First Foodie: What Presidents Ate in the White House

Family History, Lifestyle
28 January 2015

State Dining Room circa 1870 [Image: Ancestry]
From a love of French cuisine to down-home barbecue, each president brings his own tastes to the White House. While not all our commanders-in-chief were epicures, they inevitably influenced our ancestors’ eating habits. Here’s a look at some presidential palates.

Thomas Jefferson

As minister to France, Jefferson couldn’t get enough of the cuisine in Paris. He brought James Hemings, his enslaved chef, along to study with caterers and pastry chefs to master French cooking. Jefferson himself took notes on a novel machine that made pasta, then all the rage in Paris, but at home in Monticello he settled on hand-rolled noodles. Later, Jefferson brought over his French butler to school his kitchen in making rabbit, rich sauces, and fruit tarts. Meals were, of course, washed down with wines from his famous cellar.

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James Madison

The Madison presidency popularized ice cream, thanks to James’s charismatic wife, Dolley. It was a delicacy when she served it at the second inaugural ball in 1813, since modern freezers hadn’t been invented; the treat was made with blocks of ice from frozen ponds. A famous hostess who brought flair to White House entertaining, Dolley’s favorite ice cream flavor was made with Potomac oysters. It’s not clear whether her husband shared her tastes, but like it or not, he would have eaten a lot of ice cream in office. Americans have been obsessed with the dessert ever since.

The White House kitchen, circa 1910 [Library of Congress via Ancestry]

Theodore Roosevelt

Fried chicken with white sauce was one of this president’s favorite meals. According to the biography Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris, “the president said that his mother had always said that it was the only way to serve fried chicken; that it gave the gravy time to soak into the meat and that if the gravy was served separately he never took it.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

White House housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt said FDR liked simple American fare: scrambled eggs, grilled-cheese sandwiches, fish chowder, and hot dogs. Yet, even his pedestrian taste was rarely satisfied while in office because his wife, Eleanor, famously served terrible meals to guests. She apparently thought gourmet menus unseemly for the country during the Depression.

Harry Truman

A Missouri farm boy, Truman had simple tastes. He favored fried chicken, corn bread, and meatloaf. For dessert, he’d have chocolate cake or his wife’s Ozark pudding, made with apples and chopped nuts. According to the National Archives, Truman boasted of his healthy healthy eating habits in a 1952 letter: “I eat no bread but one piece of toast at breakfast, no butter, no sugar, no sweets. Usually have fruit, one egg, a strip of bacon and half a glass of skimmed milk for breakfast… For dinner I have a fruit cup, steak, a couple of nonfattening vegetables and an ice, orange, pineapple or raspberry for dinner. So — I maintain my waist line and can wear suits bought in 1935!”

John F. Kennedy

The Boston native loved soup, especially New England fish chowder, and often had a bowl for lunch. His dinner preferences were less particular; he was happy with roasted chicken, steak, mashed potatoes, or baked beans.

Lyndon B. Johnson

A ravenous Texan, Johnson brought Southern staples into the White House, like chicken-fried steak and black-eyed peas. He was the first president to host a cookout, which featured barbecued ribs. For dessert, he loved tapioca pudding, peach cobbler, brownies, and coconut cream pie.

A jar of jelly beans on the table during a meeting with Margaret Thatcher (Courtesy of White House Photographic Office)

Ronald Reagan

While running for governor of California, Reagan started to eat jelly beans instead of smoking a pipe. His preferred brand was Herman Goelitz’s Jelly Belly beans, and the company kept him stocked with monthly shipments. When Reagan became president, inaugural festivities included red, white, and blue jelly beans. He even gave special presidential jelly bean jars to visiting heads of state.

Barack Obama

No one really believed Obama when he told a child that broccoli was his favorite food. He has, after all, been photographed chomping on burgers across the country. But local vegetables do saturate the menu when he’s at home. The famously healthy president cops to one guilty pleasure: smoked-salt caramel chocolates from Fran’s in Seattle.

—Rebecca Dalzell

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