President George H.W. Bush may have flip-flopped on a number of issues over his long political career, and he may have been tagged a wimp, most famously in a 1987 Newsweek cover story. But when it came to a certain cruciferous vegetable, the 41st president of the United States displayed the kind of backbone usually reserved for dictators and communist insurgents: He refused all invitations to sit down and eat broccoli.
At the mere mention of the vegetable’s name, Bush would immediately go all Dick Cheney. Throughout his life, Bush was a hawk at war with broccoli.
“I do not like broccoli,” Bush once said to the press, tongue somewhat in cheek. “And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m president of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”
The president, who died Friday in Texas at 94, uttered those words in 1990, not long after a reporter from U.S. News and World Report broke the story that Bush had banned the vegetable from Air Force One. Even the reporter, Ken Walsh, seemed surprised at the size and impact of his scoop. In a short piece 26 years after Bush confessed his loathing for broccoli, Walsh wrote, “That piece took on a life of its own and became one of the biggest stories of the Bush presidency.”
You may laugh at that statement, given that Bush, during his one-term presidency, also assembled an international coalition to battle Iraq, guided the country after the fall of the Soviet Union and, well, picked Dan “You Spell Potato with an ‘E’” Quayle to be his running mate. But nearly 30 years after Bush took his stand, it’s easy to forget the fallout (and the ridicule) that followed his stance on broccoli.
Mere days after his edict, Bush hosted a state dinner to honor Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the prime minister of Poland. Reporters noted that there was not a single floret of broccoli on the menu despite the fact that farmers sent a “10-ton shipment of the vegetable to Washington in protest of his earlier comment,” according to a Washington Post story on March 22, 1990.
When asked if she liked broccoli at the state dinner, first lady Barbara Bush replied, “You’re darn right I do. I love broccoli. We’re going to have broccoli soup, broccoli main dish, broccoli salad and broccoli ice cream.”
For his part, Mazowiecki was perplexed by BroccoliGate. According to The Post, the prime minister shrugged his shoulders, cocked an eyebrow and admitted, “I never even tasted broccoli.”
While much of the press corps took Bush’s comments at face value, the eminent Jonathan Yardley, former book critic for The Washington Post, suggested the president was rejecting his WASPy heritage by rejecting broccoli. Wrote Yardley, perhaps sardonically, perhaps not:
The essence of WASP cookery — talk about oxymorons! — is undercooked meat accompanied by overcooked vegetables, with no sauces more sophisticated than hollandaise or beef gravy. The vegetables of choice, if choice is the word for it, are beans and peas and spinach and broccoli; they follow each other in a rotation that is observed as faithfully as any ritual of the Episcopal Church, and with approximately as much joy.
This is because the principal lesson of WASP cookery, the lesson taught at preparatory schools from Maine to Virginia, is that life is to be endured, not enjoyed. Certain outsiders may think of the WASP existence as privileged and desirable — how else to explain Ralph Lauren? — but insiders know it as a lifelong hair shirt, donned the day Mummy first says, “Eat your floating island, dear,” and worn until the day when you chew your last bite of brown Betty and the shadows of evening enfold you . . .
Why do you eat it? Because you are a good little WASP and you do what Mummy told you to do. I eat broccoli once a week. I hate broccoli, but once a week I take a deep breath and eat it. I eat it on pasta, I eat it under a sauce of butter and mustard and capers, I eat it all mixed up with chicken and soy sauce and other wonders of Chinese cuisine — but any way you cook it, any way you slice or dice it, any way you crunch or munch it, it’s still broccoli, and I still hate it. Yet I keep right on eating it, and no doubt will continue to do so after they deposit me in the great broccoli patch in the sky.
But there may be other lenses through which to view Bush’s distaste for broccoli. A Texan by way of New England prep schools and Yale University, Bush easily slipped into the meat-and-potatoes (more like barbecue and white bread) bravado of the Lone Star State. To men of his generation, vegetable bashing was something of a sport, akin to calling someone’s manhood into question if he dared to prefer a bowl of greens over a flame-grilled steak, a marbled hunk of meat that arrived on your plate only after the toil of tough, bloodstained men on ranches and in slaughterhouses.
Yet even in the early 1990s, Bush was the one increasingly out of step with his fellow Americans, who were consuming more broccoli than ever. In a March 1994 story for the New York Times, the respected food writer Molly O’Neill noted that Bush, in denouncing broccoli, was “dismissing the taste of the incumbent generation.”
“American consumption of broccoli has soared, from 187 million pounds a year in the early 50s to five times that today,” O’Neill continued. “And this could not have happened without the approval of the generation responsible for America’s culinary revolution — the baby boomers.”
Fast forward almost 20 years to a Kids’ State Dinner in 2013 when President Obama told the gathered young ones that his favorite food was — you guessed it — broccoli. Then again, the dinner was hosted by first lady Michelle Obama, whose White House garden was a universal symbol for the kinds of healthy and locally grown foods that could help America’s children shed some extra pounds. Obama could not have mentioned hamburgers and pork chops — two of his faves — anymore than he could have said kids need to watch more TV.
But even Obama’s alleged endorsement — and the growing consensus that vegetable consumption is better for the environment than meat consumption — couldn’t persuade Bush to give broccoli a second chance. Nor could a 5-year-old named Cooper who wrote the former president a letter in 2016 that read in part: “Mr. President, broccoli is really good for you. I wish you liked broccoli like I do.”
Bush replied via his Twitter account, flashing his famous sense of humor and his usual intransigence on broccoli.
“Proud of young Cooper’s interest in healthy eating,” the president tweeted. “His declared love of broccoli is genuine, if also unpersuasive.”
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