Presidential Foods And What They Say About Our Leaders

Aug 7, 2012
Originally published on October 15, 2012 9:09 am

President Bill Clinton famously loved doughnuts on the campaign trail, and we've told you about current GOP candidate Mitt Romney's affection for serving the press corps Jimmy John's subs. But what do our past presidents and the presidential wannabes' food choices say about them?

Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne that you can learn a lot about a president based on what he eats.

"You don't have to read their speeches, you can eat their food," says Kimball, who shared some recipes with NPR.

Presidential foods tell us a lot about the first lady, and something of the historical period the presidents lived in, he says.

Take Dolly Madison's Layer Cake from 1809. At the time, Kimball says, "Layer cakes were really the consummate test of cooking skills." She used egg whites to lighten the batter — a fairly cutting-edge step at the time, when more yeast-based cakes were the norm. Madison's egg whites trick was used for decades until baking powder came along.

More spy vs. spy than cutting edge, the Hardings served lemon pineapple squalls — chunky fruit punches made of pineapple pulp, lemons and lots of sugar — at their lawn parties, Kimball says.

But the drinks were probably not as innocent as they seemed. In the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, women were not to be seen drinking in public. "My guess is more than one lady snuck a little gin into that squall," Kimball says.

Then along came FDR, with his ritzy tastes, followed shortly by Harry S. Truman, who prided himself on being a man of the people. His wife, Bess, shared a recipe for Ozark Pudding, an apple and walnut pudding cake, which Montagne calls plain but tasty.

"That was him," Kimball says.

Later, Kennedy and Reagan brought some of the glamour and glitz back to White House food affairs, but in today's era of economic hardship for many, the 2012 presidential candidates seem to be culling their recipes from Truman's playbook.

"Both candidates have learned their lesson, so both recipes are very much of the people," Kimball tells Montagne.

Michelle Obama, promoter of the White House garden, has a veggie macaroni and cheese dish that cuts the fat in half, along with a few hundred calories, by swapping in some roasted cauliflower, Kimball says.

Ann Romney offers her grandmother's recipe for Welsh skillet cakes, which are essentially currant scones that were once sent down the mineshaft with the miners, he says.

Here are some of the recipes:

Dolly Madison's Layer Cake

(The basics of this recipe are from the White House files in the Presidents' Cookbook, but this version, including measurements, is from Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts.)

Ingredients (Cake):

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for pans

8 large egg whites

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cornstarch

2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter four 8-by-2-inch round cake pans, set aside.

Beat egg white in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until stiff peaks form; set aside.

In the clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar. With the mixer running, slowly add milk; mix until well combined. Sift together flour and cornstarch; slowly add to mixer and beat until well combined. Add vanilla and mix well.

Gently fold in reserved egg whites and divide evenly between prepared pans. Bake until cake springs back when lightly touched, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in cake pans on wire racks about 10 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool completely on wire racks.

Place 4 strips of parchment paper around perimeter of a serving plate or Lazy Susan. Place the first layer on the cake plate. Pour over about 1/2 cup icing, spreading evenly to cover. Repeat process with 2 more layers. Repeat process with two more layers. Place the remaining layer on top of the third layer and cover cake completely with remaining icing.

Caramel Icing

Yield: Makes enough for one 8-inch layer cake


3 cups light-brown sugar

1 cup light cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


Whisk together sugar, cream and butter in a medium bowl. Set bowl over (but not touching) simmering water, cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove bowl from heat; stir in vanilla. Let cool.

Warren Harding's Pineapple And Lemon Squall

(Adapted from The Presidents' Cookbook – Practical Recipes Rrom George Washington to the Present by Poppy Cannon, 1968)

Boil lemon peels in 6 quarts of water for 5 minutes. Strain, and add fresh juice of the same number of lemons. Grind a peeled pineapple in meat grinder, force through sieve, add the pineapple juice and pulp to the lemon liquid.

Blend in 1 1/2 pounds sugar and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. Pour over ice.

Serve in small glasses or cups, each garnished with thin lemon slice.

Makes 14 servings

Nancy Reagan's Crabmeat And Artichoke Casserole

(From The Search for the Real Nancy Reagan by Frances Spatz Leighton, 1987)

1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and rinsed

1 pound best quality crabmeat

1/2 pound small button mushrooms, sauteed in butter

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup dry sherry

Parmesan cheese, grated

Place artichokes in buttered baking dish. Arrange crabmeat over the artichokes, then add sauteed mushrooms. Melt butter in a saucepan and add flour, cook briefly, then add cream and sherry and stir until bubbly and thickened. Pour cream sauce over crab mixture, stir to mix, and top with Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Serve hot.

Anne Romney's Welsh Skillet Cakes


1 egg

1 1/4 cups currants

1/2 cup milk

3 1/2 cups flour

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter

Method: Beat the egg with the milk. Add currants. Sift all other dry ingredients together. Work butter into flour and mix until mealy. Pour milk and currants over flour and butter mixture all at once and mix well. Wrap in wax paper and chill for at least one hour.

Roll it a little less than half an inch thick — actually about 3/8 of an inch. You may think this is too precise, but it's very important not to roll too thin.

Cut with cookie cutter. Cook on a pancake griddle greased with oil (325 degrees Fahrenheit) on both sides. Flip the cookies when you see they are shiny. Cook it for less time on the second side. Roll in granulated sugar and let cool.

Resist the urge to eat them right away out of the oven — these are the only cookies that taste better cooled.

Michelle Obama's Cauliflower Mac And Cheese

(From American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama)

1/2 pound whole-wheat penne pasta

1/4 head cauliflower, cut into florets

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated

1/2 cup 1 percent or 2 percent milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil, add the cauliflower and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Drain. Place the cauliflower in a blender and puree.

In a medium pan over medium heat, place the pasta, the cauliflower puree, the cheeses and the milk. Stir gently to combine and continue stirring until the cheese is melted.

Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the chopped parsley over the mac and cheese and serve immediately.

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In this heated political season when all things presidential are scrutinized - stump speeches, fundraisers, fashion choices, - we thought it fitting to consider presidents and food, the food they loved. Though Clinton famously had a taste for donuts on the campaign trail, George Washington was known to enjoy his wife Martha's crab soup.

On this summer morning, Chris Kimball, host of "America's Test Kitchen," and something of a culinary historian, joined us to share some presidential food favorites.

Chris, good morning.

CHRIS KIMBALL: It's a pleasure. You don't have to read their speeches. You can eat their food.

MONTAGNE: Obviously the notion behind this is that you can learn something about a president, based on what he likes to eat.

KIMBALL: And you can tell something about the first lady. You can also tell something about the time, their era, 'cause very often the recipes are very much part of that historic period.

MONTAGNE: And you provide us with several historical recipes starting with one from way back, 1809, the White House of President James Madison. Tell us about that recipe.

KIMBALL: Well, it's Dolly Madison's favorite cake. It's a layer cake that has a caramel icing. Caramel icings were very popular in the 1800s. Dolly Madison invented the concept of the first lady, at least for 200 years. And cakes - layer cakes - and were really the consummate test of ones cooking skills. She was also active, really, as first lady under Thomas Jefferson 'cause he was a widower. So she had plenty of experience by the time she got there with her own husband James Madison.

MONTAGNE: And I'm looking over at what I take to be this layer cake. It's actually four layers.

KIMBALL: Yeah, it's an interesting cake because, originally, cakes were yeasted for leavening before chemical leaveners. And this cake leavened through beaten egg whites, which they used for many decades as a way of getting lift into a tank. So it'll be a little more dense than what you're used to with a modern cake, with baking powder.

MONTAGNE: I'm looking at this array of food. And right here, to my left, there's this lovely yellow drink with a lemon in it. But this does not taste like lemonade. What exactly is this?

KIMBALL: Well, it's a squall which is similar to a squash, and this is during Prohibition. This is Warren Harding. The First Lady, Mrs. Harding gave large parties on the lawn of the White House. And during the 1800s and early 20th century, it was not acceptable for women to be drinking alcohol in public, so they invented these non-alcoholic punches.

This one is kind of interesting. You take a whole pineapple, you take the skin off, and then you put it through, quote-unquote, "a meat grinder."


MONTAGNE: That's what they used, meat grinders.

KIMBALL: That's what they used to pulp it. And so, you put the pulp and juice together with some boiled lemon rind and lemon juice and a lot of sugar. And this was the acceptable drink for ladies. My guess is more than one lady snuck a little gin into their squall, I think...


KIMBALL: ...during those afternoon parties. And Warren Harding himself, in the White House during Prohibition, had a very well-stocked liquor cabinet. So there was no lack of alcohol in the White House during Prohibition.

MONTAGNE: Here on your list is a recipe from a later president, Harry Truman, 1945-1953. It's Ozark Pudding.

KIMBALL: Yeah, this is fascinating. FDR, sort of his princely aristocratic president, and then you get Harry Truman who's a man of the people, Missouri, the Midwest, very down-to-Earth. His wife, Bess, came into the White House, watched every penny in terms of expenses and food. Ozark Pudding, it's a little bit like a pudding cake. It's sweet and it has nuts in it, usually walnuts and apples. And we made a couple of versions; the less sweet the apples, the better the Ozark Pudding. It's an odd dish, but we loved it.

MONTAGNE: This does look very plain.

KIMBALL: That was Harry Truman. That was his charm. You know, by the way, they invented one of the great culinary aphorisms, which was: If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, for as sweet as it is, it's my favorite.

KIMBALL: It's actually quite good.

MONTAGNE: Now, so far so sweet, but judging by the recipes and what I'm looking at on the table, it seems like several presidents had a thing for seafood, starting with George Washington.

KIMBALL: Yeah, George Washington didn't have that crab soup. William Taft, he was our largest president at 350 pounds. And his recipe was Billy B, which a guy called William Brandt, which became Billy B for Brandt, love mussels but he didn't like eating them like. So he said, Look, maybe a soup with mussel liqueur - you know, the juice from the mussels - which they did. And it became, really, the signature dish for Taft.

Kennedy loved his lobster stew. And the thing that was a bit quirky about JFK was he like to lobster stew but not the lobster. So he'd drink the liquid. And very often the person he was dining with would actually end up eating the lobster.


MONTAGNE: And there is another recipe that you have - different president - that caused some controversy. That's Nancy Reagan's Crab Meat and Artichoke Casserole.

KIMBALL: Oh, this is a huge dustup of the time. There was a woman from Chicago, Susan Benjamin. She had two kids with special needs. She wrote the White House and said: Please don't cut funding for special needs. And the PR Department of the White House didn't really read the letter and just sent her back a few inches pictures of Ron and Nancy, and a few recipes.


KIMBALL: One of the recipes unfortunately wasn't Nancy Reagan's Crab Meat and Artichoke Casserole. And many newspaper pieces were written about sending this poor woman a recipe that was only for rich people, because it required crabmeat. And there were lines about, you know, how can a man who wears a thousand-dollar cowboy boots, you know, be in touch with the people. And so, this has, obviously, echoes of today.

MONTAGNE: OK, let's look at a couple of current recipes then. How about the Obama Family Macaroni and Cheese with a Twist?

KIMBALL: Both candidates have learned their lesson, so both of these recipes are very much of the people. Michelle, of course, is a huge promoter of the White House Garden and of vegetables, and so she actually makes a sauce based upon purée cooked cauliflower. Reduces the amount of cheese and comes up with a mac and cheese with a nice smooth sauce, but has a couple of hundred calories less and about half the fat. And actually it's quite good.

MONTAGNE: What about Ann Romney? What does she make for Mitt Romney?

KIMBALL: The one recipe that she talks about most is actually really interesting. It's a recipe I'd never heard of, Welsh Skillet Cakes. And these are currant scones, and they do go back to her grandmother from Wales. And they used to make them on top of a cold stove. Or on a bake stone, they called it. And they were cooked on the griddle. They weren't baked in the oven. They were like pasties, you know, they were sort of out of hand food miners would bring down when they worked. And they're quite good.

MONTAGNE: Chris, thank you for sharing these presidential food favorites with us.

KIMBALL: A pleasure and maybe it's time we elected a chef to be president.


MONTAGNE: Recipes Ann Romney's Welsh Skillet Cakes and the other presidential dishes are at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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