Presidents’ Day was established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington. In 1971, the holiday was moved to the third Monday of February, from the 22nd, Washington’s actual birthday. This was done in an effort to create a uniform holiday practice that would provide three-day weekends for American workers (Uniform Monday Holiday Act). While the holiday is still officially known as Washington’s Birthday, it has been referred to in more general terms as Presidents’ Day since the 1971 Act came into effect.
As diners stop in for breakfast and lunch, one question suddenly comes to mind: What do Presidents eat?
We imagine the White House has its own chef and kitchen crew, which it does, and that lavish meals are served three times a day at a long table that seems awfully deserted when only the president, his spouse and children sit at one end. Did you know that when a new president comes into office, the chef is given a lift of his family’s food preferences, and the menu is modified accordingly? Sometimes, a new chef is called to duty.
Take John F. Kennedy, for example, our 35th President. World renowned chef Jacques Pépin was offered the honor of being the Commander-in-Chief’s personal chef, an honor he declined. His experience as French President Charles de Gaulle’s appointed chef had taught him much and he did not feel the need or desire to repeat a similar experience.
It is said that President Kennedy was especially fond of clam chowder, baked beans and corn muffins. This is attributed to his strong New England roots. Let’s have a look at a few other notable presidents, beginning, or course, at the beginning.
George Washington – 1st President
According to Food Timeline, a fascinating and extensive resource by the way, “Washington’s home ( Mount Vernon) was completely self-sufficient. It had extensive farms, orchards, meat preservation facilities (to make ham, bacon, etc) and animals… The food served at the President’s table from 1789 to the end of Washington’s second term, 1797, indicates the new nation’s dependence on the land.” And yes, though the story of the cherry tree is often debated, there is indication that the man with the legendary wooden teeth enjoyed his cherry pie.
Abraham Lincoln – 16th President
Lincoln’s era boasts some of the most elaborate menus the White House had ever seen. In truth, and despite lavish social gatherings and banquets, Lincoln himself was far from being a gourmet. Apples, coffee and bacon were at the top of his list.
Ulysses S. Grant – 18th President
Again according to Food Timeline, “The inauguration of General Ulysses Simpson Grant in 1869… launched an era of opulence the like of which the United States had not seen before.” However, Grant was said to favor modest family dinners at which he did not refrain from setting aside the leader’s persona to embrace instead that of the playful father. Indeed, Grant enjoyed a good food fight with his children. To this end, he rolled his bread into tiny balls which then served as ammunition. His favorite meal was breakfast, which generally consisted of “broiled Spanish mackerel, steak, bacon and fried apples.”
Calvin Coolidge – 30th President
Like Grant, Coolidge preferred the family table. However, his tastes differed widely from those of his predecessors. He referred to all meals as “supper,” whether it be morning, noon or evening. While his wife grace had a penchant for Oriental cuisine, Coolidge remained close to his Vermont roots and had an uncommon love for Vermont pickles. His connection to the land was clear as well. He believed that “a chicken could not really be good unless it was raised close by the kitchen door.” (2)
Lyndon B. Johnson – 36th President
“Johnson’s love of Fresca was so deep that a soda dispenser was even installed in the Oval Office.” (1) Johnson’s tastes truly mark a change that seems directly attributed to the transformation of the American food culture. Fresca is not the only clue. He was known to have a particular love of sweet potatoes served with toasted marshmallows.
Richard Nixon – 37th President
President Nixon also brought to light our changing food industry. While he often breakfasted on cottage cheese and fresh fruit, “sometimes he chose to garnish his morning meal with ketchup. Yes, ketchup.” (1)
George W. Bush – 43rd President
“Hummus was definitely out. Tex-Mex and beef tenderloin was in.” (1) His father (and president) had bluntly stated his disregard for broccoli and George Jr. had no reason to argue with this. Thus, while Coolidge and Kennedy before them had brought a touch of their New England tradition along, so did the Bushes introduce Texas to the White House table.
Barack Obama – 44th President
Obama’s kitchen is reminiscent of Washington’s times, in the sense that the majority of foods used in family and formal events are either grown in the White House gardens or sourced locally. The White House even produces its own honey. Mr. Obama has a particular love for chili.