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the subject of a Washington Post story in 1906 which said that he and his family enjoyed lavish, three- and four-course meals for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Outraged, Roosevelt wrote to The Post, which published his letter, saying that the published account left the wrong impression and was rife with errors.

It’s interesting to see how exercise habits differ among presidents. Squires noted that most presidents have been in pretty good shape and have stayed that way while in office.

One notable exception is William Howard Taft, who weighed 350 pounds and got stuck in the bathtub more than once. Franklin Pierce is reported to have been a big drinker. And Grover Cleveland didn’t exercise and smoked a lot. Thomas Jefferson was clearly ahead of his time in urging that the afternoon be left for exercise. Bill Clinton and both Bushes jogged regularly. President Obama enjoys basketball and golf. And though we don’t know a lot about his habits, we do know that Donald Trump plays golf.

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