Eat Like a Commander-in-Chief: 15 President-Approved Recipes
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to eat like a president? So did Poppy Cannon. The food editor at Ladies Home Journal and author of The Can Opener Cookbook was inspired to write a presidential cookbook by her friend Eleanor Roosevelt; she even dedicated the tome, The Presidents’ Cookbook: Practical Recipes from George Washington to the Present, to the former First Lady. Published in 1968, the book, co-written with Patricia Brooks, includes not just recipes, but everything you could ever want to know about how chief executives up to Lyndon B. Johnson entertained. Here are 15 recipes, updated by Cannon for modern chefs, that will help you eat like a commander in chief this Presidents Day.
1. INDIAN HOE CAKES // GEORGE WASHINGTON
Hoe cakes—which were baked on a hoe in an open hearth—were among our first president’s favorite foods. Washington typically ate three small hoe cakes for breakfast with tea and honey. This recipe will serve 4 to 6 people.
Water-ground white cornmeal
Melted lard or other shortening
“Combine the cornmeal (1 cup) with ½ teaspoon of salt. Add 1 tablespoon lard or shortening and enough boiling water to make dough that is solid enough to hold a shape. Form the dough into 2 thin oblong cakes and place them in a hot, well-greased heavy pan (not a hoe today). Bake in a preheated moderately hot (375°F) oven for about 25 minutes. Serve the cakes hot.”
2. DUTCH WAFFLES // THOMAS JEFFERSON
The widely-traveled Jefferson was a big fan of foreign foods. (And wine: In his eight years as president, he spent nearly $11,000 on it, according to Cannon.) He couldn't bear to live without the delicious European dishes he'd gotten used to, so when Jefferson returned stateside after his role as minister to France ended in 1789, he brought recipes back with him. He also brought back a waffle iron, which he had purchased after eating the tasty treats for the first time in Holland. This recipe, which makes six waffles, “is Jefferson’s but has been updated,” Cannon writes.
“Separate 3 eggs and beat the yolks vigorously. Add 1 cup cream, beating all the time. Sift together 1 cup flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, and 4 teaspoons baking powder. Add to the egg-cream mixture and beat altogether with an electric or rotary beater. Beat until smooth. In a small bowl beat the egg whites until stiff and dry, fold them into the batter, and put into the refrigerator 30 minutes or longer. Preheat waffle iron and bake waffles until lightly browned and crisp. Serve piping hot with butter, maple syrup, sour cream, or honey.”
3. FLOATING ISLAND // ANDREW JACKSON
Andrew Jackson’s most infamous White House party dish was, without a doubt, the 1400-pound block of cheese that was served at his last public reception. (The damage from the event was so bad, according to Cannon, that cheese was crushed into the carpet and curtains and smeared on the walls of the White House. The next president, Martin van Buren, secured $27,000 from Congress in part to clean up the mess, Cannon says.) At other occasions, Jackson might have served a dish called the Floating Island. Variations of this dessert were popular all over the South; this recipe, which serves 8 to 10, comes from the kitchen of Jackson’s Tennessee home, the Hermitage.
Plain boiled custard
Almond or vanilla flavoring
“Cover the bottom of a large bowl with sponge cake, either whole or broken into pieces. Sprinkle 1 cup chopped blanched almond over the cake. Then sprinkle 1 tablespoon sherry over all. Take 1 quart Boiled Custard, flavored with almond or vanilla flavoring, and pour it over the top of the bowl. Then top with a generous amount of whipped cream and dab bits of currant jelly on the whipped cream. Serve directly from the bowl.”
4. PICKLED OYSTERS // MARTIN VAN BUREN
According to Cannon, our eighth president was fond of oysters prepared pretty much any way (especially raw with wine, which is how he once served them to Aaron Burr). This dish would have been served as an appetizer.
“Cook 1 gallon shucked raw oysters in their own liquor until the edges begin to curl. Drain them, but save the liquor. Rinse the oysters in cold water and pat them dry. Put them aside. Add 2 bay leaves, 1 red-pepper pod, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns, and 1 teaspoon each whole cloves, mace, and allspice to the oyster liquor. Measure the liquor and add the same amount of cider vinegar. Bring the mixture to a boil, then add 1 sliced lemon. Pour the mixture over the oysters. Pack in hot sterilized jars. Seal.”
5. SPICED CRABAPPLES // ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Cannon notes that historians have claimed that our 16th president was indifferent to food. Lincoln's bodyguard said he was a "hearty eater," though, and Honest Abe did have a few favorite dishes, including apples. According to Cannon, this dish—which wasn’t a dessert, but a side—was a Lincoln favorite.
Cloves, mace, cinnamon
“Peel and cut in half 9 pounds crabapples. Place in a large kettle with 1 pint vinegar, 4 pounds sugar, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, 3 or 4 sticks of cinnamon, and a dash of mace. Boil about ½ hour, removing before apples become too soft. Put in sterilized jars and seal or, if you plan to use shortly, chill in the refrigerator.”
6. RICE PUDDING MELAH // ULYSSES S. GRANT
Grant was a big fan of rice pudding, and would often request it when the family dined. According to Cannon, the Grants’ steward, Melah, tried to inventively vary the dish, which sometimes showed up on the menu at official functions.
Cinnamon and nutmeg
“Measure ¾ cup long-grain rice into a saucepan. Add 1½ quarts milk and simmer very slowly until the rice is soft. Add 3 tablespoons butter, remove from heat, and cool. Meanwhile, beat 5 eggs well and stir them into the rice mixture. Add ½ cup sugar and mix carefully. Pour the mixture into a large greased baking pan and add ½ cup slivered almonds, mixing them gently into the pan. Bake in a medium-warm (325°F) oven until custard sets. Remove from the oven, sprinkle a mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg over the top and serve. Delicious either warm or chilled.”
7. RHODE ISLAND EELS // CHESTER ARTHUR
During Arthur's time as president, "His Accidency" (so-called because he became commander-in-chief after James Garfield's assassination) had, on average, one formal dinner a week. These meals had fewer courses than his predecessors enjoyed but more guests (Grant would entertain up to 36 people; Arthur upped attendance to 54). More than anything, Arthur enjoyed inviting a few close friends to dinner and having conversation until late in the night. This dish—which Cannon notes Arthur was “particularly keen on”—was sometimes served with coleslaw.
Lard or salad oil
“Cut the eels into pieces. Dip them into batter made of cornmeal and egg. The batter should be moist, so add just a little meal at a time. Preheat a deep skillet with lard or oil in it until very hot. Drop eel pieces in, one at a time, brown quickly, and turn. Remove and drain on absorbent paper. Serve hot.”
8. CORN SOUP // BENJAMIN HARRISON
To keep up with all of the demands that holding events at the White House entailed, Harrison hired a steward who had worked for many fancy hotels and at least one prince. But when they weren't entertaining, the Harrisons were fans of much simpler fare. Cannon writes that they were "a soup-loving family." This recipe, "a special favorite," serves 4 to 6.
Salt and pepper
“Cut enough fresh corn from the cob to make 2 cups. Boil this in boiling salted water very briefly—2 or 3 minutes. Add 2 sliced onions to 1 quart whole milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Slowly add the milk, a few spoonfuls at a time, to a roux made from 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons butter. Stir the mixture until smooth, add salt and pepper to taste. Then add the drained corn kernels. Simmer over a low fire for 10 to 12 minutes, but do not boil.”
9. HOT LOBSTER SALAD // WILLIAM MCKINLEY
This dish, popular in the Victorian era, was served at the McKinleys’ silver wedding anniversary party. (According to Cannon, the two-day event was thrown to prove that Ida McKinley, an epileptic, could withstand the rigors of social entertaining at the White House.)
“Boil 2 large lobsters and split them open. Pick all the meat from the shells and cut it into 1-inch lengths, as much the same size as possible. Put the lobster meat in a saucepan on high heat, adding a dash of salt, ½ teaspoon red pepper, and 2 medium-size truffles cut into small pieces. Cook 5 minutes, stirring often to keep from burning. Add ⅓ cup Madeira and continue cooking until ½ the wine disappears. Beat 3 egg yolks with ½ pint cream until light. Add to the lobster, stir until it thickens. Pour the lobster mixture into a hot bowl and serve piping hot. Good on toast triangles.”
10. STUFFED CUCUMBERS // THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Like the Harrisons, the Roosevelts much preferred simple food to the fancy stuff. They were "a comfortably affluent family who could eat what they liked," Cannon writes. "What they liked happened to be simple ... good simplicity in hearty helpings." At home at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelts dined on cucumbers from their family garden in many variations. This recipe serves six.
Salt and pepper
“Cut 4 young but large cucumbers into 12 cup-shaped pieces. Scoop out the insides. Skin 3 tomatoes by placing them in boiling water for just a moment. Scoop out their insides as well. Chop 2 apples, ½ pound celery, ½ pound walnuts, and the tomato shells. Mix well and add 2 tablespoons mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon chili sauce, and ½ tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and stuff the cucumbers with this mixture. Top the cucumber with a dash of mayonnaise (or sour cream, if you prefer). Finely chopped walnuts may be sprinkled on top of the mayonnaise if you like.”
11. PEACH SALAD // WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT
It might seem counterintuitive for a guy who was so rotund that it was rumored he got stuck in a bathtub, but Taft was fond of salads. This particular dish, Cannon writes, “was held in high esteem.”
“Place ½ canned or fresh peach on a lettuce bed. Fill the cavity with washed white grapes. Make a ball of cream cheese as the topping.”
12. CURRY OF VEAL // CALVIN COOLIDGE
Silent Cal often served this dish with mango chutney at luncheons and on trips down the Potomac in the presidential yacht. This recipe will serve four.
Chicken stock or beef stock
“Chop 1 pound lean veal very fine; add 1 beaten egg and salt and pepper to taste. Roll in small balls and fry in deep fat for a few minutes, until brown. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in skillet, blend in 3 tablespoons curry powder and 2 tablespoons flour and cook until slightly browned. Carefully blend in 4 cups chicken or beef stock, stirring until thickened. Drop veal balls into skillet, stirring carefully to avoid breaking. Just before serving, add ¼ cup cream. Serve on rice.”
13. EGG TIMBALES // HERBERT HOOVER
Hoover loved this dish so much that, according to Cannon, he often asked for seconds. This recipe serves six.
Tomato or cheese sauce
“Scald 1 cup rich milk and pour it over 3 slightly beaten eggs. Add salt, pepper, and paprika to taste. Pour the mixture into timbale molds or custard cups and place them in a pan of hot water. Bake in a slow (325°F) oven for 20 minutes. Serve in a ring on a warm platter, bordered with cooked rice and with a bowl of cheese or tomato sauce in the center.”
14. CHAFING DISH SCRAMBLED EGGS // FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT
Eleanor herself would make these eggs, which were served at Roosevelt Sunday dinners, using a silver chafing dish. Though seemingly basic, Cannon proclaimed the eggs “superior.” This recipe will make enough for three servings.
“Melt 1 tablespoon butter in pan. Stir in 6 eggs lightly beaten with 3 tablespoons cream. Add ½ teaspoon salt and cook and stir gently until softly firm.”
15. OLD-FASHIONED BEEF STEW FOR 60 // DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
Eisenhower liked to cook simple dishes, and beef stew was a specialty. According to Cannon, “although he had help from the staff in preparing the vegetables, he was there in the kitchen in his favored apron, stirring, tasting, seasoning” when he made this dish. (He also had a pared down version of the recipe that he prepared for smaller get-togethers.)
Beef cut for stew
Small Irish potatoes
“Stew 20 pounds beef in 3 gallons beef stock until partially tender, about 2½ hours. Season and add 8 pounds peeled potatoes, 6 bunches scraped carrots, 5 pounds peeled onions, 15 quartered tomatoes, and a bouquet garni (bay leaf, parsley, garlic, thyme tied in a cheesecloth bag). When vegetables are tender, strain off 2 gallons of stock and thicken with enough flour to make a medium-thick sauce. Remove cheesecloth bag, add thickened gravy to the meat and vegetables, season to taste with salt and pepper and cook for another half hour.”