The ever-changing White House menu Food: Presidential tastes have run the gamut, from Zachary Taylor's love of squirrel pie to George's Bush's disdain for broccoli.

February 15, 1998|By Edythe Preet | Edythe Preet,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Thomas Jefferson won a permanent place in the American heart for his part in writing the Declaration of Independence. The press, however, attacked his epicurean dining style even though dining at his table was the biggest social coup of the day. The nation loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt for guiding it through the Great Depression and World War II. Yet foreign correspondents were outraged when he served hot dogs to the king and queen of England even though their majesties enjoyed the meal immensely.

Like presidential politics, presidential food preferences have always been hot news items. Some first families have dined exclusively on haute cuisine. Others have opted for simple fare. In many cases, presidential menus reflect the social conditions of the era. Only one thing is certain: Every time an administration is sworn into office, the menu changes.

George Washington's aristocratic Virginia-planter background was as much a part of his style as were his years on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. Banquets at the presidential mansion were lavish affairs, but our first president ate only the simplest foods and hardly ever indulged in desserts. Whether Washington ever chopped down a cherry tree will always remain a mystery, but it is documented that he couldn't resist Martha's bread and cherry pudding.

While serving as treaty commissioner to France, Thomas Jefferson traveled widely through Europe, eagerly sampling every nation's cuisine. He returned to America with a taste for Italian pasta, Belgian waffles and French ice cream. As president, he was criticized for being an epicure despite the fact that he preferred vegetables, fruits and salads to meat.

In France, Jefferson had also acquired a taste for wine. Imported vintages flowed freely at every presidential dinner, but no one could fault him for extravagance as all entertaining costs were paid with his personal funds. He was an avid horticulturist and viticulturist, and his Monticello agricultural experiments earned him two titles: America's First Gourmet and Father of American Wine.

James Madison's administration is as well-known for Dolley Madison's superior hostess skills as it is for the War of 1812. When the British set fire to the White House, unkind rumormongers likened Dolley's continued entertaining to Nero's fiddling while Rome burned.

Nothing could be further from the truth. By flawlessly maintaining the presidential dinners, Dolley Madison set an example for all first ladies ever after. She also introduced Easter-egg rolling on the White House lawn, a tradition that has lasted to the present.

Andrew Jackson was our first frontier president; the press called him Old Hickory. More than 20,000 supporters came to his inaugural party. They stormed the White House, leaving behind broken crystal, smashed furniture and tobacco-stained carpets. Jackson was partial to hearty backwoods Tennessee fare. He loved game, especially venison, wild turkey, duck and partridge, and he was so fond of cheese that a New York dairyman presented him with a 1,400-pound specimen. It sat ripening in the White House cellar for a year.

Just before leaving office, Jackson invited one and all to share the cheese at a reception in honor of Washington's birthday. Ten thousand cheese lovers descended on the White House. The result was chaos. Cheese bits were ground into the carpet and smeared on the upholstery. People carried chunks away in pieces of newspaper.

Old Rough and Ready

Zachary Taylor, a Kentucky frontiersman, spent most of his life in the military and earned the nickname Old Rough and Ready. He served in Louisiana, where he fell in love with Creole cooking. Soon after his election, Washingtonians were dining on gumbos, etoufees, jambalaya and such Louisiana specialties as coon and squirrel pie and calas-tous-chauds, a sweet, cooked rice cake that was served with rich, black coffee.

Abraham Lincoln entered the White House as the storm clouds of America's Civil War were gathering, but through it all, Mary Todd Lincoln stoically continued her duties as first lady. State dinners were lavish affairs, and the table was heaped with delicacies befitting the dignitaries who attended.

As for the president, his personal tastes remained true to his farm roots. Corn cakes lathered with sorghum syrup were his favorite breakfast; for Sunday supper, he loved fruit, and he enjoyed walking to the butcher shop to pick out a good steak.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the White House was home to a succession of presidents whose tables reflected all the opulence of the belle epoque. Then Theodore Roosevelt was elected. The Spanish-American War hero was a no-nonsense politician, and, like his politics, Teddy's food preferences were to the point. State dinners were elaborate affairs executed by a French caterer, but the family ate plain fare prepared by their devoted Irish cook.

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