The Wild History Of White House Food And How It's Changed Over Time

The Wild History Of White House Food And How It’s Changed Over Time

The White House in Washington DC with waving United States flag

State Dinners, for one, reveal how American tastes have changed over time and communicate taste (that is, of who is in charge).

Just look at one of President Trump’s state dinners in 2018. He served a goat cheese gateau with tomato jam — in other words, it’s fancy and it’s French-inspired. According to Foreign Policy, “The dish shows the world what the United States thinks tastes good, in 2018 — as interpreted by the Trump administration.”

Hey, at least he wasn’t serving up fast food to global leaders, right?

But there actually have been some very weird foods served by our Presidents throughout history. Consider the Jellied lobster (no, thank you), which was was served up by George H.W. Bush. Another mistake? The dish titled, “Dragon Fighting the Tiger” (a.k.a., a skinned cat served with a python), which was served to the Soviet delegation in 1954. The latter, while prepared with good intentions, did not go so well.

The Soviets refused to join in the traditional, festive Cantonese dish, while two secretaries became “violently ill, and an already rocky relationship crumbled further.”

But Franklin Roosevelt did once serve hot dogs to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during a visit to the White House.

You read that correctly: He gave hot dogs to the freaking Queen. Of. England.

According to the Smithsonian, President Roosevelt told the Queen just how to eat the hot dog — and it went something like this: “Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing it until it is all gone.” So what did Queen Elizabeth do? She used a knife and fork instead, which is not surprising. Yikes. 

The Royals did, however, eat off paper plates during the picnic.

And if you were wondering what any other President fed Queen Elizabeth look no further than when George H.W. Bush hosted her. At that point, the Queen was served “medallions of Maine lobster and cucumber mousse with aurora sauce, crown roast of lamb, galettes fines herbes, and potato croquettes.” We’d say this was a better call.

As we know, food in the White House makes a certain statement, and it can go very, very wrong…

depending on who you’re serving it to and what kind of statement you’re trying to make.

Let’s look at some of the serious eats that a few past presidents have munched on over the years.

A lot of what was on the dinner menu during each presidency was due to what’s de rigeur (calf’s head soup, anyone?), but you can also blame the Presidents’ weird tastes, too. Like, Jimmy Carter loved baked grits with cheese while Woodrow Wilson liked the grossest ice cream ever — which would be strawberry, of course.

When President Franklin Roosevelt was in office, for example, food was modest (and kind of bland).

It was the 1930s, and so it would have looked really bad if anyone went wild with the food. So people ate only two-course meals and got on with it. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was largely in charge and believed that it was much more important for food to feed you than to look pretty on the plate.

According to the New Yorker, Eleanor Roosevelt was a penny pincher when it came to food planning, too.

The New Yorker writes, “She had been planning the White House meals since well before the Inauguration, commissioning nutritious, low-cost menus…. in the hope of making the White House a demonstration project for conscientious cookery during the Depression.”

When it came to state dinners during the Roosevelt era, there was absolutely no wastage.

In fact, they were pretty strict on this rule: “If there was an entree, soup would usually be cut out. If there were an entree and soup, the fish course would be omitted. And no fruit course,” according to former White House butler Alonzo Fields’ book, My 21 Years in the White House. 

By the time President Eisenhower got into office, things starting getting a bit fancier…

…despite the fact that President Eisenhower just liked to eat boring soup and toast. But when it came to White House food, the country was experiencing the boom of the 1950s, and so America had a bit more to work with. For this reason, dinners became more beautiful, delicious, and detailed.

This is also when more multicultural and elaborate foods ended up on the menu for state dinners, and when wine selections became abundant. This is sure a far cry from prohibition-era White House!

When the Kennedys got into office, you bet that food at the White House got even glitzier.

With Jacqueline Kennedy at the helm, food was handled under a new, fancy executive chef: René Verdon, the new chef, served up bougie food (like steak with truffle sauce and veggies grown on the grounds themselves) to those dining in the White House. Before this, the White House didn’t exactly have fancy chefs.

At this time in history, French cooking was a big deal (and Julia Child was super beloved).

Skipping forward to when Richard Nixon was in office, we start to see a big decline in the tastiness of White House food.

Apparently, food in the Nixon White House was, “nearly destroyed by flaws.” According to NPR, even his very last meal in office was gross: “On the day that he announced his resignation, Richard Nixon ordered cottage cheese, pineapple slices and a glass of milk.” Sad desk meal, anyone?

When Nixon was in office, he’d serve elaborate dinners…

…but unfortunately, they included weird dishes like lobster en bellevue, which was basically a lobster shoved inside some sort of jelly encasing. This encasing was called “aspic” and it was all the rage back in the 1970s. Thankfully, those days are long gone.

But even when Nixon wasn’t serving horrific monstrosities to his guests, he was snacking on weird foods on his own….

…like ketchup and cottage cheese, cucumber mousse (what?) and more gelatin-encased meats (these were also big back then). And if you’re wondering, cucumber mousse is served with cream cheese and mayo, which truly does sound like the worst food ever. Just look at this recipe — would you eat that? We didn’t think so.

In fact, cottage cheese was a big freaking deal in the 1970s. So big that Nixon ate it with his steak.

Fun fact: Did you know that the President pays their own bills at the end of the each and every month?

Yep, those groceries aren’t covered by the American taxpayers. We sure hope our tax dollars weren’t going to his obsessive — and very 1970s — cottage cheese fetish. Interestingly, any old cottage cheese wouldn’t do, either, as any food coming into the White House comes by secret means from special places, reports Thrillist.

One good thing came of Nixon’s White House kitchen, though: He was responsible for bringing more authentic Chinese cuisine to the masses.

This happened through media coverage of his state dinners with Chinese representatives. According to Atlas Obscura, “Nixon toasted Chinese officials with glasses of powerful baijiu liquor, sat down to lavish banquets, and ate dishes that few Americans had ever sampled.” Yep, they are shark’s fin soup, steamed chicken with coconut, and almond junket — which is a pudding.

By the time the 80’s rolled around and Ronald Reagan came into office, he held a lot of state dinners and they were very fancy.

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In fact, it was at one of Nixon’s dinners that John Travolta and Princess Diana danced together in a big moment. The connection between Nixon, his fancy foods, and all the starstudded magic? Nancy Reagan actually hired Jackie Kennedy’s former social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, to help her out. And we all know Jackie wasn’t playing around.

Reagan was also used to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood life…

and would likely have wanted to throw a really good party, with impressive foods and exsquisite drinks. But what did Reagan himself like to eat? Well, he downed delicious garbage foods like the good ol’ mac and cheese, Jelly beans, and fudge brownies — specifically ones baked by his wife.

When Bill Clinton got into office, the 90s were firmly ahold, and the weirdly ornate foods of the past were swapped for cleaner and fresher…

…thanks to Hillary Clinton, who hired the American chef Walter Scheib. The chef also diversified the foods being offered and made it so America served up only the best, according to Politico. Of course, Hillary tried to get foods to be healthier, too, since she wanted to make sure President Clinton would be healthy enough to lead the country.

Bill Clinton himself liked to eat McDonald’s and could, “down five or six pork chops at a fairly typical dinner, until…

….heart issues inspired him to go vegan. He told AARP  in 2013, “I’ve stopped eating meat, cheese, milk, even fish. No dairy at all…I’ve lost more than 20 pounds so far, aiming for about 30 before Chelsea’s wedding. And I have so much more energy now! I feel great.” He continued, “I just decided that I was the high-risk person, and I didn’t want to fool with this anymore. And I wanted to live to be a grandfather…So I decided to pick the diet that I thought would maximize my chances of long-term survival.”

Later on, when President Barack Obama was in office, foods became wildly varied and the emphasis on the White House’s garden was in full swing, too.

During White House state dinners, foods were prepared with “fresh ingredients from Mrs. Obama’s final harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden.” In fact, Michelle worked hard on her garden saying, near the end of 2016, “I take great pride in knowing that this little garden will live on as a symbol of the hopes and dreams we all hold of growing a healthier nation for our children.”

Foods were also largely handmade and fresh and reflected the culture of the White House guests.

The thing is, both Barack and Michelle Obama consider themselves lovers of food. For Barack Obama, he adores burgers and steak,  and has been labeled a full-on “foodie.”

Michelle eats healthily most of the time — but occasionally indulges, too. It’s said that eats veggies (except beets) and lots of fresh foods.

It’s not surprising that she’s into wellness and eating well. She did create the Let’s Move! campaign when she was in office.

During Trump’s current administration, we have seen that he loves burgers and fries and lots of unhealthy foods.

He even has his own line of Trump Steaks!

According to Foreign Policy, though, Trump’s state dinners have been decidedly more traditional — veering toward just a few courses that don’t include burgers and fries.


In the end, the White House’ kitchen has a big job to do, and we’re happy we get to laugh at some of its downfalls — jellied lobster? — and triumphs — garden foods!

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