Press: Presidential palate meets presidential politics
Everybody knows the power of the White House. What happens in the White House can help influence matters as important as how nations treat one another and how we deal with climate change to less serious matters like how we dress and how much exercise we get. And, as Alex Prud’homme relates in his new book, the White House also has a great influence on what we eat.
Prud’homme knows his way around food. His grandfather was the twin brother of Paul Child, husband of cooking teacher and author Julia Child. He grew up listening to her stories about discovering French cuisine and introducing it to the American people. In “Dinner with the President,” he explores the profound impact that American presidents have had, based on what they ate and what they served, on creating an American cuisine.
The connection should come as no surprise. There’s always been a strong link between food and politics, whether it’s a Texas barbecue, an Iowa steak fry, a New Orleans gumbo festival or a White House State Dinner. Breaking bread together and making politics together are often one and the same. As the great Anthony Bourdain once said, “Nothing is more political than food.”
Maybe the most successful example of blending good food and good politics is the famous dinner hosted by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1790 with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who were barely on speaking terms after bitter clashes over how to pay Revolutionary War debts (Hamilton) and where to locate the federal Capitol (Madison).
First, Jefferson softened them up with fine food prepared by master chef James Hemings and fine wines Jefferson had brought back from France, capping dinner off with a dessert of vanilla ice cream encased in a warm puff-pastry crust.
Relaxing after dinner over snifters of brandy, Jefferson convinced Hamilton and Madison to make a deal. Madison agreed that the federal government would pay each state’s war debts, and Hamilton agreed that the new Capitol would be built in what’s now Washington, D.C. It was a win-win, celebrated thereafter as the “Dinner Table
Bargain,” and most recently memorialized by Lin Manuel Miranda in the musical “Hamilton” as “the room where it happened.”
While Jefferson was the only real epicure among presidents, every other president left his mark, for better or worse.
When we think of Lyndon Johnson, we think of Texas barbecue. Ronald Reagan popularized frozen TV dinners and jelly beans. William Howard Taft started every day with a 12-oz. breakfast steak, although his favorite meal was roast possum. For lunch every day, Richard Nixon had a scoop of cottage cheese on a slice of pineapple. JFK loved clam chowder. Jimmy Carter introduced us to grits (recipe included in Prud’homme’s book).
And, of course, as portrayed by “Saturday Night Live,” we remember Bill Clinton, after his morning jog, swinging by McDonald’s to steal French fries from tourists’ plates. Clinton later redeemed himself by adopting a low-calorie diet and putting a rooftop garden on the White House.
Strangely enough, the president who most enjoyed preparing his own meals was Dwight Eisenhower. Ike loved to grill steaks on the Truman Balcony. His recipe for “Two Day Vegetable Soup” became a hit. But not so much his beloved (by him) “squirrel stew.”
Thanks to Michelle Obama, Barack Obama made eating healthy the rage, a movement quickly undone by Donald Trump. But we can all relate to Joe Biden’s favorite foods: pasta and ice cream.
The proof is in the pudding. The presidential palate tells us a lot about presidential politics. Bon appetit!
Press is host of “The Bill Press Pod.” He is also the author of “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.”
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