Presidential Foods And What They Say About Our Leaders : The Salt What our presidents and candidates eat says a lot about the public images they strive to project. Historically, their recipes also gave us insight into the cooking advancements and habits of the period.
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Presidential Foods And What They Say About Our Leaders

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Presidential Foods And What They Say About Our Leaders

Presidential Foods And What They Say About Our Leaders

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In this heated political season when all things presidential are scrutinized - stump speeches, fundraisers, fashion choices, - we thought it fitting to consider presidents and food, the food they loved. Though Clinton famously had a taste for donuts on the campaign trail, George Washington was known to enjoy his wife Martha's crab soup.

On this summer morning, Chris Kimball, host of "America's Test Kitchen," and something of a culinary historian, joined us to share some presidential food favorites.

Chris, good morning.

CHRIS KIMBALL: It's a pleasure. You don't have to read their speeches. You can eat their food.

MONTAGNE: Obviously the notion behind this is that you can learn something about a president, based on what he likes to eat.

KIMBALL: And you can tell something about the first lady. You can also tell something about the time, their era, 'cause very often the recipes are very much part of that historic period.

MONTAGNE: And you provide us with several historical recipes starting with one from way back, 1809, the White House of President James Madison. Tell us about that recipe.

KIMBALL: Well, it's Dolly Madison's favorite cake. It's a layer cake that has a caramel icing. Caramel icings were very popular in the 1800s. Dolly Madison invented the concept of the first lady, at least for 200 years. And cakes - layer cakes - and were really the consummate test of ones cooking skills. She was also active, really, as first lady under Thomas Jefferson 'cause he was a widower. So she had plenty of experience by the time she got there with her own husband James Madison.

MONTAGNE: And I'm looking over at what I take to be this layer cake. It's actually four layers.

KIMBALL: Yeah, it's an interesting cake because, originally, cakes were yeasted for leavening before chemical leaveners. And this cake leavened through beaten egg whites, which they used for many decades as a way of getting lift into a tank. So it'll be a little more dense than what you're used to with a modern cake, with baking powder.

MONTAGNE: I'm looking at this array of food. And right here, to my left, there's this lovely yellow drink with a lemon in it. But this does not taste like lemonade. What exactly is this?

KIMBALL: Well, it's a squall which is similar to a squash, and this is during Prohibition. This is Warren Harding. The First Lady, Mrs. Harding gave large parties on the lawn of the White House. And during the 1800s and early 20th century, it was not acceptable for women to be drinking alcohol in public, so they invented these non-alcoholic punches.

This one is kind of interesting. You take a whole pineapple, you take the skin off, and then you put it through, quote-unquote, "a meat grinder."


MONTAGNE: That's what they used, meat grinders.

KIMBALL: That's what they used to pulp it. And so, you put the pulp and juice together with some boiled lemon rind and lemon juice and a lot of sugar. And this was the acceptable drink for ladies. My guess is more than one lady snuck a little gin into their squall, I think...


KIMBALL: ...during those afternoon parties. And Warren Harding himself, in the White House during Prohibition, had a very well-stocked liquor cabinet. So there was no lack of alcohol in the White House during Prohibition.

MONTAGNE: Here on your list is a recipe from a later president, Harry Truman, 1945-1953. It's Ozark Pudding.

KIMBALL: Yeah, this is fascinating. FDR, sort of his princely aristocratic president, and then you get Harry Truman who's a man of the people, Missouri, the Midwest, very down-to-Earth. His wife, Bess, came into the White House, watched every penny in terms of expenses and food. Ozark Pudding, it's a little bit like a pudding cake. It's sweet and it has nuts in it, usually walnuts and apples. And we made a couple of versions; the less sweet the apples, the better the Ozark Pudding. It's an odd dish, but we loved it.

MONTAGNE: This does look very plain.

KIMBALL: That was Harry Truman. That was his charm. You know, by the way, they invented one of the great culinary aphorisms, which was: If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, for as sweet as it is, it's my favorite.

KIMBALL: It's actually quite good.

MONTAGNE: Now, so far so sweet, but judging by the recipes and what I'm looking at on the table, it seems like several presidents had a thing for seafood, starting with George Washington.

KIMBALL: Yeah, George Washington didn't have that crab soup. William Taft, he was our largest president at 350 pounds. And his recipe was Billy B, which a guy called William Brandt, which became Billy B for Brandt, love mussels but he didn't like eating them like. So he said, Look, maybe a soup with mussel liqueur - you know, the juice from the mussels - which they did. And it became, really, the signature dish for Taft.

Kennedy loved his lobster stew. And the thing that was a bit quirky about JFK was he like to lobster stew but not the lobster. So he'd drink the liquid. And very often the person he was dining with would actually end up eating the lobster.


MONTAGNE: And there is another recipe that you have - different president - that caused some controversy. That's Nancy Reagan's Crab Meat and Artichoke Casserole.

KIMBALL: Oh, this is a huge dustup of the time. There was a woman from Chicago, Susan Benjamin. She had two kids with special needs. She wrote the White House and said: Please don't cut funding for special needs. And the PR Department of the White House didn't really read the letter and just sent her back a few inches pictures of Ron and Nancy, and a few recipes.


KIMBALL: One of the recipes unfortunately wasn't Nancy Reagan's Crab Meat and Artichoke Casserole. And many newspaper pieces were written about sending this poor woman a recipe that was only for rich people, because it required crabmeat. And there were lines about, you know, how can a man who wears a thousand-dollar cowboy boots, you know, be in touch with the people. And so, this has, obviously, echoes of today.

MONTAGNE: OK, let's look at a couple of current recipes then. How about the Obama Family Macaroni and Cheese with a Twist?

KIMBALL: Both candidates have learned their lesson, so both of these recipes are very much of the people. Michelle, of course, is a huge promoter of the White House Garden and of vegetables, and so she actually makes a sauce based upon purée cooked cauliflower. Reduces the amount of cheese and comes up with a mac and cheese with a nice smooth sauce, but has a couple of hundred calories less and about half the fat. And actually it's quite good.

MONTAGNE: What about Ann Romney? What does she make for Mitt Romney?

KIMBALL: The one recipe that she talks about most is actually really interesting. It's a recipe I'd never heard of, Welsh Skillet Cakes. And these are currant scones, and they do go back to her grandmother from Wales. And they used to make them on top of a cold stove. Or on a bake stone, they called it. And they were cooked on the griddle. They weren't baked in the oven. They were like pasties, you know, they were sort of out of hand food miners would bring down when they worked. And they're quite good.

MONTAGNE: Chris, thank you for sharing these presidential food favorites with us.

KIMBALL: A pleasure and maybe it's time we elected a chef to be president.


MONTAGNE: Recipes Ann Romney's Welsh Skillet Cakes and the other presidential dishes are at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.


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