A Hungry Nation Wants to Know: What's for Dinner at the White House?

Cristeta Comerford may be an advocate of healthful eating, but she won't be the only chef in the White House kitchen after the Obamas arrive.
Cristeta Comerford may be an advocate of healthful eating, but she won't be the only chef in the White House kitchen after the Obamas arrive. (By Ron Edmonds -- Associated Press)
By Jennifer Huget
Monday, January 19, 2009

Advocates for healthful eating may have been disappointed to hear recently that the new first family won't be replacing the current White House chef with one who's dedicated to the whole food movement and organic gardening. (Not right away, at least.) That was probably a pragmatic move, allowing the new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to concentrate on more weighty matters, such as what breed of dog to get for his daughters.

The Obamas' choice to keep Cristeta Comerford (herself a proponent of healthful American cuisine) in the kitchen sends a signal that while White House eating is important, setting the tone for the nation is not likely to top the new president's agenda.

People such as chef Alice Waters and "In Defense of Food" author Michael Pollan had clamored quite publicly for Obama to take seriously his role as America's first eater. Those flames had been fanned by reports that Michelle Obama prefers to feed her family organic food, sometimes over the mild protest of her mother, Marion Robinson, who is joining them at the White House and will no doubt have some influence over the kids' diet -- at least when her daughter's not watching.

But is it really incumbent upon a president to serve as a model eater for the nation? Although those of us concerned with nutrition would be heartened by the new president's adopting that role, I'd just as soon see him succeed in kicking his smoking habit once and for all. And as a matter of human decency, the first family, living in a fishbowl that's also a pressure cooker, should be cut some slack. After a hard day of fighting terrorism and a global economic slump, you could be forgiven for grabbing a tub of Chunky Monkey and four spoons (or five, counting Grandma).

Whatever culinary path the Obamas take, their dining habits will certainly be scrutinized. People have been fascinated by what residents of the White House eat ever since there has been a White House; indeed, presidential dietary preferences have been noted since even before the White House was built (it opened in 1801); George Washington, for example, had modest tastes but really loved fish.

While the menus of glamorous affairs of state have been duly documented by historians through the ages, it's the first family's more intimate, off-duty meals and personal food preferences that really pique our curiosity.

The Kennedy family made its mark on White House dining when Jacqueline Kennedy decided to put in a family kitchen near the bedrooms on the second floor, says Elizabeth Goldsmith. That allowed the Kennedys, with their two young children, to enjoy meals in an informal setting instead of at the long banquet tables downstairs, explains Goldsmith, a professor of personal finance at Florida State University who's also a historian of presidential inaugural luncheons.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson liked to eat from TV trays while watching "Gunsmoke," Goldsmith says. Richard Nixon was not a rich source of food anecdotes, as his tastes were apparently simple and not photogenic (cottage cheese, spaghetti and meatloaf). Nor was Gerald Ford known for his food interests: Goldsmith says the Fords "liked waffles."

There's no evidence that Jimmy Carter particularly preferred peanuts, though his legacy is forever wedded to that legume by virtue of his family's peanut-farming history. But there's concrete evidence that young Amy Carter, like so many other smart and socially awkward girls her age, read books at the dinner table.

Though they were sophisticated diners who knew how to throw an elegant party, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, like the Johnsons before them, liked their TV-tray dinners, too. There's something striking -- and kind of unsettling -- about the idea of the pair sitting in matching easy chairs, wearing their matching red-white-and-blue civvies, each with a TV tray. One wonders whether Nancy really chewed her food as thoroughly as she was rumored to (30 chews per grape, according to some sources).

Pity poor George H.W. Bush, the first and so far only American president to be caught on video losing his lunch. (Well, technically it was his dinner.) That incident -- in which Bush, struck by a gastrointestinal bug, fainted and vomited during a 1992 state dinner in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa -- made him the object of some ridicule but even more sympathy.

That Bush made the mistake of allowing that he didn't like broccoli. The broccoli farmers of America took immediate offense, delivering truckloads of the green crucifers to the White House in protest. Goldsmith says that taught subsequent presidents, and their handlers, not to make their food preferences public.

And yet we have heard that Barack Obama doesn't care for beets. (As with broccoli, beets are something that healthful-eating advocates would like the president to reconsider, as the humble beet is packed with so many nutrients and has so many culinary applications.)

While president, Bill Clinton took his responsibilities as eater-in-chief perhaps more lightly than he should have. Despite wife Hillary Rodham Clinton's landmark shift from French cuisine to American during her husband's tenure, her embrace of organic food and daughter Chelsea's going vegan during high school, Bill Clinton made no bones about his love of sweets and cheeseburgers and his predilection for late-night noshing, none of which exactly fit in the food pyramid. Since leaving office, though, Clinton has mended his ways (albeit after some health scares), losing a lot of weight and serving as a poster boy for midlife fitness.

Our departing president has always taken fitness seriously; he runs a respectable mile and outpaces his rivals on a mountain bike. And he's perhaps the country's most notable teetotaler, shunning alcohol (apparently his wife, Laura, even forbade alcohol to be used as an ingredient in food cooked at the White House) after having overindulged, by his own account, when he was younger. But the most striking food incident of his presidency was his choking on a pretzel while watching a football game in his White House bedroom; the unfortunate incident evoked more public scorn than sympathy.

We are certain to be treated to images and tales of White House culinary happenings in the months and years to come; surely the Obama daughters will be making snacks after school and enjoying family meals whenever their father is free to sit down. And while of course I join other interested parties throughout the food world in hoping that the White House will hew to a healthful eating regimen, I think we'll all understand if, every so often, the first family grabs a bucket of Buffalo wings, turns on "American Idol" and calls it a day.

Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer takes a nutrition-wise look at tomorrow's inaugural luncheon. Subscribe to the weekly Lean & Fit nutrition newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." Go to the Wednesday Food section to find Nourish, a new feature with a recipe for healthful eating every week. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.

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