Surprising Things You Should Know About the White House Kitchen That Fed The Most Popular Presidents

The White House kitchen plays an important role: keeping the president and his family fed. Since its staff changes over under each administration to some degree, presidents have a fairly strong influence on what comes out of it. Some of the most popular presidents have had some interesting effects on the dining culture at the White House. But no one has had quite the same impact as these last two (pages 10 and 11).

1. These two presidents had some now-controversial cooks

George Washington

George Washington | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson staffed the White House kitchen with slaves, according to Time Magazine. Even after the Civil War, the tradition of African American cooks continued. Jacqueline Kennedy broke the trend when she replaced an African American chef with a white French one she preferred.

Next: Early White House cooks also needed the following skill.

2. The White House used to cook solely over open flame

Cook in White House kitchen 1890

Cook in White House kitchen 1890 | Library of Congress

Early White House cooks also had more in common with today’s Southern pitmasters than chefs. Before Millard Fillmore took office, all cooking in the White House took place over an open flame, Thrillist writes. Even after stove tops became more commonplace, BBQ maintained a strong popularity in the White House.

Presidents used to practice something called “barbecue diplomacy,” according to Hearth and Home Magazine. That started with Washington, but Lyndon Johnson earned himself the moniker “barbecuer in chief” for his finger-lickin’ parties.

Next: Eating outside also flummoxed some heads of state.

3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt served hot dogs at a state dinner

President Roosevelt in conversation with King George VI while Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth exchange pleasantries at Union Station.

President Roosevelt in conversation with King George VI while Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth exchange pleasantries at Union Station. | FDR Presidential Library & Museum via Flickr

On June 11, 1939, FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hyde Park, their home in Hudson Valley. To celebrate the first time a reigning British monarch visited a former colony, the president served hot dogs and beer. The New York Times reported at the time that the king and queen capped off the informal event by swimming with the president. It didn’t mention, however, whether the monarchs enjoyed the uniquely American food.

Next: Roosevelt also had an important impact on the kitchen itself.

4. Under Roosevelt, the kitchen got a face-lift

White House kitchen 1904

White House kitchen 1904 | Library of Congress

In 1933, Roosevelt’s housekeeper toured the kitchen and found so many cockroaches, she demanded an immediate renovation. According to historian Lydia Barker Tederick’s A Look at White House Kitchens,  it had some issues.”Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out,” her housekeeper relayed. “It was that sort of place.”

The New Deal Public Works Administration funded the renovation. It subsequently resulted in the largely stainless steel kitchen that greeted Harry Truman when he became president in 1945.

Next: That also doesn’t mean the food got any better.

5. However, Roosevelt’s menu tasted a little bland

Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt | J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images

Together with Cornell University’s School of Home Economics, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt devised seven-and-a-half-cent meals for both nutrition and economy, NPR reports. “[The menu] wasn’t about flavor,” said National First Ladies’ Library historian Carl Anthony. “It was about simple, economic and nutritious. It was an important statement for that time.”

Roosevelt did like to cook scrambled eggs herself in a chafing dish. As a result, the Roosevelt Sunday supper consisted of the first lady’s eggs, cold meat, salad, and dessert from the kitchen.

Next: The following first lady also had quite a hand in White House menus.

6. Mamie Eisenhower got her hands dirty at the White House

Dwight Eisenhower Family

The Eisenhower family | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Career homemaker Eisenhower had a strong hand in the White House kitchen, often directing the staff on menu planning. She also helped plan many state dinners, got involved with menus, and even reportedly helped craft grocery lists.

The thrifty Eisenhower often said, “I could squeeze a dollar so tight, you could hear the eagle scream.” She also loved innovative foods of the day, like gelatin and frozen, boxed, and canned foods and had the kitchen serve them regularly.

Next: The following White House saw a more elaborate menu.

7. The Reagan White House had more particular tastes

Nancy Reagan reviews plans for a state dinner

Nancy Reagan reviews plans for a state dinner | The White House Historical Association

Reagan apparently had very particular opinions about the food White House guests received. Time writes that she required chefs to test meals on herself and the president before they appeared at formal events.

Longtime executive chef Henry Haller also described the First Lady’s preferences to the New York Times in 1987. “The platters we make are fancier. We spend more time on them,” he explained. “With the Reagans, you have to be more creative.”

Next: The following president had a thing for this grain.

8. Gerald Ford absolutely loved wild rice

Wild rice | iStock/Getty Images

The Washington Post points out that either Ford or his chef had a real wild rice fascination. The grain appeared on state dinner menus almost constantly. Ford served it to prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of Italy, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel came to visit, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany, and many others.

Next: The following White House resident had more liquid preferences.

9. Thomas Jefferson cared more about the wine cellar

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The third president might have served as the country’s first true wine connoisseur, according to NPR. After discovering French wine on a trip abroad, Jefferson ordered bottles of it directly from the best vineyards. He also grew grapes and kept an extensive wine cellar at his Monticello estate.

At the White House, he often drank four glasses a night and served four to six wines with every meal. Wine tasters would have loved his state dinners.
Next: Whatever changes at the White House, some things also remain the same.

10. This chef spent more time there than any president

Chef Henry Haller with Betty Ford

First Lady Betty Ford and Chef Henry Haller Planning White House Dinners | National Archives

Haller cooked for five presidents, spending 21 years as the longest-running White House executive chef in history. He later wrote a cookbook to commemorate his time in the kitchen.

Born in Switzerland, Haller reigned over everything from a formal dinner for Vietnam veterans to a quiet Mother’s Day dinner for Nancy Reagan. With that tenure, Haller became more of a fixture in the White House kitchen than some of the actual equipment.

Next: The following White House chef also made history.

11. The current executive chef has a historical place, too

White House Chef

White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

According to The Daily Meal, Cristeta Comerford has served as the executive chef at the White House kitchen for 12 years. She has the honor of serving as the first woman in the role, as well as the first Asian person.

Born in the Philippines, Comerford emigrated to the U.S. in 1985, at 23. Today, presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both eaten her creations.

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