“You can’t even consider the history of the White House without realizing that the common denominator is the dinner table.”
–William Seale, The President’s House
Like any other house, the White House runs on food. But no other building represents the presidency, or is subject to as much scrutiny, as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is at once a home, a busy office, a social hub, a decorative arts museum, the only residence of a national leader that invites the public inside, a “fortress disguised as a home” Michelle Obama said, and, as Jackie Kennedy put it, “an emblem of the American Republic.” In short, the Executive Mansion is the most powerful house in the world. And so it follows that the meals and food policies created there are among the most influential in history.
In the same vein, the president is both a symbol of the nation and a flesh-and-blood human being, and his food choices bridge those disparate roles. What he eats determines his health and sets an example for the nation. How his food is prepared, by whom, and the context of his meals semaphore his priorities. His policies and the way he pulls governmental levers influence the flow of goods and services to millions of Americans and to billions of people around the world. His messaging about food touches on everything from personal taste to global nutrition, politics, economics, science, and war—not to mention race, class, gender, money, religion, history, culture, and many other things.
Hardly frivolous, a meal at the White House is never simply a meal: it is a forum for politics and entertainment on the highest level. One of the main duties of the president and First Lady—sometimes referred to as the First Host and Hostess—is to welcome guests into their home. They do this nearly every day, in ways large and small. These affairs are an integral and important, if little noticed, tool of government.A meal at the White House is never simply a meal.
Food is sustenance and metaphor, and who has a seat at the table, and who does not, matters. While the pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey or a visit from a school group requires minimal work, an inauguration or state dinner can take months of planning, cost millions of taxpayers’ dollars, and significantly impact an administration. Canny leaders such as the two Roosevelts and Dwight D. Eisenhower understood that their choice of guests, food, and entertainment can influence and amplify their agenda. Less savvy men, such as Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, and Gerald Ford, have discovered that a single drunken speech, poor choice of guests, or terrible food can undermine their legacy. There is another aspect of White House life that people rarely consider but can be revealing: the intimate gatherings of the First Family behind the scenes. How presidential couples have balanced, or failed to balance, their public and private lives is often more fraught than it appears, and can have high political stakes. I didn’t know any of this when I stumbled over the idea for this book, almost by chance.
It was a hot, humid, blindingly bright Thursday in August 2016 when I made my way through a side door, past security checkpoints, and into the White House. I had been invited to discuss the role of freshwater in the twenty-first century, the subject of my book The Ripple Effect, with mid-level staff. Before my meeting, a friend who worked in the Obama administration invited me to join him for lunch.
We met in the White House Mess (often called the Navy Mess), a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled restaurant on the ground floor of the West Wing, adjacent to the Situation Room. It is essentially a small cafeteria, albeit the most unusual cafeteria in the universe. The walls are decorated with paintings of men-o’-war, and the galley is manned by navy stewards—a holdover from the days of presidential yachts (the last of which, the Sequoia, was sold by Jimmy Carter in 1977). My friend ordered the lunch special—jambalaya, a fragrant stew of garlic, tomatoes, peppers, okra, andouille, shrimp, and strong seasoning that smelled enticing. I am normally an adventurous eater and would have joined him, but worried that my larynx wouldn’t survive the Cajun spice bath, I ordered a more timid Caesar salad. As we finished, my friend offered to guide me on a quick tour of the mansion.
Like many Americans, I had visited the capital plenty of times but had never gotten around to taking a White House tour, and I jumped at the chance. It was a stroke of luck.
The White House, also known as the People’s House, is a familiar image, but walking through the building can be disorienting. It is a large space divided into many smaller ones. The building stands 168 feet long, 152 feet wide, and 70 feet high (on the south side, where it is built into a gently sloping hill), with an internal volume of 55,000 square feet stacked in six floors that encompass 132 rooms—including 16 family or guest rooms, 35 bathrooms, 1 main kitchen, 1 pastry kitchen, and 1 family kitchen in the president’s private quarters. The building sits on 18.7 acres of heavily manicured and defended property in the middle of the urban sprawl that is twenty-first-century Washington, D.C.
On the day of my visit, the Obamas were vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, and the normally buzzing mansion was hushed and shadowy. There were no public tours under way. Many of the lights were dimmed and rugs were rolled up. As we traversed hallways, our footsteps echoed off its solid wood, marble, and plaster surfaces. On the State Floor (the first floor), we crossed the white-and-pink marble Entrance Hall, where Jefferson had displayed animal pelts collected by Lewis and Clark, and Andrew Jackson had showcased a giant, malodorous cheese that was devastated by a ravenous mob.
We walked through the East Room, where Abigail Adams hung her laundry to dry and where the body of Abraham Lincoln and six other presidents had lain in state. In the cream and red-hued China Room Room, cabinets displayed rows of elegant White House porcelain, the “state service,” whose symbolic patterns have been chosen by First Ladies for more than two centuries. (Chipped and broken pieces are destroyed, and were once thrown into the Potomac River, to keep the collection sacrosanct and out of the hands of souvenir hunters.)
In the West Wing, I peeked into the Oval Office, which is more impressive in person than in photographs. Through a door adjacent to the Resolute desk, I could see the President’s Dining Room, a private retreat where chief executives have huddled with advisers, heads of state, or family since William Howard Taft (at some 350 pounds, our heaviest leader) built “the Oval.” Down a hallway is the State Dining Room, where Ulysses S. Grant liked to shoot bread balls at his children and hosted America’s first state dinner for a foreign leader in 1874.
The Obama White House had a reputation as a foodie kind of place. The president was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, had a taste for challenging dishes, and was known to slip out on dates with his wife to trendy restaurants. Michelle Obama had planted an eleven-hundred-square-foot vegetable garden on the South Lawn in 2009, which played at least two roles: it provided fresh produce for her family and charities, and it was a political statement about the importance of healthy eating in a time of obesity, a stance that provoked a backlash from corporate food giants. It was striking that the White House, which was largely built by slaves and where generations of slaves had cooked, was now home to a First Lady descended from slaves.
On the Ground Floor, I glanced into the Executive Kitchen—a gleaming and well-equipped but surprisingly tight space, just twenty-seven and a half feet long by twenty-two feet wide. The cooks and their assistants—Filipina, Black, white—dressed in toques and starched whites, moved from stainless-steel sink to counter to stove in a silent, focused choreography.
As the White House unfolded around us, the bronze busts and portraits of former residents brought them to life as complex individuals rather than as idealized, godlike figures. I could picture them roaming those hallways, and I would discover nearly every one of them had an interesting food story.The presidents’ food choices reflected the state of the nation.
Presidential meals often had personal meaning, and sometimes contained coded political messages. James Garfield and Dwight Eisenhower liked bowls of squirrel soup. William Howard Taft had a taste for possum. Zachary Taylor died after eating cherries and drinking cold milk. Woodrow Wilson had chronic indigestion and consumed dubious elixirs, yet he and Herbert Hoover saved millions of lives with innovative food policies. The gourmand Theodore Roosevelt and his gourmet cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation over bison steaks and terrapin soups. (A gourmand is someone who eats and drinks to wretched excess. A gourmet is a connoisseur of fine dining.) JFK liked clam chowder, LBJ favored chili, Richard Nixon ate cottage cheese almost every day, and George W. Bush liked ballpark hot dogs.
The presidents’ food choices reflected the state of the nation. Yet Americans no longer eat many of those things, and a dish considered the very height of sophistication in one era can seem dull, quaint, or repulsive in another. I came to think of presidential menus as something like tree rings: their ingredients, recipes, and techniques are mini histories of how the country has evolved over time.
After the tour I stood alone in a hallway for a minute, when the enormity of the building’s history struck me with an almost palpable force. It seemed to reverberate from deep inside the thick walls and solid parquet floors and gave me a jolt. I wasn’t the only one who has felt this way, it turns out: Harry Truman swore the place was haunted, and a guard told me that some visitors are so overwhelmed by the building they become physically sick or pass out.
At the time, I had recently finished writing The French Chef in America, a book about how Julia Child became our first celebrity television cook and helped launch the American gastronomic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. While piecing the story together, I discovered that Julia had visited the White House numerous times, made TV documentaries about two significant dinners there, and was an outspoken promoter of the Executive Kitchen.
Julia’s husband, Paul Child, was the twin brother of my grandfather Charles Child, and I grew up listening to their stories around the dinner table. Between 1948 and 1961, Paul served as a cultural attaché to American embassies in France, Germany, and Norway, and Julia was a diplomatic spouse. She studied French cookery in Paris and coauthored Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the seminal recipe book published in 1961 (and still in print). In 1963, Julia appeared on public television in The French Chef and within four years had won her first Emmy and a Peabody, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
It was then, in 1967, that Julia and Paul approached President Lyndon B. Johnson with a novel idea: to film a behind-the-scenes look at a White House dinner, and to explain why the time and effort to produce such a meal is worth it—“to show a side of the People’s House that most of the People have never seen,” the Childs explained, and to educate the public about “diplomatic life…[and] the tremendous importance that [a state dinner] plays in our international affairs.”
As gastrophiles and former diplomats, Julia and Paul were uniquely suited to the job. No one had thought to televise a state dinner before, and Johnson—bedeviled by the Vietnam War, the Cold War, racial strife, protesting feminists, angry environmentalists, and untamable rock ’n’ rollers—had largely retreated from public view. But if anyone could sweet-talk the mercurial LBJ, it was Julia. “She could charm a polecat,” Paul liked to say. Sensing a chance for positive media attention, the Johnsons granted Julia access to a state dinner for the prime minister of Japan.
In preparing for their documentary, the Childs accumulated piles of research, and as I read through it fifty years later, I was reminded that a state dinner has several functions: it honors a visiting head of state, is an assertion of power and an extension of influence for both host and guest, and celebrates the culmination of knotty diplomatic negotiations with a cathartic release. It is also a showcase for the skills of the White House cooks and the best of American ingredients.
In November 1967, the Childs and a small crew from WGBH in Boston spent three days at the White House, filming in black and white (this was before the wide use of video or color television). Their cameras panned over the mansion’s facade, wandered through its rooms, and zoomed in for close-ups of the kitchen at work. As the spry, sharp-featured executive chef, Henry Haller, explained his quenelles (poached fish dumplings), the six-foot-two-inch Julia craned over him to coo at his lobster tails and inhale the aromas wafting from his pots.I was intrigued by the notion of presidential hunger—for food, of course, but also for the other trappings of office.
On the night of November 14, the Japanese prime minister, Eisaku Satō, and his wife stepped from their limousine into the flicker of the paparazzi’s flashing cameras. A stream of happy, excited guests—Vice President Hubert Humphrey, cabinet members, military brass, financiers and industrialists, ambassadors, the actors Kirk Douglas and Ida Lupino, the St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson—dressed in sleek tuxedos and glittering gowns surged into the White House.
On a signal from the maître d’, a platoon of waiters bore Haller’s banquet into the crowded State Dining Room and the Blue Room. The meal began with a seafood vol-au-vent (lobster, bay scallops, shrimp, and quenelles in puff pastry, napped with a sauce américaine); moved on to a sautéed noisette (fillet) of lamb, with mushrooms and asparagus; artichoke bottoms and a sauce Choron; and concluded with a green salad, and cheese with grapes. Each course was paired with a small-batch American wine. For dessert, the pastry chef Ferdinand Louvat created a Bavarian cream mousse with fresh strawberries.
“This is an absolutely delicious dinner” for 190 people, Julia narrated the film. “If I could do it for six people, I’d be proud indeed.” And Paul reported in The Economist, “Many Americans who dislike President Johnson half-believe that dinner at the White House is limited to such gustatory curiosities as Pedernales Chili and enchiladas. Alas for prejudice! The truth is that official food at the White House is delectable.”
After dinner, Tony Bennett ripped off his jacket and crooned hits in the East Room as the audience cheered. “They really seem relaxed, friendly, and happy together,” Julia noted of the president and the prime minister. “And that’s the point of this whole affair.”
When the documentary, White House Red Carpet, aired as a TV special in April 1968, it was hailed as a groundbreaking event. The telecast drew a large audience, provided the first intimate glimpse of the First Kitchen at work, humanized diplomacy, and demonstrated the public’s hunger for White House coverage.
Julia took note. And nine years later, she participated in a second telecast about the presidential mansion, as part of a team covering the American bicentennial. For the extra-special occasion, held on July 7, 1976, President and Mrs. Gerald R. Ford invited Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to a white-tie soiree, held under a tent stretched over the Rose Garden. (It was not technically a state dinner because monarchs are not heads of state.) Inside, a temporary floor with rugs had been laid on the grass, air-conditioning was installed, and Japanese paper lanterns were hung from the ceiling, setting an elegant mood.
Every minute of the evening had been tightly choreographed—from the queen and prince boarding a limousine at 8:02 p.m., to their dinner at 8:18. But at five o’clock a raging wind blasted off the Potomac, lightning crackled, and a deluge soaked the guests and turned the lawn into a mud pit. Eventually, the storm passed, the celebrants regrouped and some changed clothes, and the party carried on.
Haller’s menu—one of “the most memorable” of his career, he’d say—began with New England lobster with a sauce rémoulade (a green mayonnaise, made with lemon, mustard, gherkins, capers, tarragon, and chervil), then moved on to a stuffed saddle of New Hampshire veal, with Arkansas rice croquettes, blanched broccoli in a Mornay sauce (an enhanced hollandaise), a salad of fresh Maryland vegetables, and a selection of Trappist cheeses. For dessert, the pastry chef Heinz Bender created a Georgia peach custard spiked with brandy and served in fluted vanilla bombes. It was all paired with a selection of excellent, small-batch American wines.
Despite the fabulous meal, Queen Elizabeth gave a stiff speech, Bob Hope’s jokes fell flat, and Julia deemed the Captain & Tennille’s saccharine warbling of “Muskrat Love” as “not very queenly.” Nevertheless, she was thrilled to participate in a “real event” at the White House with the queen (one of the few celebrities Julia was actually impressed with).I wondered what the narrative arc from George Washington to Joe Biden tells us about our presidents and the evolution of American cookery, the nation, and ourselves.
Inspired by these visits, Julia began to champion the role of presidential dining, which “is responsible for the nation’s gastronomic image.” At a time when the White House was viewed with suspicion, she recognized the practical and symbolic importance of the meals served there, and felt it was her patriotic duty to publicize them. Encouraging First Families to take food as seriously as French leaders do, Julia urged them to maintain high culinary standards, spotlight regional cuisines, and champion “the good in American cooking.”
As I toured the White House in 2016, Julia’s visits there simmered in the back of my mind, and it occurred to me that it would be instructive and entertaining to re-create her documentaries for a modern audience. It was not a well-formed thought, but in retrospect I see that my long-standing interest in history, politics, and food came together in that instant. This book had been launched without my knowledge.
About two years later I circled back and sketched out a narrative history of the American presidency viewed through the lens of food. I envisioned a cook’s tour, a look at our leaders and their appetites—and thus a glimpse of their inner selves—and the interplay between the food of politics and the politics of food.
As of this writing, America has had forty-six presidents, from George Washington to Joseph R. Biden. Every one of them has a food story, but I decided it would be impractical, and not very interesting, to catalog each one of them. Instead, I focused on the most compelling anecdotes and chose twenty-six chief executives to represent the whole. This left much on the cutting-room floor but allowed me to explore the way one man’s personal tastes can impact major food policies and the fortunes of a particular ingredient, or company, or an entire industry, and to examine food as a political (and politicized) issue, and why it matters.
To take one example, the story of Ronald Reagan’s jelly beans is not simply about his love of a cute candy. It speaks to how he weaned himself from tobacco, judged people’s character, and deflected scrutiny. It limns the role of the sugar industry and food marketing. And it demonstrates how food can be a powerful communications tool. Reagan’s jelly beans sent a message to voters: “I like the same food you do, so vote for me.” But when he gobbled jelly beans and labeled ketchup a “vegetable” while defunding school lunches, it sent a message to children that real vegetables are not as important as sugary substitutes, and he faced a backlash. At the White House, every choice, every bite, has consequences.
To keep things simple, I have arranged the narrative chronologically and divided it into three sections: Part I, “The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: Setting the Table”; Part II, “The Twentieth Century: Feast and Famine”; and Part III, “The Twenty-First Century: Which American Cooking Is Most American?” Though the book travels straight through time, its structure was dictated by what material was available and germane. Part I represents only a quarter of the book, for instance, because there is only so much information about early presidents, and at points I leapfrog forward and back—jumping from, say, James Madison (who left the White House in 1817) to Abraham Lincoln (who began his tenure in 1861), then doubling back to Zachary Taylor (who served only a year, from 1849 to 1850)—to explain an idea or era.
As I dug into this rich material, certain themes popped out: how Indigenous and slave cooking influenced the American diet; the underappreciated role of First Ladies in both the domestic and the political spheres of the White House; the way Washington, D.C., evolved from a scrubby backwater into a gleaming metropolis, to name a few. And I was intrigued by the notion of presidential hunger—for food, of course, but also for the other trappings of office, such as attention, power, wealth, and carnal pleasure. As Abraham Lincoln said at the first glimmers of his presidential ambition, “the taste is in my mouth a little.”
Every era witnessed large societal trends, which inevitably affected our leaders’ palates and policies. Consider, for example, America’s love of Chinese food. The first group of Chinese immigrants arrived in California from Canton in 1815, lured by the gold rush, and established restaurants in San Francisco. Though the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was harshly discriminatory, those cooks adapted to the American palate with sweet and fried foods and flourished with ersatz dishes like chop suey.
The lifting of immigration quotas in 1965, and Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, led to a surge in Chinese restaurants in the States—there are some forty thousand now—and an appreciation for subtler or spicier regional fare. In spite of their disparate backgrounds, many—perhaps most—U.S. presidents enjoyed Chinese food, even those with the most parochial tastes, like Calvin Coolidge and Nixon.
At the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I found a seemingly inexhaustible trove of information about our commanders in chief. To understand what made our leaders tick, I visited half a dozen presidential homes—from Monticello (in Virginia) to Hyde Park (in New York) and the Coolidge Homestead (in Vermont). For insight into what it is like to work in the White House, I spoke to former cooks and staff members. And to understand why food is such a powerful human connector, the political aspects of eating in groups, and the historical role of feasting, I consulted academics.
I also made the foods our chief executives liked, from Washington’s striped bass grilled on a cedar plank to Lincoln’s gingerbread men, Eisenhower’s two-day soup, and Jimmy Carter’s grits and eggs; I mixed FDR’s reverse martini, and used a kit to home-brew Obama’s honey ale with my son (it was tasty). To cap it off, I hosted a “Presidential Dinner,” with dishes cooked by a former executive chef, and a guest list that included former White House staff, journalists, food experts, and historians.
As I pieced together this gastronomic political history, I wondered what the narrative arc from George Washington to Joe Biden tells us about our presidents and the evolution of American cookery, the nation, and ourselves.
Excerpted from Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House by Alex Prud’homme. Copyright © 2023. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.