If the adage is true, and we really are what we eat, then there’s much to be learned from White House menus. Not only do they tell us what the most powerful men in America had for dinner, they also chart the cultural growth and change of an entire nation.
George Washington was a man of simple tastes, and his presidential table was much less elaborate than other high society gatherings of the time. Washington himself once wrote, “My manner of living is plain – a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready…those who expect more will be disappointed.” State visitors were treated to the best wild game and fresh vegetables the young country had to offer, but cheeses, spices and Washington’s prized Madeira wine had to be imported from foreign countries. John Adams, like his predecessor, also preferred to eat simply: after his inauguration, he dined solo, at his boarding house.
White House menus became more sophisticated when renowned gastronome Thomas Jefferson took office. He was the first president to dine on tomatoes, macaroni and Parmesan cheese. His successor, James Madison, had the distinction of hosting the first inaugural ball, probably thanks to prodding from his wife, Dolley. Mrs. Madison threw herself into entertaining in the White House, and the menus during her husband’s administration reflected the exuberance of the new nation. Virginia specialties like country ham and corn muffins adorned tables, along with sophisticated French pastries like macarons and a new innovation: ice cream.
By the time James Buchanan moved into the White House in 1857, the new nation had finally found its footing on the world stage, and the president proved to be a lavish host. A confirmed bachelor, Buchanan brought his 25-year-old niece, Harriet Lane, into the White House with him to serve as first lady. During the prosperous years before the Civil War, they hosted many memorable dinners including two extravagant affairs for England’s Prince of Wales. Five thousand people were served during the two events, which included 400 gallons of oysters, 75 hams and 1,200 quarts of ice cream, among other delicacies.
This opulence would go out of fashion during the Civil War, only to return in full force upon the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. The Grants were simple people, but the exuberance of the post war years was reflected in White House cuisine. Twelve course dinners, elaborate banquets and fine wines were the order of the day. It wasn’t unusual for a meal for 36 friends and politicos to cost upwards of $2,000 (that’s nearly $36,000 today).
The grand feasts of Grant’s era were discontinued during Teddy Roosevelt’s time in the Executive Mansion. Rumors abounded that the corpulent president ate and drank more than was good for him. He would allegedly fill a giant goblet with straight whiskey and nurse it to help him get through dull state functions, although Roosevelt dismissed the story as slander. Another account suggested the president’s glass was filled with a mixture of white wine and sparkling water, something we know today as a decidedly un-presidential drink: a wine spritzer.