History Stories

Last week, we looked at some of the unsung heroes of the early White House—the kitchen staff. From the days of Washington and Adams well into the 20th century, cooking for the president was among the least prestigious jobs in the mansion. Even the setting was downright modest: While pools, billiard rooms and greenhouses were added and subtracted over the years, the White House kitchen didn’t see many more improvements than a fresh coat of paint until 1902. It finally underwent a major makeover to feed Theodore Roosevelt’s brood of six children and to accommodate an increasing number of state dinners and functions.

Around this time, White House cooks themselves began to change. No longer were men in charge of the president’s meals—increasingly, the executive mansion’s kitchen was a woman’s domain. The job title these women held was simply “housekeeper,” but their responsibilities encompassed much more than that. From daily morning meetings with the first lady to marketing duties to overseeing a kitchen staff, White House housekeepers kept a busy household running.

One of the most famous housekeepers was Henrietta Nesbitt, brought to the White House by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. By all accounts, Mrs. Nesbitt ruled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with an iron fist and cooked as she saw fit during troubled times. Her menus were notoriously spartan, with a heavy emphasis on liver, salt cod and string beans. The food was so dreary that even the White House Press Corps took notice of it, and gossip items appeared in newspapers about the president refusing yet another dish of mutton. But Mrs. Nesbitt remained in the kitchen even after Roosevelt’s death—and wasn’t fired until a newly inaugurated President Truman suffered through one too many servings of overcooked Brussels sprouts.

White House food improved under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, but not by much. Bess Truman brought in a cook, Vietta Garr, who hailed from Missouri and prepared simple, home-style meals; even a dinner for Prime Minister Winston Churchill featured watermelon pickles and strawberry shortcake. Eisenhower ventured into the kitchen himself on occasion, preparing a mean oxtail soup. But White House food didn’t fundamentally change until the arrival of French chef René Verdon during the Kennedy administration.

Verdon was everything the most recent White House cooks were not: male, French and very classically trained. Trout au Chablis and artichokes Beaucaire soon replaced cornmeal muffins and chili. In the past, the White House kitchen had been largely staffed by young, female, African-American cooks, but soon the stoves were manned by a white, male, traditional French brigade. Whereas before the housekeeper would do market trips and bring back supplies for the day, Verdon planted a kitchen garden on the roof of the East Wing where he would select herbs for the evening meals. These days were short-lived, however. Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson wasn’t known for his sophisticated taste, favoring chipped beef on toast and tapioca pudding over strawberries Romanoff. René Verdon left the White House in 1965, reportedly resigning in a Gallic huff over a cold garbanzo bean dip.

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