White House Food: The Absolutely Wild History

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sandwich with The White House in background
sandwich with The White House in background

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When you think of the White House, ornate furnishings, top-secret meetings, and food fit for a president probably come to mind. If you were the commander-in-chief, which White House food below would you choose?

George Washington’s Grub

George Washington statue erected outside The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London, England, UK, presented by ‘The Commonwealth Of Virginia’ in 1921, this is a duplicate, the original being in Richmond Virginia

We’re going to start off with the first few presidents, before delving into more modern ones. What better president to kick it off than Washington?

Being the first president of the United States, he had a lot of precedents to set. So, how did he (and first lady, Martha Washington) handle mealtimes?

As would be expected, the food served at the White House was locally sourced. However, many English dishes were also prepared; America hadn’t yet cultivated a national identity.

What Did John Adams Jive With?

Syllabub - traditional English dessert made from whipped cream, light rum and flavoured with lemon and orange.

The White House wasn’t open to the public until 1801, during John Adams’s presidency. Of course, he marked the occasion with a huge New Year’s banquet. 

They served custard, sweetmeats, and syllabub, a type of cream mixed and deliberately curdled with white wine. It was popular at the time, with English origins.

However, that banquet proved hard to beat. The Adamses never really entertained much after that, and largely preferred to keep to themselves, eating simple food.

Thomas Jefferson, the Foodie

glass and bottle of madeira wine

Here’s a little known fact: Thomas Jefferson was a foodie. When it came to the White House kitchens, he was front and center (unlike other presidents).

He especially loved French and Italian cuisines. He had olive oil, wines, and other such items imported to Monticello before and after his presidency.

His time in the White House was no different. He was viewed as a wine expert, considering his travels in France.  He also made his own salad dressings.

Dolley Madison: Queen of White House Banquets

Table setting for an event

Yes, we know James Madison was president. But when it came to the White House kitchens, Dolley Madison, the First Lady, reigned supreme. Her husband was barely involved.

She served up both French and southern (mostly Virginian) cuisine. She loved to entertain, and would host frequent parties and banquets at the White House.

Really, everything we know about White House food during the Madison era can be traced back to her. Fun fact: she started the White House Easter egg roll.

Lincoln the Country Boy

Abraham Lincoln statue inside Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, USA

Abraham Lincoln was a country boy through and through. When he wasn’t attending formal dinners and such, he had no desire for fancy food.

He was often stressed out, so it wasn’t uncommon for him to forget to eat. When he did eat, he’d just down coffee before getting back to work.

This often clashed with his wife’s (Mary Todd Lincoln) tastes. She came from a wealthier background, and wanted him to eat more elaborate meals.

Andrew Johnson’s “Hoppin’ John”

A dish of Hoppin' John, which is cooked black eyed peas, smoked turkey and served over white rice on an old fashioned pewter plate

Andrew Johnson and his family were all about dairy. They kept the White House stocked with fresh butter and milk, 24/7. Johnson himself loved sweet potatoes.

So long as a meal had sweet potatoes, he would eat it. He was born in North Carolina, and retained that love for southern cooking.

He especially loved a meal called the “Hoppin’ John,” made of peas, rice, bacon, and onions. The Johnson would also make little parties out of popping corn.

Grant and the First State Dinner

Roasted quail on white plate on the background of the mashed potato topping

In 1874, Ulysses S. Grant hosted the first state dinner! He dined with Hawaii’s reigning monarch, King David Kalakaua. They had a fine meal of roast partridge legs.

It took a while for White House meals to get to that point, though. Apparently, when Grant entered the White House, they only had an army cook.

Julia Grant, First Lady, was sick of it! She hired an Italian man to take over the kitchens. Well-known for his wine expertise, he designed twenty-five course banquets.

Garfield’s Squirrel Soup?!

Squirrel eating in the light

We don’t know to much about President Garfield. He was assassinated not even a year into his presidency. He did like to eat some weird stuff, though.

Apparently, one of his absolute favorite foods was squirrel soup. We didn’t even know that was a thing. He couldn’t even eat it often, though.

His struggles with dysentery made daily squirrel soup consumption difficult. One of his doctors tried to make him drink horse milk, which he didn’t like.

Who is Chester Arthur?

Turtle on grass.

We’re Americans so this is embarrassing, but we had no idea who Chester Arthur was prior to this article. Apparently, though, he hired a French chef.

Garfield didn’t eat elaborate meals on his own – he preferred basic foods, like oatmeal and mutton chops. But he showed off that chef’s cooking skills when necessary.

His specialty? Turtle steak. We don’t really want to know what turtle tastes like, but good for him. We’re sure it wasn’t easy to make.

President Cleveland’s Plain Food

bowl of Oatmeal from above with spoon.

The meals Grover Cleveland ate in private and in public were two very different beasts. Like many presidents during this time period, Cleveland liked plain food best.

He actually disliked French cuisine, believe it or not. He once expressed that he’d prefer pickled fish instead. This was a private exchange, of course.

For breakfast, he liked oatmeal and coffee. He also preferred not to have large lunches or elaborate dinners. He got sick of European food after a while. 

Benjamin Harrison’s Christmas Feast

Traditional Stuffed Turkey with side dishes pecan and pumpking pie for holiday dinner

Benjamin Harrison is not to be mistaken with the other President Harrison from 1841. He died about a month into his presidency. He was his grandson, though,

He didn’t have any official state dinners, but they did have grand banquets. The biggest dinner they had was a Christmas feast. It was one for the books.

It involved fresh oysters, mince pies, and stuffed turkey, among lots of other foods. On his downtime, though, Harrison apparently loved nothing more than corn.

William McKinley’s Seafood

Food photography of lobster, seafood, lemon, wine, bread

William McKinley was assassinated three years into his presidency. He’s one of only four presidents to have been assassinated. While in the White House, he preferred eating plainly.

He steered towards simple and hearty foods, like potatoes, steak, and bread. Other than that, he was a huge fan of seafood, especially lobster.

He liked to eat his lobster in salads, and had a penchant for boiled fish. Unfortunately, he didn’t host any state dinners as president.

A Bull Moose Breakfast

Two slices of toast on a plate

Teddy Roosevelt, in addition to expanding the State Dining Room, loved his coffee. He drank it at all hours of the day, and always with sugar.

That was as complicated as his meals got, though. He and his family liked to eat simple breakfasts, a fact that he was very adamant about.

When the Washington Post published an article insinuating otherwise, he released a winded debunking. Roosevelt insisted that his family only ate eggs, bread, and coffee for breakfast.

Taft Wasn’t Picky

Grilled Medium Rare top sirloin beef steak or rump steak on a steel tray. Dark background. Top view.

Say what you will about Taft, but the man liked to eat. Apparently, he loved broiled steak so much, he had it for breakfast every day.

Honestly, he just loved food, and was never really picky. Later on in his term, though he went on a diet, and then he had to be.

He enjoyed official dinners, and liked to chow down on whatever meal the chef could cook up. He drank a lot of coffee, too, just like TR.

Woodrow Wilson’s Weird Egg Recipe

Broken egg isolated on white background

Woodrow Wilson was ill in 1918, so he wasn’t exactly scarfing down food. Fun fact: that year, his wife pretty much ran the country.

When he wasn’t sick, he liked to eat chicken salads for lunch, and he liked strawberry ice cream. Other than that, he wasn’t much of an eater.

He did have one weird breakfast habit, though: he drank raw eggs in grapefruit juice. Nasty. We can’t imagine what the appeal to that was.

Harding’s Pot Pie

A hot chicken pot pie broken open with a fork

Warren G. Harding was a president in the early 20s. He died two years into his term. He was born in Ohio, and his tastebuds showed it.

Naturally, he liked Midwestern food, like chicken pot pie, which his wife made. He didn’t skimp on his meals, either — he was a good eater!

He often had hot cereal and grapefruits for breakfast (sans the raw eggs). He also ate a lot of German-inspired foods, like sauerkraut and frankfurters.

Calvin Coolidge’s Chickens

Free range chickens peck in the grass looking for food on a sunny day

We’re sure Coolidge enjoyed formal banquets, but he preferred to have smaller, more private meals with his family. So, when he was in private, what did he choose?

He liked pickles and roast beef. Apparently, even during public meals at the White House, he’d have waiters and servants slide him some roast beef to snack on.

Most notably, he kept chickens in the White House yard. He thought that was the best way to raise chickens, and that they wouldn’t taste good otherwise.

Hoover’s “Hooverized” Foods

Close up of sweet potatoes with cinnamon and marshmallows

Hoover was president during the Great Depression. As you can imagine, that didn’t do wonders for his reputation. His name was used to describe multiple Depression phenomena.

One of these terms was “Hooverize,” which referred to cutting down on your meals. For better or for worse, this is his legacy.

As far as his personal tastes went, he had a sweet tooth. Apparently, he loved eating sweet potatoes with marshmallows, which is a lot better than squirrel soup.

FDR’s Taste in Food

Top view of a small silver dish filled with grits with cheddar cheese topping.

When President Franklin Roosevelt was in office, food was modest. It was the Great Depression, so it would have looked bad if anyone went wild with the food.

People ate only two-course meals and got on with it. There was absolutely no wastage. In fact, there was a White House rule they had to abide by.

“If there was an entree, soup would…be cut out,” wrote former butler Alonzo Fields in his biography. “If there were [both], the fish course would be omitted.”

Eisenhower’s White House Kitchen

Cancelled Stamp From The United States Featuring The 34th President Of The USA, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

By the time President Eisenhower got into office post-World War Two, things starting getting a bit fancier. Eisenhower himself, however, preferred boring soup and toast.

But when it came to White House food, the country was experiencing the economic boom of the 1950s.  During this time period, America had more to work with.

For this reason, the White House dinners became more beautiful, delicious, and detailed. This started out with Eisenhower, and continued throughout the following decades.

Kicking It With the Kennedys

roasted beef steaks with rosemary under white sauce, served on plate

When the Kennedys got into office, you bet that White House food got even glitzier. With Jackie at the helm, food was handled under a fancy executive chef.

René Verdon, the new chef, served up bougie food. Steak with truffle sauce, alongside veggies grown on the White House grounds, was among the meals served.

Verdon was born in France, and quickly rose to fame through his position. As French cooking swept through the US, the Kennedys remained at the forefront.

Nixon’s Noshes

Half cup serving of low fat cottage cheese in a bowl on a white background with natural shadow.

Skipping forward to when Richard Nixon was in office, we start to see a big decline White House food. Apparently, food in Nixon’s White House was widely disliked.

When Nixon was in office, he’d serve weird dishes like lobster en bellevue — a lobster inside aspic. At the time, aspic was all the rage.

According to NPR, even his very last meal in office was gross. He ate cottage cheese with pineapple and milk. Sad desk meal, anyone?

The Reagan Era

homemade brownie with chocolate sauce and caramel on the table. Selective focus

Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in the 1980s.

During his time in the White House, he held a lot of fancy state dinners with celebrities.The connection between Reagan, his fancy foods, and all the star studded magic? Nancy Reagan hired Jackie Kennedy’s former social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, to help her out.

What did Ronald Reagan like to eat in his down time? Well, he was a big fan of fudge brownies — specifically ones baked by his wife.

Clinton’s Cuisine

elaborate meal

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

This is thanks to Hillary Clinton, who hired the American chef Walter Scheib. The chef also diversified the foods being offered, according to Politico.

Of course, Hillary tried to get foods to be healthier, too. She wanted to make sure President Clinton would be healthy enough to lead the country.

Obama’s Organic Garden

Fresh farm vegetables in wooden box

Later on, when President Barack Obama was in office, foods became wildly varied. 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.” She worked hard on her garden.

Michelle’s garden meant a lot to her. She wanted to make a healthier America, and saw her garden as an important symbol of that effort.

Trump’s Traditional Dinners

fresh tasty burger and french fries on wooden table

During Trump’s administration, we saw 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 were decidedly more traditional. They veered toward a few courses that didn’t include burgers and fries.

Of course, the most famous meal during his presidency was when he ordered McDonald’s to serve Clemson University’s football team. Definitely an unprecedented move on his part.

What About Biden?

Homemade Crustless Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich with Chips

Biden’s time in the White House was different than previous presidents’. The COVID-19 pandemic made it hard to host state dinners, so the first didn’t occur until 2022.

His first state dinner welcomed the French prime minister, Emmanuel Macron, to the states. He made a point of serving American cheeses and wines.

Biden’s personal taste in food isn’t that much different from Trump’s, believe it or not. He dislikes healthy food, preferring PB&Js and cookies to fruits and veggies.

The Symbolism of a White House Meal

the white house

When it comes to state dinners, the White House has a serious reputation to uphold. State dinners help connect us with other leaders by way of delicious food.

According to Foreign Policy, “From the time of the first Thanksgiving, the idea of the full dinner table has held a powerful symbolic value for the United States.”

Just look at one of President Trump’s 2018 state dinners. He served a goat cheese gateau with tomato jam — in other words, it’s fancy and it’s French-inspired.

Hot Dogs with the Queen

two hot dogs with USA flag

FDR once served hot dogs to the British royals during their visit to the White House. You read that correctly: He gave hot dogs to the freaking Queen.

According to the Smithsonian, Roosevelt told the Queen just how to eat the hot dog. He said: “Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing it…”

So what did Queen Elizabeth do? She used a knife and fork instead, which is not surprising. Seems like she didn’t take too kindly to FDR’s advice.Yikes. 

Weird White House Dinners

Albino Burmese Python - Python molurus bivittatus. Golden yellow snake.

There actually have been some very weird foods served by our Presidents throughout history. Consider the jellied lobster, 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 Cantonese dish, while two secretaries grew ill.

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