President Obama doesn’t make the list — the word is still out — though he seems to be showing promising enthusiasm for this peach. (credit: Democratic National Committee)
It’s too early to predict whether Barack Obama is going to be one of our greatest foodie presidents, though the signs are good: Michelle planted a garden at the White House and seems concerned about school lunches, while the prez himself is inordinately fond of pizza, chili, toasted cheese sandwiches, and — gasp! — spinach and broccoli. (Compare him with George H.W. Bush, who famously hated broccoli, and Bill Clinton, who loved Big Macs.) When he and the first lady came to New York, they dined at Blue Hill, one of the city’s foremost market-driven restaurants, telegraphing their dedication to sustainability — at least for publicity purposes.
But — you might be surprised to learn — there were at least five presidents even more obsessed with food, including at least one locavore. Caution: In offering this list, we judge the presidents only on their interest in food — independent of whatever political peccadilloes they displayed. A good eater doesn’t always mean a good president.
5. Lyndon Johnson (36th president, 1963-67) wasn’t a gourmet — in fact, he was something of the opposite. Yet he took so much pleasure in eating that he falls among our most food-preoccupied leaders. He was fond of entertaining the press and visiting dignitaries at his ranch in Stonewall, in the Texas Hill Country, where he would often serve giant Tex-Mex buffets. Playing a sort of trick on his guests, he would have the food made super-spicy, the way he liked it himself, and then stand back and guffaw as his tender-tongued dining companions sputtered and turned red.
Predictably, he loved nothing more than barbecue, with pork ribs his special favorite. The LBJ Library on the University of Texas campus keeps a list of the foods he liked best, and it includes chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, spicy deer sausage served with scrambled eggs and grits, and anything made with peaches — a major crop west of the ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas — including peach cobbler and peach ice cream, washed down with root beer or Cutty Sark.
4. Andrew Jackson (seventh president, 1829-37) was a military man, a hero of the War of 1812 so famous for his toughness that he was known as “Old Hickory.” He was also skinny as hell, standing six feet one inch, but never weighing more than 140. Yet, paradoxically, he was an effete gourmet, installing a French chef in the White House and drinking French wines almost exclusively. It was said of him, “He was as familiar with the fine art of cooking as he was with the fine art of hunting men in war.”
Food historian Terry Ford further noted, “He kept a horseshoe-shaped table in the state dining room. He had the finest china, silver and furniture for the East Room. People called him King Andrew because of the magnificence of his culinary banquets.” These feasts would include many of his favorite dishes — leg of lamb flavored with rosemary, raw Blue Point oysters on the half shell, braised wild duck, and fricasseed rabbits, which were abundant at the Hermitage, his Tennessee estate. But he also liked rustic dishes that reflected his frontier roots, including “leather britches” (green beans cooked with bacon) and fried apple pies.
He might also be called the Cheese President, because he kept wheels and wheels of it around the White House and served cheese at every party. For his second inauguration, he was given a 1,400-pound loaf of cheese by his admirers.
3. William Howard Taft (27th president, 1909-13) was, at 332 pounds, the nation’s fattest president. Taft was so rotund, he once got stuck in the White House bathtub, and it took four guys to pull him out. Afterward, he got a much bigger bathtub. (The part of the story that says he had the bathtub put in the White House backyard is, unfortunately, not true.)
There is no question that Taft was a glutton, and his tastes ran to lengthy meals featuring multiple meats, fishes, and fowls in rotation. Here is his typical input for one day: breakfast — grapefruit, potted partridge, broiled venison, grilled partridge, waffles with maple syrup and butter, hominy, hot rolls, bacon, and more venison; lunch — bouillon, smelts with tartar sauce, lamb chops, Bermuda potatoes, green peas, and, for dessert, raspberry jelly with whipped cream, salted almonds, bonbons, and coffee; dinner — lobster stew, salmon cutlets with peas, roast cold tenderloin with vegetable salad, and cold tongue and ham, followed by frozen pudding, cake, fruit, and coffee.
He also had a profound sweet tooth, and most meals offered several desserts. At the Inaugural Ball Supper on March 4, 1909, the menu featured six savory items in two separate courses and 13 sweets in three courses, starting with a choice of ice creams.
Taft served only one term, but the story has a happy ending: After leaving the presidency, he shed 80 pounds; became a professor of law at Yale; founded the League to Enforce Peace, a forerunner of the United Nations; and eventually was appointed the chief justice of the United States. As Taft was sworn in, he’s reported to have said, “I don’t remember that I ever was president.”
2. James Buchanan (15th president, 1857-61) might have been our first gay president. Flamboyant of style, unmarried (his niece, Harriet Lane, served as the first lady), and an epicurean in every sense, Buchanan installed a Frenchman named Gautier as his personal chef, and caterer for his banquets.
Due partly to his Pennsylvania upbringing, Buchanan preferred a combination of French and Pennsylvania Dutch (German-American) food at the lavish banquets he threw, sometimes paying the expenses out of his own pocket. According to The First Ladies Cook Book (by Margaret Klapthor, Parents Magazine Press, 1982), “Buchanan was so particular about the quality of his food that he had fresh butter sent him regularly from Philadelphia in a locked brass-bound kettle.”
At one notable banquet in commemoration of the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1857, 5,000 revelers were served eight rounds of beef, 75 hams, 60 saddles of mutton, four saddles of venison, 400 gallons of oysters, five quarts of jellies, 1,200 quarts of ice cream in assorted flavors, and large quantities of patés. Buchanan’s favorite dishes included turtle soup, boiled lobster, calf’s head, scrapple, sauerbraten, chicken salad, duck un kraut, succotash, peach charlotte, and grape pie.
Alas, history has not been kind to President Buchanan. He allowed slavery to be extended into the territories, and did nothing statesmanlike to forestall the Civil War. But was he gay? Apparently there is little doubt. His longtime companion was William Rufus King, who was sometimes referred to as Buchanan’s wife, or “Aunt Fancy,” and when King was appointed envoy to France in 1844, Buchanan complained to a friend, “I have gone wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them.”
1. Thomas Jefferson (third president, 1801-09) has no competition when it comes to top foodie president; in fact, he was the Alice Waters of his age. His work on the plantings at his Monticello estate alone would garner him weekly coverage in food blogs all over the country.
Jefferson developed a taste for fine wines while studying at the College of William & Mary. As minister plenipotentiary to France right after the Revolutionary War, he attended dinner parties frequented by Parisian gourmands, and had one of the enslaved Africans who accompanied him trained as a French chef. He made extensive trips around the French countryside collecting wines, and had them sent back to the States to fill out his cellars. During this era, he proclaimed, “We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
At his Monticello plantation he kept a concrete-lined pond for fresh eels. Over the course of many years, he supervised the growing of 170 varieties of fruit and 330 of vegetables, planting 27 varieties of kidney bean alone. He scoured the earth for new varieties of seeds that would grow well in the Virginia climate, even directing Lewis and Clark to collect seeds for him as they pressed westward. Jefferson kept the details of the growth of these plants in a series of notebooks, and succeeded in introducing eggplant and sugar snap peas to the United States, among other plants. Needless to say, most of the work in the gardens was accomplished by slaves.
In fact, such was Jefferson’s love of vegetables that he became a quasi-vegetarian, writing in 1819, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.” Jefferson particularly liked tomatoes, and grew dozens of varieties. Recipes written by a relative indicate some of the uses he put them to: gumbo (okra) soups, cayenne-spiced tomato soup, green tomato pickles, tomato preserves, and tomato omelets.