Under FDR’s administration, guests picked at their plates and gossiped about their terrible meals. The White House, once known as a site for gracious meals and gourmet tastes, served such bad food it became notorious. But ironically, those unpalatable meals had their origins in a plan to make the White House an example for cooks all over the country.
When Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, the United States was in a state of economic collapse. The Great Depression had gutted American households, and suddenly a record number of people were hungry. Milk and meat consumption plummeted, and people got creative with food to sidestep starvation.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was painfully aware of the everyday reality of so many Americans. She herself came from an upper class of people who enjoyed daily feasts that would have fed a typical Depression-era family for a week. But Eleanor had a reputation for caring more about policy than food. Like many wealthy women, she didn’t know how to cook, though she had learned to make scrambled eggs in a chafing dish.
However, she quickly realized that the way she ate in the White House had the potential to influence and help the nation through the Depression. She had a partner in this initiative: Henrietta Nesbitt, whom she knew from Hyde Park, New York. Like so many Americans, Nesbitt was down on her luck. When her husband lost his job, she started selling baked goods to get by. Then, Eleanor asked Nesbitt to be the new White House housekeeper. Nesbitt was astonished—especially given that she had no comparable experience of any kind.
Eleanor didn’t care. She wanted a more modern White House, one that incorporated the new field of home economics. She tasked Nesbitt with improving the White House’s outdated cooking methods and oversaw an ambitious renovation of its cramped kitchen. “This was the ‘first kitchen’ in America, and it wasn’t even sanitary,” recalled Nesbitt in her memoir.
Nesbitt and Eleanor retooled the entire kitchen, installing modern appliances and coaxing the skeptical White House staff to use them. Meanwhile, Eleanor turned to home economists for menus that used modern techniques and were designed to help housewives incorporate both nutrition and economy into their cooking. She resolved to serve them in the White House—a place known for its decadent meals. The move was covered in national newspapers and followed closely by housewives, many of whom began to adopt a White House-style diet at home.
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There was just one problem: The nutritious, economic meals tasted terrible. Under Nesbitt’s supervision, the first kitchen began turning out some of the most unpalatable meals in modern memory.
“One of the first people to taste these foods, perhaps the first victim, you could say, was the president himself,” historian Andy Coe told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “They rolled a cart into his office because he usually ate at his desk. And on the cart were deviled eggs with tomato sauce, mashed potatoes and prune pudding.” This ten-cent meal wasn’t exactly what the president, who was accustomed to pricey dishes, usually ate. But he gamely choked down the food, which soon became notorious in Washington.
The White House’s new cuisine was dreary, but economical. Prunes, gelatin-filled salads, spaghetti with boiled carrots and sandwiches began to appear on White House tables; the kitchen served so much mutton that it became a joke throughout Washington. A typical lunch included cold jellied bouillon, salmon salad and bread and butter sandwiches. The First Lady experimented with foods like Milkorno, a Cornell-developed food supplement made with dried skim milk and cornmeal. The succession of bland, unappetizing meals became so notorious that visitors stuffed themselves with food before dining at the White House.
“Eleanor wasn’t just choosing a cuisine; she was defining her role in the White House, and the food had to deliver the right message,” writes historian Laura Shapiro in the New Yorker. The First Lady wanted her kitchen to be a showcase for American foods and modern American ways of cooking them.
To be fair, the Roosevelts’ food wasn’t much worse than what most Americans ate during the Depression. Nutrition, not taste, was paramount in a time of bread lines and soup kitchens, and Eleanor was trying to use her table as a way of encouraging and inspiring other Americans to get through a uniquely challenging historical moment. But the result was decidedly un-tasty—so much so that her own children tried to get off the hook.
“I remember [my son] James asked me if he could have a glass of milk by paying five cents extra,” Eleanor recalled years later. “If any blame is to be placed on anyone for things which displeased my husband in the running of the household, then I was the person to receive the censure.”
The White House wasn’t off the hook when World War II started, either: The Roosevelts ate rationed food just like everyone else, and Nesbitt came up with wartime menus for dishes like eggs stuffed with meat scraps, “noodles and mushrooms with chicken scraps” and casseroles. Even if meals in the FDR White House didn’t inspire the palate, they were intended to inspire the nation to get through hard times.