History buff and former visiting chef and culinary advisor to the White House, John R. Hanny, spills on presidential eating habits and on some of the most powerful first ladies.
For more secrets from the White House and to view designs by some of our first ladies, check out White House China from our friends at Homesessive.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The food surrounding FDR's presidency was very simple and homey. This trend continued on through Truman and Eisenhower's terms. "In those days people ate on TV tables and played bridge after," said Hanny. Roosevelt, like most presidents between President Monroe and President Kennedy's administrations, brought his own cook from home with him to the White House.
"Ike just really liked good, old-fashion foods," says Hanny. He had an affinity for stews and was a stanch meat eater. After leaving the White House, Eisenhower raised cattle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
According to Hanny, Kennedy used to play tag with his son, John F. Kennedy Jr., and would often chase him through one of the White House's kitchens. As he was running through, he'd stick his finger in a pot to taste what was cooking. "If he came back and stuck two fingers in, you’d know you did a good days work," says Hanny.
Still, Kennedy "really wasn’t a huge eater," he explains. "He just liked good food and lots of different things on the plate -- just like the French people do." Kennedy's favorite dishes were Boeuf Bourguignon and chowder.
When the Kennedys came to the White House, they brought back "French protocols" that had been missing since the days of Washington and Jefferson. Jackie Kennedy played a huge role in this, bringing in her favorite chef, René Verdon. The culinary model in the White House today is widely based on the changes Kennedy made while in the White House.
"One of the things that Mrs. Kennedy loved, as thin as she was, were potatoes suzette (today we might call these twice-baked potatoes)," explains Hanny. "It's [made] with butter, heavy cream, egg yolk, salt, pepper, grated Parmesan cheese, chives, and a little bit of anchovy paste."
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Lyndon B. Johnson
Johnson loved Southwest, Mexican and barbecue cuisine and despised fish. When he took over for President Kennedy, Jackie's beloved chef, René Verdon, was still working in the White House kitchen. Johnson decided to keep him on the job until Verdon, fed up with Johnson's non-French eating habits, told the press of his distaste for the president's diet. "Johnson walked right down into the kitchen and fired him," explains Hanny.
"Nixon had a real appetite for sweets (and scotch)," says Hanny. "I created a dish [for him on] a day when he needed some sweetening up: apricot coconut balls." Hanny used to pack a few fruity ingredients together into little balls to form a non-bake cookie. "He had them everyday until he resigned, with his coffee in the morning."
When it wasn't sweets, Nixon also enjoyed an unusual culinary combination: "If he would eat veal, he wanted cottage cheese with it and a bottle of ketchup."
Try these No-Bake Cookies. They only require five ingredients: peanut butter, honey, coconut, graham crackers and raisins.
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"Reagan appreciated chicken and beef," says Hanny. These favored foods likely came from his mid-western roots. He had a huge appetite and had a special weakness for chocolate mousse, which the kitchen used to make for him three-inches thick.
"Nancy and President Reagan had one of the most beautiful love affairs I've ever seen or heard of in my life," Hanny explains. "She was very concerned about his image." If she ever went out of town, the first lady would head to the kitchen and plan out meals for the president because she didn't want him to gain weight. The chefs would most often ignore the request once the president asked what was for dinner. The staff would instead make him thick porter house steaks and au gratin potatoes while she was away.
Image Credit: PH1 Harry Gerwien/National Archives/MCT
When Clinton was first elected, he used to go out for a jog and run right through a McDonald's drive-thru to pick up some grub to bring home. Once an avid meat eater, Clinton became a vegetarian and now practices a vegan diet.
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"In the old days you could use frozen vegetables or canned vegetables and doctor them up," says Hanny. "You can’t do that today, and that’s because of Michelle Obama’s influence." The chef is seeing her influence at his family's restaurant where today, they are selling tremendous amounts of salmon and vegetables.
As a couple, the Obamas are foodies. They travel far and wide to simply have a date night with a good dinner.
John R. Hanny, the author of Secrets from the White House Kitchens, made his way to the White House at age 22 with a unique opportunity to interview the Kennedys and famed chef René Verdon, who worked in their kitchen, for a food journal in Canada. The young man, who worked at his father's restaurant in Buffalo at the time, had a rather unusual interest in knowing what foods heads of state liked and disliked. The interview with Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy lasted for an unexpected 45 minutes, and his talk with Verdon led to a fast friendship. He started training under Verdon and by age 23, Hanny was coming back to the White House whenever needed as a visiting chef and food and wine consultant.
The chef worked closely with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on all things culinary and went on to advise six administrations as a visiting chef. In his first cookbook, Secrets from the White House Kitchens, Hanny uncovers untold stories of the presidents -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Barack Obama -- and their relationships with food. It also houses both White House recipes and personal recipes of the presidents and their families. A White House photographer captured the book's food imagery, and the food was all plated on White House china for a fully authentic experience.
When Kitchen Daily sat down with Hanny, the chef let us in on a few of his secrets for cooking White House-quality dishes at home. The acclaimed chef recommends splurging a bit for the very best product to ensure the very best outcome. When possible, he recommends buying food that's fresh (never frozen) and organic. When buying chicken specifically, buy free-range.
The culinary expert also advises home chefs to experiment with cooking and explore food from different cultures and regions. "Be creative and try different foods; be adventurous," Hanny explains, and when in doubt, turn to a good cookbook or even a food show. "The best teachers on television, I think, are Paula Deen, Mario [Batali], and even Bobby Flay," he says.
If there is one culinary mindset Hanny truly stands behind, it is that the old-fashioned techniques work best. He advises to steer clear of mixers when cooking (baking is a different story) and to do all mixing or, as he prefers, "folding," by hand, even when making a sauce. Similarly, when chopping herbs, like parsley, he advises using a knife as opposed to a blender in which "it loses a lot."
Retired from his White House work, Hanny is looking forward with excitement to Monday's inauguration and with particular intrigue as to what will be served for the occasion.