A Taste of the Past: White House Kitchens, Menus, and Recipes
by Mary Brigid Barrett
• The White House Kitchen
• White House Menus
• See and Read More
• A Sampling of Recipes from the First Ladies and a Few from the Presidents, too!
• Activity Ideas for Young People
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
The White House Kitchen
When she toured the White House kitchen in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt’s housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt found cockroaches crawling in its cupboards. In her book White House Diary she describes her first inspection of the premises—“I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary. Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was that sort of place. Dark-looking cupboards, a huge old-fashioned gas range, sinks with time-worn wooden drains, one rusty wooden dumb waiter. The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.”
“There is only one solution,” she told Mrs. Roosevelt. “We must have a new kitchen.”
Public Works Project No. 634 was instituted; demolition and new construction on the kitchen began in the summer of 1935. During the Depression, the jobless rate was exceedingly high and Franklin Roosevelt insisted relief workers be employed for the reconstruction whenever possible. The renovation, planned by the White House staff and engineers from General Electric and Westinghouse corporations, reconfigured the working space, replaced rusted pipes, put in a whole new electrical system with all-new electric appliances, and installed more efficient dumbwaiters to transport the food to the State Floor dining rooms above. New equipment included six roasting ovens, a sixteen-foot-long stove, eight refrigerators, five dishwashers, a soup kettle, a meat grinder, waffle irons, multiple mixers, a thirty-gallon ice-cream storage freezer, and a deep fryer that held five gallons of fat. Stainless steel storage and counter tops were installed throughout.
The President and Mrs. Roosevelt were delighted, but Mrs. Nesbitt reported that the staff was overwhelmed by the latest technological innovations. They continued to do things the way they had been done in the past: washing dishes, as well as chopping and slicing food—by hand. And unfortunately for President Roosevelt, a new kitchen did not improve the quality or variety of Mrs. Nesbitt’s menus. Mrs. Nesbitt believed in economical, simple, American fare: cheap cuts of meat including brains, sweetbreads, and beef tongues; mashed potatoes; flavorless canned vegetables; molded gelatin salads dotted with marshmallows; and insipid desserts. Franklin Roosevelt once joked that the only reason he sought a fourth term of office was so that he could return to the White House to fire Mrs. Nesbitt! Although Roosevelt won his fourth election, Mrs. Nesbitt and her bland menus remained, for Mrs. Roosevelt ran the household staff. In her biography Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two, author Blanche Wiesen Cook writes, “ER’s curious disregard for her husband’s tastes suggests an explanation for her persistent defense of Henrietta Nesbitt: The housekeeper was one expression of her passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage of remarkable and labyrinthine complexity.”
Irwin “Ike” Hoover was the White House usher when the Roosevelts moved into the house in 1933. “Republicans dropped out of sight overnight. Those who were left seemed to have changed into Democrats,” he observed. During his forty-plus years of service he had only served under two democratic administrations, that of Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. When he began his stint in the White House, the basement kitchen was blackened with dirt and grime, the floor covered with slimy bricks. In his memoir Forty-Two Years in the White House, he wrote that he found, “the old open fireplaces once used for the broiling the chickens and baking the hoecakes for the early Fathers of our country, the old cranes and spits still in place. Out of the door to the rear there yet remained the old wine-vault, the meathouse, and the smokehouse . . . you could still almost smell the wine odors and the aroma from the hams and bacon that must have been so deliciously and painstakingly prepared here.”
Open hearth cooking—cooking in a fireplace—was the only way to cook in the White House up until Millard Fillmore’s administration (1850-1853). Meats sizzled on spits over cracking flames or roasted within tin reflecting ovens in front of the hot fire. Iron and bronze pots suspended from a swinging crane held stews, soups, and vegetables. Bread was baked first in the bake ovens built into the back of the hearth wall, and as the temperature dropped inside the oven, in went the pies, and later the cookies and custards. Knowing how to control the cooking temperatures was an art. A cook had to have an understanding of coal and woods and their burn properties. Coal was the hottest and burned the longest. Hard woods—ash, oak, hickory, maple, and dogwood gave good heat, burned evenly, and lasted a long time. Pots and pans were moved in and out of the heat, moved close to the fire or away to control cooking time. A kitchen inventory during James Monroe’s administration included, “1 large copper soup kettle, 1 Large ham boiler, 1 large preserving kettle, 1 ditto fish kettle, with drainers, 1 Large coffee boiler, 1 Brass stew pan, 3 Large sauce pans, 19 Of different sizes . . . 2 Griddles, 1 Toasting iron, 1 Frying pan, 5 Jack spits, 3 coffee mills, 1 Old dripping pan, 2 Spit stands, 4 Trivets, 1 Marble pestle and mortar, 4 Sheet iron cake bakers.”
Today the chefs, cooks, dishwashers, and waiters in the White House kitchens must prepare and serve meals for the President and his family, as well as guests from many countries around the world. Sometimes they create meals and refreshments for five or more social events a day, ranging from family meals, to teas, to private parties, to formal state dinners, to larger receptions for hundreds of people. Many of those who have served our nation cooking for “America’s First Dining Table” feel the same about their experience as did Henry Haller, the Executive Chef for five presidential families from the Johnsons to the Reagans: “My own role as the Executive Chef of the White House has certainly been the most rewarding position I have ever held.”
See and Read More
To view historic pictures of the White House kitchen, go to: WhiteHouseMuseum.org.
For information concerning open hearth cooking, check out “Cooking – Open Hearth” on nps.gov and The New York Times article “Open-Hearth Cooking: Why All the Fuss Over Hot Ashes?“
For videos demonstrating open hearth cooking, go to:
- “Hearth Cooking” by the Carroll County Times
- “Open Hearth Cooking in Camden, New Jersey“
Many early American historical societies and house museums offer open hearth cooking classes for young people. Using the search engine of your choice, type open hearth cooking classes along with your state’s name and you will find classes near you.
White House Menus
Thomas Jefferson was many things—writer, scholar, horticulturist, architect, interior designer, paleontologist, inventor, philosopher, politician—and an expert of wine and fine cuisine. He preferred to be addressed as Mr. Jefferson, not Mr. President, and criticized both George Washington and John Adams for their “imperial” federalist ways. He advocated a plainness of manner in presidential style; but his table was set for a king. Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington hostess and wife of Samuel Harrison Smith, the publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper, was often a guest of Mr. Jefferson’s. She described Jefferson’s dinners as “republican simplicity . . . united to Epicurean delicacy.”
Jefferson loved all things French and employed a French cook, Honoré Julien. Patrick Henry once remarked that Jefferson, after serving as minister to France, “came home from France so Frenchified that he abjured his native victuals.” But Jefferson loved native-grown fruits and vegetables—corn, black-eyed peas, huckleberries, turnip greens. Invitations to the Jefferson’s dinner parties at the White House were coveted not only for social and political reasons, but because the food was delectable. Congressman Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts wrote this of the dinner menu he attended at the White House on February 6, 1802. “Dined at the President’s—Rice soup, round of beef, turkey, mutton, ham, loin of veal, cutlets of mutton or veal, fried eggs, fried beef, a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with scallion onions or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong and not very agreeable. Mr. Lewis [Meriwether Lewis] told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions were made of flour and butter, with particularly strong liquor mixed with them. Ice cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes; a dish somewhat like a pudding—inside white as milk or curd, very porous and light covered with cream sauce—very fine. Many other jimcracks, a great variety of fruit, plenty of wine and good.”
“Plenty of wine” was a correct assessment, for Jefferson drank one to four glasses of wine a day, ordering it by the barrel from Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, and served four to six wines with dinner. His wine bill exceeded $10,000 for his eight years in the presidency, a princely sum in the first decade of the 19th century.
Today, White House menus and wine lists from small dinner parties to large state dinners are much discussed by the first lady, her social secretary, and the White House chefs. The type and style of the meal or event, the special guests and their country or state of origin, the social and political goals of the event, the world and local atmosphere surrounding the meal, the availability of fresh ingredients, the season of the year, the guests’ attitudes toward alcoholic beverages, and guests’ food allergies—all these things must be assessed before planning a White House menu.
After significant research by the executive chef, the pastry chef, their staffs, and the White House social staff, a menu is developed that is appropriate for the proposed social event. The first lady, and sometimes the president, reviews the food and wine choices that are proposed and give their opinion and approval. For important occasions, like state dinners, the chefs will actually cook menu items so that the first lady and her social secretary can taste foods and work with the chefs to refine the menu.
Menus may be printed, but more often than not White House calligraphers hand-letter individual menus for guests. Guests can then take their menus home with them as a souvenir of their experience. Some guests even circulate their menus at their table requesting the autographs of their table mates. You never know who you will be sitting next to when you dine at the White House!
Menu for the James Buchanan Inaugural Ball—March 4, 1857
400 gallons of oysters
60 saddles of mutton
4 saddles of venison
125 beef tongues
500 quarts of chicken salad
500 quarts of jellies
A four-foot cake
$3,000 worth of wine
James Buchanan, the only bachelor president, thought that multiple inaugural balls were outrageous wastes of time and energy. He reinstated the single inaugural ball concept, but had to construct a new $15,000 building* on Judiciary Square in Washington to accommodate his 6,000 guests. Guests were served on long tables set against red, white, and blue walls, and when their appetites were satiated they danced beneath a white ceiling glittering with hundreds of gold stars.
You can see pictures of Buchanan’s Inaugural Ball on the Library of Congress website loc.gov:
- Daguerreotype from the American Treasures Exhibition
- Wood engraving from the American Memory Collection
Mock Turtle Soup
Corned Beef and Cabbage
Abraham Lincoln was not known for his culinary sensibilities. His was more of a “food for fuel” perspective. He often got so caught up in his work that he forgot to eat. He was partial to cornbread drizzled with honey and good cup of strong coffee. He did have a sweet tooth. A Washington, D.C. baker claimed the president was one of his best pecan pie customers. Despite his apparent lack of interest in cuisine, Lincoln did plan the menu for the luncheon that followed his inauguration. It was served midday at the Willard’s Hotel in Washington after the ceremonies at the Capitol had ended. Immediately after the luncheon, Lincoln and his family moved into the White House.
Nellie Grant’s Wedding Breakfast Menu, May 21, 1874
State Dining Room
Woodcock and Snipe on Toast
Soft Crabs on Toast
Chicken Croquettes with Fresh Peas
Aspic of Beef Tongue
Broiled Spring Chicken
Strawberries with Cream
Wedding Cake iced with Doves, Roses, and Wedding Bells
Ice Creams and Ices
Punch • Coffee • Chocolate
Nellie Grant, the charming and vivacious daughter of President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, was sent off on a tour of Europe in the hopes of removing her from the public’s eyes and press’ grasp. Bad idea; Nellie made even more news across the ocean. She was wined and dined all over Europe and presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. And at age seventeen, on the voyage home, she fell madly in love with a young, handsome English diplomat, Mr. Algernon Sartoris, the nephew of a famous actress. The whole White House staff prepared for her wedding. It was to be “one of the most brilliant weddings ever given in the United States.” The bride wore a gown of white satin edged in Brussels lace; a crown of orange blossoms held her tulle veil to her head. She carried a bouquet of tuberoses and orange blossoms and in the cluster of pink rosebuds at the center of her bouquet was a small flag with the word “Love” printed on it. The wedding breakfast menu was printed in gold on white satin and given to guests as souvenirs of the occasion. Gifts poured in from all over the world, but the most unique gift was a poem, “A Kiss for the Bride” written by Walt Whitman. Unfortunately, Nellie and Algernon did not live happily ever after. Algernon became an alcoholic and Nellie left him, taking their four children with her.
A Kiss to the Bride
by Walt Whitman
Sacred, blithesome, undenied,
With benisons from East and West,
And salutations North and South,
Through me indeed to-day a million hearts and hands,
Wafting a million loves, a million soul-felt prayers;
—Tender and true remain the arm that shields thee
Fair winds always fill the ship’s sails that sail thee!
Clear sun by day, and bright stars at night, beam on thee!
Dear girl—through me the ancient privilege too,
For the New World, through me, the old, old wedding greeting:
O youth and health! O sweet Missouri rose! O bonny bride!
Yield thy red cheeks, thy lips, to-day,
Unto a Nation’s loving kiss.
President and Mrs. Eisenhower’s Dinner Menu
in Honor of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece, October 28, 1955
Cocktail Sauce Saltine Crackers
Celery Hearts • Assorted Olives
White Fish in Cheese Sauce
Boston Brown Bread Sandwiches
Crown Roast of Lamb Stuffed With Spanish Rice
French Peas • Braised Celery
Orange and Roquefort Cheese Salad Bowl
Caramel Cream Mold
Burnt Caramel Sauce
Lemon Iced Diamond Shaped Cookies
Nuts • Candies • Demitasse
Mrs. Ike, as President Eisenhower affectionately called his wife, was a “girlie” girl. She loved hair curls and bangs, the color pink, sparkles, tulle, flowered hats, long gloves, flounced skirts, and—at age fifty-six—she had no problem wearing sleeveless gowns that bared her less-than-firm upper arms. 1950’s America adored her because she was open, unpretentious, and genuinely loved people. Seeing themselves in her, many women viewed her as a kindred spirit, a wife dedicated to home and family. But she was far from the typical housewife. The White House staff nicknamed her “Sleeping Beauty” because she was known to lie in bed for long hours in her favorite pink negligee. The truth was she suffered from asthma and heart palpitation and needed to rest. Mamie Eisenhower was not fond of cooking; her husband was the culinary expert in the family. Nevertheless, it was Mrs. Eisenhower, having successfully managed thirty households in her thirty-seven years as a military wife, who approved the menus for events large and small, including her husband’s many stag dinners. Her food choices reflected both the times and her Iowa upbringing.
President and Mrs. John Kennedy’s Menu
for a Luncheon with Princess Grace, May 24, 1961
Soft-Shell Crab Amadine
Spring Lamb Á La Broche Aux Primeurs
Château Croton Grancey 1955
Dom Pérignon 1952
Petits Fours Secs
Joining President and Mrs. Kennedy and the Prince and Princess of Monaco for lunch were Senator and Mrs. Claiborne Pell, Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. (the third of Mr. Roosevelt’s five wives), movie producer and director Fred Coe and his wife, and Mr. William Walton, a journalist, painter, and close friend of the president. Princess Grace, the actress Grace Kelly before her marriage, wore a fringed green jacket over a matching sheath dress, white gloves, and an unusual white turban featuring a froth of curled feathers or ribbons. (The hat was a definite fashion faux pas.) Mrs. Kennedy’s social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, in her conversations with the President the week before the luncheon, had jokingly referred to Prince Rainier of Monaco numerous times as Prince Reindeer. At one point during lunch the president turned to respond to Prince Rainer and out slipped “Prince Reindeer.” For a few days after the luncheon, Miss Baldrige was not one of the president’s favorite people. Four years later in an interview, Princess Grace was able to recall every detail of the lunch including all the dishes she had eaten. By that measure, the lunch was a huge success.
A Sampling of Recipes from the First Ladies, and a Few from the Presidents, too!
The George Washington Administration: Martha Washington and Nelly Custis Lewis
Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was a plump widow with two children when George Washington married her. She not only brought property and elite social status to the match, she brought vast property holdings, too. A self-described “old-fashioned Virginia house-keeper,” she was experienced in handling a large household and was a much admired if somewhat reserved hostess. At fifty-eight, Lady Washington was a grandmother when her husband became president. She never resided in the White House, but she managed the first two presidential mansions, first in New York City, and later in Philadelphia, with a the help of many servants as well as her own personal slaves brought north from Virginia. Her “receipt book” was filled with directions for making cakes, fools, hartychoakes, oly-kocks, possets, trifles, and chickin frykasies.
Read Martha Washington’s Recipe for Black Great Cake.
Nelly Custis was Martha’s granddaughter, George Washington’s beloved step-granddaughter. She described the average day for George Washington at Mount Vernon: “He rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready—he ate three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey, drank three cups of tea without cream . . .”
Read Nelly Custis Lewis’s Recipe for Hoecakes.
The Thomas Jefferson Administration: Martha Jefferson Randolph and Thomas Jefferson
The Virginia Housewife was Martha Jefferson Randolph’s cookbook. As one of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters, Martha Randolph occasionally acted as the White House hostess for her father during his time as president. The cookbook was published as a gift of her sister-in-law, and her father could not help but jot down his own recipes on the some of the blank pages in the book.
Read Martha Jefferson Randolph’s recipes (including Macaroni, Chicken Pudding, and Gooseberry Fool) and Thomas Jefferson’s recipes (including Cabbage Pudding and Ice Cream).
The Rutherford B. Hayes Administration: Lucy Web Hayes
Lucy Hayes was the first first lady to graduate from college at nineteen with high honors from the Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although she believed in women’s intellectual abilities in an era when women’s capabilities were questioned by many, she, like many women in the 19th century, was not yet liberated. She wrote, “Woman’s mind is as strong as man’s—equal in all things and his superior in some.” Mrs. Hayes promoted simple American fare in the family’s private dining, but state dinners were executed and served in the French style with one exception; no wine or alcoholic beverages were given to guests at the White House. Her temperance attitude earned her the nickname Lemonade Lucy, and many a White House visitor was disappointed that the president approved her stance.
Read Lucy Web Hayes’ recipes (which include Corn Bread and Oyster Stew).
The Franklin Roosevelt Administration: Henrietta Nesbitt
When meat was rationed during World War II, the White House had to stretch its meat allotment, too. But Mrs. Nesbitt, Roosevelt’s housekeeper, said that she would not skimp on the president’s food if she could help it; others would have to sacrifice because she did not want to worry him about food. According to Mrs. Nesbitt, favorite White House meat-stretcher foods were: “stuffed peppers, stew, ham scallop, noodles and mushrooms with chicken scraps, spaghetti with meat-cakes cut down from the ‘good old American size’ to mere marbles, curries or omelets with meat tidbits; croquettes for a sustaining meal in themselves; minestrone soup or fish chowders, ‘both good meals in themselves;’ creamed cheeses (soft ones weren’t rationed) for a satisfying light meal; gumbo z’herbes (good light meal for children if less spiced); stuffed eggs (meat bits for stuffing); baked beans, deviled meats and casseroles.”
Read Henrietta Nesbitt’s recipes (which include “Cheapest Soup” and Lismore Stew).
The Dwight Eisenhower Administration: Dwight Eisenhower
As mentioned, Mamie Eisenhower was not interested in cooking, but her husband was an enthusiastic cook. He had been taught to cook, sew, and clean by his mother who believed that all her sons should be well versed in what she considered to be essential life skills. The following recipe of President Eisenhower was included in a menu for a dinner given in honor of the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico in April, 1956.
Read President Eisenhower’s recipe for Green Turtle Soup.
The John F. Kennedy Administration: Chef René Verdon
René Verdon was the French chef hired by Jacqueline Kennedy to work at the White House. He received the title Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for his contribution to French cuisine. During the Kennedy administration he became an American citizen.
Read two of Chef René Verdon’s Recipes (Strawberries Romanoff and Boston Clam Chowder) from In the Kennedy Style.
Activity Ideas for Young People
Find a White House cook book—a few are listed in the reference section below—at your local library and try to create some of the dishes at home with the children and teens in your family. Cooking with recipes will increase your child’s and teen’s reading and comprehension skills, as well as challenge their math skills. It also introduces your child to chemistry. And most importantly, it is a fun activity the whole family can enjoy together! For more information on literacy/cooking activities, go to “Cooking with Cookbooks: Teaching Your Child Basic Cooking and Kitchen Safety” on the NCBLA’s website thencbla.org.
For a classroom activity choose an international event from the era of America history your class is studying. Have students research the event and the countries involved in the event. They could also research a county’s culture with the goal of planning a menu for a state dinner that would help America build a working relationship with that nation. The menu should also reflect the social and cultural norms of that time period.
To get young people excited about different eras in American history, include information and projects that address domestic history, too. We recommend two great online sources for incorporating food and recipes, both of which reveal so much about any era of history.
- The first is The Food Timeline. The Food Timeline was created by Lynne Olver, reference librarian and International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) member, in response to students, parents, and teachers who frequently asked for help locating food history and period recipes at the Morris County Library (Whippany, NJ). The site is an independent research project and is not sponsored by, or affiliated with, any food companies. Information is checked against standard reference tools for accuracy—Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (Smith), The Oxford Companion to Food (Davidson), The Cambridge World History of Food (Kiple & Ornelas), Larousse Gastronomique (Revised/Updated English edition, 2001), The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Mariani), Food in History (Tannahill), History of Food (Toussaint-Samat), and other sources as needed.
- The second site is Feeding America: The Historic America Cookbook. The Michigan State University Library and the MSU Museum have partnered to create an online collection of some of the most influential and important American cookbooks from the late 18th to early 20th century. The goal of this project is to make these materials available to a wider audience with digital images of the pages of each cookbook as well as full-text transcriptions and the ability to search within the books across the collection.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- What do food and menus tell us about people, countries, and eras of history?
- Can food and menu choices tell us anything about historical figures’ personalities?
- In this piece, it’s mentioned that President Eisenhower’s mother thought it important to teach him how to cook. Should everyone learn to cook? Would cooking have been an important skill for President Eisenhower to learn? Why?
- Although some presidents have been concerned with food issues at the White House, historically it has been the first ladies who have had most influence and have controlled White House menus. What do you think will happen when a woman becomes president of the United States? Will the “first gentleman” be in charge of food, menu, and dinner planning at the White House?
Baldrige, Letitia. In the Kennedy Style. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Clinton, Hillary Rodham. An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2. New York: Viking, 1999.
Ervin, Janet Halliday. The White House Cookbook. Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1964.
Haller, Henry. The White House Family Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1987.
Klapthor, Margaret Brown. The First Ladies Cookbook. New York: GMG Publishing, 1982.
Landau, Barry H. The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
McCully, Helen and Bullock, Helen Duprey. The American Heritage Cookbook. U.S.A.: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1964.
Truman, Margaret. The President’s House. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Whitcomb, John and Claire. Real Life in the White House. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Haber, Barbara. “Home Cooking in the White House.” White House History Journal (Journal of the White House Historical Association) no. 20 (Spring 2007).
Ross, Alice. “Kitchens Past: Thoughts on Open Hearth Cooking for the Presidents.” White House History Journal (Journal of the White House Historical Association) no. 20 (Spring 2007).
Tederick, Lydia Barker. “A Look at the White House Kitchens.” White House History Journal (Journal of the White House Historical Association) no. 20 (Spring 2007).
©2016 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance