Americans have been asking for presidential recipes for about as long as we've had presidents.
Many of these requests, and the recipes themselves, become part of the presidential archives at both the National Archives in Washington and the 13 presidential libraries across the country, including the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station and the still under-construction George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas.
When archivists were putting together "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet," an exhibit at the National Archives that runs through Jan. 3, they decided to publish a companion cookbook, "Eating with Uncle Sam" ($34.95, D Giles Limited), which features more than 60 recipes from first families dating back to Herbert Hoover.
"It's a connection they can make to the presidency, a human connection to the White House," says Patty Mason, director of publications with the Foundation for the National Archives who helped put together "Eating with Uncle Sam."
Food seems to transcend politics. "It is the great bipartisan connector," Mason says. "People love food, they love to talk about food, they love to eat food. It's like if you're talking about the weather or baseball."
Like the exhibit in Washington, the book features far more than just presidential recipes. Many of the dishes are from government manuals and publications that tried to help families cook within the limitations of wartime rations. For example, the recipe for Apple Brown Betty from a 1918 publication called "Sweets Without Sugar" uses corn syrup instead of sugar, and a handful of potato dishes came from a U.S. Food Administration work called "Potato Possibilities." "What we found was information on how do you make meatless meals or without using a lot of wheat," Mason says, topics that were surprisingly relevant today, but not because of food rationing.
But the real personality of the book comes in the presidential recipes, which even include a few from the Obama family.
"What we were looking for were recipes that said something about the area of the country where the families are from," she says, such as Ronald Reagan's persimmon pudding or Jimmy Carter's peanut brittle.
These recipes, from Hoover's sour cream cookies to President Bill Clinton's roasted rack of lamb with pumpkin thyme crust, capture a vivid time and a place in American history. Pedernales River chili, pickled okra, deer sausage, hush puppies and King Ranch casserole say as much about the Johnsons as the New England fish chowder says about the Kennedys. (Like the "Perdenales" chili, which was served at the press opening of the National Archives exhibit this summer, this dish doesn't taste the same unless you call it "chowda.")
Tex-Mex is clearly a favorite of the entire Bush family. In "Eating with Uncle Sam," you'll find instructions from Barbara Bush for making Mexican Mound, an assemble-it-yourself nacho buffet, and Laura Bush's guacamole, a frequently requested recipe that the White House printed on cards that could be sent out.
Mason says that Lady Bird Johnson had a "treasure trove" of family recipes that she liked to share. One of the most widely circulated was the family's chili, which was also distributed on cards and official letterhead. The recipe - created by longtime family cook Zephyr Wright, who moved with them to the White House - doesn't live on so much for its culinary superiority but because it helps us hold onto the sense of place and nostalgia of rural life that the Johnson family lived on their famous ranch.
Marge Morton, who was Lady Bird Johnson's social secretary from 1976 to 1990, remembers those days well. Even though she started working with the family after they left the White House, she says Mrs. Johnson continued to receive requests for her recipes for many years after moving back to Texas. "She was greatly flattered that they would be interested," Morton says. (A number of recipes both in the book and not in the book are posted on the Johnson Presidential Library's website, which you can find at bit.ly/ladybirdrecipes).
As for the chili, Morton says it was President Johnson's favorite, not hers. "I hate to burst that bubble," she says.
Morton says that one of Mrs. Johnson's favorite dishes to serve was a picadillo dip with ground beef, cinnamon and raisins, but what she served most frequently was peach preserves, which were on the table at all three meals of the day, Morton says.
Johnson also made a point to tell guests when they were eating food grown in the large garden she tended at the ranch. "She would say, `The beans tonight are from the garden, y'all.' It was endearing to people who had come from New York and Washington."
Anne Wheeler, archivist at the LBJ library at the University of Texas, says that the library hasn't done a food-specific exhibit, but Mrs. Johnson's White House china, which is covered in - you guessed it - wildflowers, is on permanent exhibit.
President Johnson's Pedernales River Chili
4 lb. chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground oregano
1 tsp. comino seed (whole cumin seed)
6 tsp. chili powder, or more, if needed
1½ cups canned whole tomatoes
2-6 generous dashes liquid hot sauce
Salt to taste
2 cups hot water
Place meat, onion and garlic in large, heavy pan or Dutch oven. Cook until light in color. Add oregano, comino seed, chili powder, tomatoes, hot sauce, salt and hot water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off fat during cooking.
- Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum
Cinco De Mayo Chilled Avocado Soup with Serrano-flavored Crabmeat
3 ripe avocados
1 lime, juiced
1/3 cup peeled cucumber purée
1 cup light chicken stock
1 pint fat-free buttermilk
Fine sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
Yucatán Sunshine habañero pepper sauce, to taste
½ lb. fresh lump crabmeat, cleaned
1 serrano pepper, finely diced
2 Tbsp. red bell pepper. finely diced
2 Tbsp. cilantro, coarsely chopped
Cut avocados in half and remove pits. Scoop out the flesh and put in a blender, add half of the lime juice, cucumber purée, half the buttermilk and chicken stock, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a little hot pepper sauce. Pulse the blender slowly to purée everything. Add more buttermilk and chicken stock until you receive a smooth consistency. Adjust the seasoning to your taste (avocado does need some salt added). Refrigerate for an hour. Mix crabmeat with some lime juice, serrano pepper, red pepper, and pinch of salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into chilled bowls, put a tablespoon of crab mixture on top, and sprinkle with chopped cilantro to finish. Makes 6 servings
- George W. Bush Presidential Library
Barbara Bush's Red, White and Blue Cobbler
For blueberry filling:
¼ cup sugar
½ Tbsp. cornstarch
½ tsp. lemon juice
2 cups fresh or frozen unsweetened blueberries
Mix sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan and add all other ingredients. Cook until thickened. Put into 8-inch-by-8-inch Pyrex pan and keep hot in a 250 degree oven while making cherry filling
For cherry filling:
1 can sour pie cherries
½ cup + 2 Tbsp. sugar
1½ Tbsp. cornstarch
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. almond extract
In a saucepan, mix dry ingredients. Gradually stir in juice from canned cherries and cook until thickened, adding cherries and flavorings at the end. Smooth cherry filling over blueberry mixture. Keep hot while making topping.
1 cup flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. shortening
½ cup milk
Mix dry ingredients and shortening until it is like fine crumbs. Stir in milk and drop by spoonfuls onto hot filling. Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until brown. Serve topped with vanilla ice cream.
- George Bush Presidential Library and Museum