Where does Obama fit in the Pantheon of presidential eaters?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2009 

Lincoln's lemon custard pie from "Lincoln's Table: Victorian Recipes From Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois to the White House," by Donna D. McCreary.

GEORGE BRIDGES / MCT

WASHINGTON — If the characters of American leaders are revealed in their appetites, Barack Obama is the president from Whole Foods.

His recipe for chili includes a ground turkey option instead of beef — only a pound in either case, mind you — and calls for barely enough chili powder to make a parakeet sneeze.

Lyndon Johnson of Texas was a different man from a different chili nation. There, the kidney beans that Obama likes in his chili are as taboo as Birkenstocks at a rodeo.

Four pounds of beef go into LBJ's Pedernales River Chili. To that, add twice as much chili powder as Obama recommends, plus "two to six generous dashes of liquid hot sauce."

A new Library of Congress bibliography of presidential cookbooks and other White House kitchen details reveals a lot about the men who've led America, their stomachs and their times.

Take that other man of the hour, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's idea of breakfast was an egg and coffee, if he remembered to eat it, according to John Hay, Lincoln's longtime private secretary.

Compare that with James Buchanan, who's recalled as president for little but his opulent style. At his inauguration, his 5,000 guests consumed "eight rounds of beef, seventy-five hams, sixty saddles of mutton, four saddles of venison, four hundred gallons of oysters, five quarts of jellies, twelve hundred quarts of ice cream in assorted flavors and pates of infinite variety," Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks wrote in "The Presidents' Cookbook."

No surprise: Ulysses S. Grant, the president, dined like Ulysses S. Grant, the general.

Grant's first White House chef, a quartermaster from his Army days, believed deeply in turkey. "He planned turkey for a formal dinner, and varied the menu for a state dinner by having a bigger turkey," according to Cannon and Brooks

Grant, whose "fondness for simple rice pudding was almost a mania," also indulged his children at table in a way that Barack and Michelle Obama never will:

"It was the president's habit to roll his bread into tiny balls and shoot the balls as ammunition at Nellie and Jesse," Cannon and Brooks wrote.

The nation's first general, a Virginian, served his guests grandly at Mount Vernon, but was himself a man of rigid simplicity. If it was Saturday, George Washington ate cod.

Some penchants are predictable: Andrew Jackson loved Old Hickory Nut Soup — hickory nuts ground to a paste, plus water and sugar. Dynamo Theodore Roosevelt drank a gallon of coffee a day, adding as many as seven lumps of sugar per cup. The Eisenhowers, modest and modern in their tastes, often dined alone on tray tables in front of the TV.

Some tastes are quite eccentric.

James Garfield, for example, craved squirrel soup, which his doctors offered him on his deathbed, thinking that it might revive his appetite.

The meat should be "boiled to shreds," then strained through a colander, "so as to get rid of the squirrel's troublesome little bones," according to F.L. Gillette, the author of "The White House Cook Book," published in 1887, six years after Garfield's death.

Then there's the fondness of that ascetic eater Lincoln for lemon custard pie.

Lincoln's lemons were a pricey delicacy available only from the West Indies, according to Pierre Laszlo, the author of "Citrus: A History." Shipping lemons to the Union capital while the Civil War raged was tricky, too.

For a taste of the pie that Lincoln loved, here's the recipe, from "Lincoln's Table: Victorian Recipes From Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois to the White House," by Donna D. McCreary. Due diligence: McClatchy made the pie twice with runny results.

LINCOLN'S LEMON CUSTARD PIE

1 lemon

2/3 cup water

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided use

4 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grate the rind from the lemon; juice the lemon. Combine water, 1 cup sugar, egg yolks, lemon juice and rind, and cornstarch. Beat hard for 1 minute. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake 30 minutes.

Beat egg whites, gradually adding remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, until very stiff. Place on custard pie. Increase oven heat to 450 degrees; return pie to oven and bake until meringue peaks brown lightly.

ON THE WEB

The Library of Congress' new bibliography on White House food (Internet links at bottom of page)

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