This past week, history has taken a center stage, as newspapers, online publications and television programs mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy Jr. In that spirit, this week, Hungry History is taking a special look back at the food of the Kennedy White House. For as JFK’s presidency marked great progress in the worlds of space exploration, civil rights, and arts advancement, it also marked a watershed moment in the way Americans eat.
Before President and Mrs. Kennedy moved in, White House meals were a rather dull affair. None of the recent occupants had been what could be considered gourmands: Calvin Coolidge inexplicably referred to any and all meals as “supper,” even if it were breakfast time; the Roosevelts famously served hot dogs to the king and queen of England; and a menu for the state dinner for the crowned heads of Greece given by the Eisenhower administration reads as depressing as any unemployment figures: toasted Triscuits, fish in cheese sauce, sliced “lemmon.”
The Kennedys changed all that. Or rather, Jacqueline Kennedy, who had a strong appreciation for the finer things in life—especially those of the French variety–that she’d picked up during years of study abroad at the Sorbonne. Not long after the inauguration, Mrs. Kennedy hired a French chef, Rene Verdon. Quickly, the White House menus changed from featuring saltines and beef stew to more sophisticated fare, like sole Veronique and strawberries Romanoff. Verdon’s influence was felt throughout the country, as magazine and newspaper articles went crazy for all things Kennedy. Julia Child’s celebrated public television program The French Chef began about this time, too, so more and more Americans became interested in dining a la Francaise.
But perhaps the people who benefitted most from the sea change in White House food were the Washington politicians and insiders who regularly attended events there. It was obvious from the first official reception, given nine days after the inauguration, that change was coming. The Kennedys installed a bar in the State Dining Room, complete with butlers to shake and pour martinis and bourbon. Instead of the usual five to six courses for dinner, Jackie streamlined meals, including only four courses to leave enough time for post-dinner entertainment and conversation. And men and women mingled freely after Kennedy dinner, whereas in previous years men had repaired to one room for cigars and women to a separate salon for coffee.
Perhaps the most celebrated White House dinner of the Kennedy years was held at President Washington’s grand house, Mount Vernon, in honor of the president of Pakistan. Guests were transported down the Potomac on yachts, with dance music played and champagne freely poured. The French meal was prepared in the White House kitchen, and trucked the 15 miles to Mount Vernon in specially modified military vehicles. Guests were treated to a crabmeat and avocado mimosa, poulet chasseur and fresh local raspberries with whipped cream. To cap off the evening, the National Symphony Orchestra gave a concert featuring–what else?–a rendition of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”