Taste Trendsetters: First Ladies In The Kitchen

No other housewife role may be quite as honorable or prestigious as that of First Lady of the United States. While the President is busy delegating issues within our country and handling business with foreign nations, many people look to the First Lady to see how she handles life as the President’s wife and what kind of contributions she makes to The White House.

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The White House kitchen is one component that has evolved with each presidency and the decisions that the First Lady makes in this area affect the diets of the First Family, and sometimes even the whole nation. Now that president-elect Donald Trump is set to take office in 2017, the public is wondering how his wife, Melania, will handle her duties and what she will do that will affect the way The White House will eat. One thing is for sure, though — there were a lot of precedents set before her.

Eleanor Roosevelt

First lady to Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt was known as the longest-serving first lady and is revered as a great human rights activist. However, one thing she is not praised for is her cooking. At a White House luncheon in 1933, she reportedly served plain stuffed eggs, thinly covered by tomato sauce, with a side of mashed potatoes and wheat bread. And for dessert? Prune pudding.

Eleanor Roosevelt

After being invited to dinner at the White House in 1937, Hemingway wrote to his mother-in-law that they “had rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”

“Culinary Austerity”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s unfortunate menu preferences were a result of the economic times that befell America during that time. Because of the Great Depression, Roosevelt focused on ways that America could eat efficiently. Her sparse menu items were known as “seven-and-a-half-cent” meals because she could serve “two courses for only seven and a half cents per person, including coffee,” according to a story in The New Yorker.

“Culinary Austerity”

Roosevelt turned her attention to “intelligent housekeeping,” after visiting the home-economics department at Cornell University. She focused on scientific eating and housekeeping, trying to figure ways that the average American could get the most nutrition out of very little resources in an efficient way, which is why the meals she developed and served at her White House gatherings were not much to speak of in the flavor department. If anyone was invited to a White House dinner by Mrs. Roosevelt, they knew to eat before they got there.

Mamie Eisenhower

After Eisenhower took office, his wife Mamie was one First Lady who fully embraced the role of America’s housewife and White House hostess. She was known to clip coupons for the White House staff, famously saying “I would squeeze a dollar so tight, you could hear the eagle scream.”

Mamie Eisenhower

Before she and her husband, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, moved into the White House, she was quite frugal, managing the family’s expenses on her own. She kept leftovers and used leftover food, so nothing would go to waste. She loved making use of gelatin and frozen, boxed, and canned foods — making sure the White House kitchen staff made full use of those products, according to First Lady historian Carl Anthony.

Mamie’s Recipes

Mamie was quite the homemaker. Her recipes took the nation by storm. In 1953, when she hosted her first Thanksgiving, the press was quite intrigued by her “Pumpkin Chiffon Pie” and she was asked about it so much, that she just gave the public her recipe, which turned out to be so popular that it was printed in newspapers every Thanksgiving.

Mamie’s Recipes

But probably more famous than her pumpkin pie, was her “Million Dollar Fudge.” The recipe for Mrs. Eisenhower’s fudge became an American staple for mothers and grandmothers all over the country. It has been reproduced and reprinted in publications for decades, and people even make it to this day.

Jacqueline Kennedy

When Jacqueline Kennedy became First Lady of the United States in 1961, she veered away from the penny-pinching, American style of eating that was in the White House and introduced a new era of classy, French cuisine. According to First Lady historian Carl Anthony, “Jackie wanted to show the sophistication of the U.S. to the eyes of the world. In the Cold War we had come of age, and she felt that we must be considered equal to England, France and Russia.”

Jacqueline Kennedy

This was in stark contrast to eras that preceded her since the Kennedys presented a more youthful and fresh presence in the White House.

Impeccable Taste

Gallic chef René Verdon was initially hired by Jacqueline Kennedy because of the high demands of hostessing after President JFK was inaugurated into office. He was eventually hired full-time for $10,000 a year and full room and board.

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With the help of Chef Verdon, Jacqueline Kennedy implemented higher standards within the White House kitchen. “White House menus were streamlined to three refined courses, including dishes such as poached salmon, rack of lamb and haricots vert aux amandes,” according to an article on NPR. The transition in White House tastes must have sparked a taste for the refined among American households in the 1960s.

Pat Nixon

After Jackie Kennedy abruptly left the White House and following Lady Bird Johnson’s tenure as First Lady, the next woman to make an impact was First Lady Pat Nixon. During her husband’s campaign for presidency, she would try to help by humanizing herself as a relatable First Lady. She took it upon herself to have her recipes printed on fliers and posted on the doors of American citizens during the 1968 Presidential Primary Elections.

Pat Nixon

She decided to do this after the eighth time supporting her husband, Richard Nixon, as he ran for president. By then she was reluctant to do so because of the reputation Nixon had built for himself professionally.

Thanksgiving Precedent

It is usually tradition for the president to be presented with a live turkey on Thanksgiving before it is killed and cooked for that evening’s dinner. In 1971, the Nixons went against tradition by having Pat be the one to accept the turkeys since President Nixon preferred to watch the football game that day.

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Pat was not only presented with two live turkeys by the National Turkey Federation, but also two ready-made frozen turkeys by the Poultry and Egg National Board. This had an impact on the rest of America since after that, millions of American families opted to cook frozen birds on Thanksgiving instead of cooking freshly killed ones.

A New Chef

After JFK’s assassination, Chef René Verdon continued to work as the White House chef for the Johnsons. However, he soon had to quit because he couldn’t stand the standard of food that was being produced at that point. When Jacqueline Kennedy left the White House, she took her refined taste with her. So after Verdon left, the Johnsons hired Chef Henry Haller, a Swiss-American chef who would turn out to be the Executive Chef of the White House for over 20 years.

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With his skill, a new era of American taste was reintroduced into the White House. Haller’s meals would take on new flair under the direction of whatever First Lady was residing at the White House.

Nancy Reagan

After Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter had come and gone, Ronald Reagan was next to reside in the White House, and Chef Haller notes that First Lady Nancy Reagan was deeply involved in matters related to the kitchen. According to an article in The New York Times, Nancy ” instituted a system of tryout menus for state dinners,” describing what she wanted to be changed after three different rehearsals.

Nancy Reagan

Haller has said that when Nancy was in control, she knew what she wanted. Everything from “smaller portions, different color combinations. The platters [they made were] fancier. [They spent] more time on them. [They took] pictures with a Polaroid so the staff [knew] how they are to be done. With the Reagans you have to be more creative.”

Clinton’s Global Taste

Chef Haller retired by the time the Reagans left office and after the first set of Bush’s resided in the White House, the kitchen didn’t get spiced up again until 1993, when Hillary Clinton was the new First Lady. She reportedly wanted “American food and wine as well as healthful menus and a flourish of global flavors.” She hired American chef Walter Scheib.

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Hillary reportedly wanted “a real sense of diversity and regional American food reflected in the nation’s house,” and even had an affinity for spicy food. This might have sparked an interest in more regional cuisine for the taste buds of Americans across the country.

A Huge Transition

After the Clintons left the White House, George W. Bush and his wife Laura moved in. Apparently, Chef Scheib “was at odds with Laura Bush’s simpler demands of the kitchen: ready-made spare ribs, smoked turkey breast and other prepackaged food,” so he left the White House in 2005.

A Huge Transition

This required the Bush’s to find a new executive chef and in a totally unprecedented circumstance, Laura Bush hired Filipino-American chef, Cristeta Comerford, the first female and minority chef in American history to head the White House kitchen. Chef Comerford has a taste for healthy foods, which is why she is kept as the White House Executive Chef to this day.

Michelle Obama

When President Obama took office, his wife Michelle decided to keep Comerford, saying “I appreciate our shared perspective on the importance of healthy eating and healthy families.” Michelle Obama has had quite an impact on the White House diet as well, enacting a transition to farm-to-table, conscious eating.

Michelle Obama

Michelle is famous for advocating healthful eating habits, having publicly campaigned for this cause since her husband took office. While her predecessors Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush had already begun the push for organic foods in the White House kitchen, Michelle Obama took it a step further by planting the White House Kitchen Garden, which is all organic and is the first garden on White House property since the Roosevelts lived there.

My Plate

Under Michelle Obama, the United States Department of Agriculture enacted a new nutrition guide in 2011 that replaced the popular food pyramid that was in place for the previous 19 years. MyPlate focuses less on exact serving sizes and encourages parents to pay more attention to portions or how the food looks on the plate.

My Plate

When announcing the new initiative, Michelle Obama said, “Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving… But we do have time to take a look at our kid’s plates… and as long as they’re eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole-grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good. It’s as simple as that.”

Are You Eating Healthy?

According to the MyPlate guidelines, a nutritious meal is divided into four sections, consisting of 30 percent grains, 40 percent vegetables, ten percent fruits, and 20 percent protein. This can be complemented by a small portion of low-fat dairy.

Are You Eating Healthy?

The new health guidelines were positively received since it was simpler and easier to follow than the food pyramids that were previously in place. First Lady Michelle Obama had the help of her family chef from Chicago, Sam Kass, who said that Michelle’s health reforms stemmed from her worries over her daughters eating healthily. Childhood obesity was an issue that Michelle tackled head on, initiating “Let’s Move!” as a way to get children more active, in addition to eating better.

The Cookie Contest

As if First Ladies aren’t already expected to have enough influence on matters relating to homemaking, things get really serious during every new election cycle with the Family Circle First Lady Cookie Contest. The contest started in 1992, when Bill Clinton was up against President George H. W. Bush.

The Cookie Contest

Hillary Clinton was scrutinized at the time for being a woman with her own high-power career, separate from that of her husband. In response she said, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

Challenge Accepted

Hillary’s comment offended many homemakers, but the people at Family Circle magazine had the idea to start a “cookie bake-off” between the candidates’ wives. The potential First Ladies would submit their own cookie recipes and America would vote on which one was the best.

Challenge Accepted

In 1992, Hillary threw herself into the competition, submitting a recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. She gathered her friends to help her bake the cookies and distribute them as part of her husband’s campaign. That year, her cookies actually won against Barbara Bush’s regular chocolate chip cookies. Since then, the cookie competition has become a tradition.

A Friendly Competition

While the winners of the competition don’t necessarily predict the outcome of the actual presidential election, it does indicate which First Lady can make a better cookie. For the 1992 and 1996 elections, Hillary Clinton’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies won both times, dominating Barbara Bush’s chocolate chip cookie and Elizabeth Dole’s Pecan Roll Cookies.

A Friendly Competition

Since then, we’ve seen a wide range of cookies showcased in the competition. In 2000, Tipper Gore’s gingersnaps went up against Laura Bush’s Texas Cowboy Cookies. Four years later, Laura Bush took a nod from Hillary and submitted a recipe for Oatmeal Chocolate Chunks, while Teresa Heinz-Kerry submitted a recipe for Pumpkin Spice cookies.

Melania’s First Steps

For the 2016 Presidential Election, Family Circle altered the competition name to the Presidential Cookie Poll, since it was no longer a competition against first ladies. Since Hillary Clinton was now a presidential candidate, husband Bill Clinton was set to be the First Man or First Husband. His submission was a reprisal of Hillary’s 1992 cookie, which was aptly renamed the Clinton Family’s Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Melania’s First Steps

Melania Trump submitted a recipe for her “Star Cookies,” which is a simple sugar cookie that is made with sour cream. Bill Clinton’s submission won, proving the tried and true success of Hillary’s original cookie recipe. But still, Trump won the election and if Melania’s cookie recipe is any indication of her taste, America will be watching to see how she will affect the White House kitchen and America’s food trends.