An historical look at what it’s like to cook for the president

By Ana Kinkaid

Part I: The Early Years

Though famed for its presidential residents, it is the often overlooked White House cooks and chefs who have reflected not only the changing cuisine of our nation but also its understanding of democracy.  Whether an experienced cook or trained professional chef, each of these remarkable yet largely unrecognized individuals created not only cuisine but history itself.

(George Washington 1789-1797)

America’s first presidential cook was a Virginia slave known as Hercules. He was trained at Mount Vernon and later accompanied President Washington to the fledgling nation’s first capital of Philadelphia. Hercules worked hard but he longed for the liberation that so many others around him enjoyed. In 1797 he escaped to freedom.

Washington’s favorite dish: Lettuce Tart.

(John Adams 1825-1829)

Unlike George Washington, John Adams and his wife Abigail believed slavery was morally unacceptable in a democracy. As a result, they refused to utilize slave labor in their presidential household. Instead, they hired the husband-wife team of John and Esther Briesler to manage their official residence, including the operation of the presidential kitchen. Supported by a staff of four additional individuals, Esther Briesler prepared more American based dishes than Hercules, with the goal of showcasing the unique character of the young Republic to visiting international guests and dignitaries.

The Adams’ favorite dishes: Baptist Cakes, Green Turtle Soup, Scootin’-Long-the Shore, Potato Haggerty and Plymouth Succotash.

(Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877)

After the American Civil War, America began to expand its interests both at home and abroad. Though no longer a Union general, Ulysses S. Grant initially engaged his army cook as his White House cook. His perceptive wife Julia quickly realized that standard army fare was hardly suitable for the White House and hired Valentino Melah, a professional, Italian-trained combination steward and chef. His first White House assignment was to prepare a 29-course dinner honoring King Kalakaua of Hawaii at the Parker House in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Such a dinner demonstrated America’s need to be part of a world beyond its territorial borders.

Grant’s favorite dishes: Partridge Fricassee with Rice a la Paulette, Macaroni a la Italian, Sago Pudding.

(Chester Arthur 1881-1885)

As American strengthened its industrial base, the duties of the president expanded to hosting an increased number of dinner guests at the White House. President Arthur employed Elisa, a cook who had worked earlier in his New York home. Her job was to privately prepare the simple food he preferred.

For the more elaborate and sensitive state dinners and political gatherings, Arthur employed the professionally-trained French chef Alexander Fortin, who commuted when needed from New York. Cuisine was becoming a vital part of diplomacy — enough to have a dedicated trained chef.

Arthur’s favorite dishes: Carolina Turtle Steak and Nesselrode Pie.

(Benjamin Harrison 1889-1893, Grover Cleveland 1893-1897 and William McKinley 1897-1901)

President Benjamin Harrison also employed a French trained cook, one Madame Madeleine Pelouard. But he discharged her under pressure from a national newspaper campaign that labeled her haute cuisine too fancy and too foreign to represent the emerging trend of nationalism then sweeping American society.

Instead, President Harrison engaged the services of Dolly Johnson, a freed African American slave who had cooked for the Harrisons in Indianapolis. Her hearty, down-home dishes proved so popular she remained on staff and cooked for presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley as well. .

Harrison’s favorite dish: Squirrel Stew.

(Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909)

Feeling secure in its identity, America moved onto the international stage at the beginning of the 20th century. With the Great White Fleet sailing the world’s seas to promote American power and Roosevelt wining the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the war between Russia and Japan, America was riding high and the cuisine served at the White House reflected the nation’s strength and bounty. Even the President’s broad waistline seemed to represent the ever-expanding wealth of the nation.

Such images led the nation to believe that every meal at the White House was a multi-course feast. The Roosevelt’s family cook, Alice Howard, actually served standard dishes of morning oatmeal, cold cuts for lunch and wild game for dinner, often shot by the President himself.

Roosevelt’s favorite dishes: Fried Chicken with Gravy, Dandelion Salad, Fiddlehead Fern Salad, Kidney Stew, and Indian Pudding.

(Woodrow WiIson 1913-1921)

Sigrid Nilsson was part of a vast wave of immigration that enriched the United States in the early 1900s. Sigrid Nilsson, like so many others, left her home in Sweden to seek her fortunes in America. She tenaciously answered an employment agency ad for a cook at the White House after graduating from the Boston Cooking School.

Shortly after being hired, however, the stern White House manager, Elizabeth Jaffray, decided to fire the 28-year old cook believing Nilsson was just too young for such monumental culinary duties.

President Wilson intervened and saved her job because, as he explained, he liked how she cooked his breakfast bacon.

Wilson’s favorite dishes: Crisp Maple Bacon, Chicken Salad, Drop Biscuits, Strawberry Ice Cream and Georgia Kiss Pudding.

(Franklin Roosevelt 1933-1945)

After the boom years of the 1920s, America’s stock market collapsed in 1929, triggering the Great Depression.

With 25 percent of Americans unemployed and hungry, it did not seem the time to serve elaborate food at the White House. As a result, food was not a primary focus for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her revolving culinary staff comprised of Ada Allen, Mary Campbell and Lizzie McDuffie.

Instead the First Lady traveled the country talking to thousands of Americans and then reported back to her wheelchair-bound husband the needs of the hungry nation. Though not a cook herself, Eleanor and her staff assisted in soup kitchens and bread lines to show their support for the poor — a tradition continued by chefs today.

The Roosevelts’ favorite dishes: Creamed Chipped Beef, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Eggs, Fried Cornmeal Mush with Maple Syrup, Kippered Herring, Kedgeree, Soup with Fairy Toast, Hot Dogs and Cheddar Apple Pie.

Read Part II of The President’s Plate here.