Happy Friday readers! Liz here, excited to welcome Peggy Ehrhart, author of the Knit & Nibble Mysteries, to the blog! Just a warning, you’ll probably be hungry after this post… Take it away, Peggy!
History in the Kitchen: The First Ladies Cook Book
We have a new president (Yay!) and a new vice-president, whose spouse is not the “Second Lady” but the “First Gentleman”—an illogical identification, as many have pointed out, since he isn’t married to the new First Lady. Anyway . . .
This seemed a fun time to pull out my copy of The First Ladies Cook Book. It’s an entertaining work published by Parents’ Magazine Press with input from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Historic Trust. After a brief overview of each presidential administration, it focuses on what the presidents and their families ate and served to their guests while in the White House, starting with George Washington and ending, in the 1969 edition I own, with Richard Nixon. The role reversal signaled by Kamala Harris and her husband would have seemed outlandish for most of our nation’s history, when it was assumed that the president’s wife—or a stand-in, like a niece—would handle the domestic aspects of White House life.
For the most part, information about dishes served at dinners, both grand and simple, was culled from diaries, letters, account books, and newspaper reports, and recipes for the dishes were reconstructed from cookbooks of the respective eras. In some later cases, the actual White House recipes were available.
Trends in food preparation and service influenced entertaining at the White House, particularly the receptions and state dinners that are such an important adjunct to governing. In Washington’s era and for some time beyond, the table was laden with nearly all the food at once. A shoulder of bacon, a roast beef, a crab dish, a cut of mutton, and a roast goose might share space with beef pies, apple pies, and much else. The “modern fashion” of serving meals in courses was first noted in the administration of Pierce (1853-57).
Recipes range from Washington’s Beefsteak and Kidney Pie, Polk’s Tennessee Ham, Taylor’s Deviled Crab, Fillmore’s Saddle of Lamb, and onward—up to Poulet à l’Estragon and Soufflé Froid au Chocolat (Kennedy), and finally Nixon’s Vanilla Soufflé with Vanilla Sauce. The book ends with a photo of the Nixon feast, recreated for the book, that might have preceded the soufflé: Cheese Straws, Smoked Salmon with Capers on Buttered Pumpernickel, Brie with Crackers, Stuffed Tomatoes, Beef Wellington, and Hearts of Palm and Watercress Salad.
Lincoln, notoriously, was barely aware of what he was eating, though he appreciated good coffee and enjoyed chicken, so from his administration we get Fried Chicken and two versions of Chicken Fricassee.
A few recipes reflect regional influence. Buchanan ate shoulder of pork stuffed with sauerkraut as an homage to his roots in Pennsylvania Dutch territory, and the section on LBJ includes Pedernales Chili.
Fun facts: Thanksgiving was first celebrated in the White House under Polk, and the first White House Christmas tree was set up under Harrison.
Truman’s tastes were more proletarian than most. One of his favorite dishes was reportedly Tuna and Noodle Casserole. Here’s my version, using the recipe from the book.
And here’s the recipe:
Truman’s Tuna and Noodle Casserole
1 7-oz. can of tuna, drained
6 oz. egg noodles (about ½ package)
4 tbsp. butter, divided
1 ½ cup milk
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ tbsp.. flour
¼ tsp. pepper
¼ lb. sharp cheddar, grated
2 hard-boiled eggs
Boil the noodles in salted water until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Make your cheese sauce: Melt 2 tbsp. butter and stir in flour. Blend until smooth using a wire whisk if you have one. Add the milk and stir until the mixture comes to a boil. Blend in the cheese and salt and pepper. Cook and stir for 3 minutes longer.
Butter a medium-sized casserole (1 ½ qt. is good). Put in half the noodles, then all the tuna in a smooth layer, then the rest of the noodles. Pour the cheese sauce over all, dab with the rest of the butter in small bits, and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Before serving, garnish with sliced hard-boiled egg and sprigs of parsley.
If anyone is interested in their own copy of The First Ladies Cook Book, used copies in various editions abound, for as little as $5. Just search online for “The First Ladies Cook Book.”
Readers: Do you have a favorite recipe, made by you or by someone else, that you value for its link with an important event or experience in your life? One random commenter will receive a signed copy of Knitty Gritty Murder. (U.S. and Canada only, please!)
Peggy Ehrhart is a former English professor with a doctorate in Medieval Literature. She currently writes the Knit & Nibble mystery series for Kensington. Her amateur sleuth, Pamela Paterson, is the founder of the Knit & Nibble knitting club, and Peggy herself is a devoted crafter, dating from her membership in 4-H as a child in southern California. Visit Peggy online at www.PeggyEhrhart.com .
About Knitty Gritty Murder: A Knit & Nibble Mystery
Pamela Paterson, founder of the Knit and Nibble knitting club in quaint Arborville, New Jersey, gets pulled into investigating the murder of farm-to-table enthusiast Jenny Miller when Jenny is found strangled with a circular knitting needle in her own community garden plot.
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