For frst ladies, a matter of taste

Through the years, wives wield infuence, become culinary trendsetters

February 16, 2005|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

On Presidents Day we're supposed to remember those great men who have led our country through the centuries. But, really, how much could they have accomplished on an empty stomach?

So on Monday, let us also remember the culinary contributions of the first ladies, who not only kept their men fed, but in some cases, had a great deal of influence over what the nation ate as well.

In 1961, when Jacqueline Kennedy hired French chef Rene Verdon, cooks all across America became fascinated by French cuisine. In 1994, when Hillary Clinton hired American chef Walter Scheib III, the country began paying more attention to fresh, local ingredients.

But just as the talents and successes of the presidents have varied, so have the culinary abilities and interests of their wives.

"Sarah Polk was quoted as saying, 'I don't do windows, I don't do floors and I don't go near the kitchen,' " says Martha Regula, library director at the National First Ladies' Education and Research Center in Canton, Ohio. At the other extreme was Mamie Eisenhower. She "exercised control over the kitchen and was known to interfere at times. She was an excellent homemaker and was determined that all should be exactly as she planned," Regula says.

Run-ins between first ladies and White House chefs haven't been unusual.

"Caroline Harrison got rid of the fancy French chef, replaced him with Dolly Johnson, a black cook from Kentucky, and brought `meat and potatoes' fare as the staple to the Executive Mansion," Regula says.

And just days ago, Scheib announced that he had been fired because he couldn't satisfy Laura Bush's "stylistic requirements." The nation is still awaiting word on what kind of cuisine will be featured next in the White House.

As difficult as it may be to please first ladies today, imagine the effort at the nation's founding, when cooks struggled to satisfy the tastes of first ladies without the aid of a Cuisinart.

Take for example, Martha Washington's famous fruit cake - originally made with 4 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of sugar, 5 pounds of flour and 40 eggs.

Of course, it is unlikely that Martha herself creamed the butter and sugar. She would have overseen the servants in the kitchen, directing them to make the 13-pound cake to feed guests during holiday celebrations, says Mary Thompson, a resource specialist at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

"I don't know if we've ever figured out how many people it served, but it was a lot," she adds.

When staff members at Mount Vernon set out to duplicate the recipe, they had to make two cakes because they couldn't locate a pan big enough to hold the batter.

Everyday meals in the Washington household would have been typical of Virginia planters - English dishes with some native ingredients thrown in, Thompson says.

George Washington, for example, loved hominy, which is made from corn, an ingredient not available in 18th-century England. In her letters, Martha Washington wrote that she was fond of seafood and said that fresh vegetables were one of the best things about living in the country.

The fourth first lady, Dolley Madison, was more of a culinary trendsetter. She caused a stir by serving strawberry ice cream during her husband's inauguration festivities.

In modern times, the culinary inclinations of the first ladies have become a topic talked about nearly as much as their fashion sensibilities, a glimpse into what these women are really like.

It came as no surprise that the attractive and stylish Jackie Kennedy favored French cuisine while she was first lady, although her longtime cook, Marta Sgubin, wrote that in later years, Jackie was happy with chowders, fruit and salads when she dined alone.

Lady Bird Johnson preferred old-fashioned, home-style cooking and often gave away homemade breads and desserts to friends, writes White House Executive Chef Henry Haller in his book, The White House Family Cookbook.

The Nixons, he says, liked simple fare. Once it became known that one of President Nixon's favorite dishes was his wife's meatloaf, the White House was inundated with thousands of requests for the recipe.

The public's interest in the first ladies' culinary abilities moved from mere curiosity to political controversy when Hillary Clinton tried to explain her career as a lawyer during her husband's first campaign. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas," she said.

Critics took the remark to mean that she was disparaging homemakers and stay-at-home moms. The reaction was so fierce that Clinton had to act quickly to repair the damage. She came up with a cookie recipe, which she handed out at the Democratic convention.

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