Tuesday June 1, 2010
From Grub Street New York and The Village Voice: For all the attention that the Obama family gets for its food-savviness, Barack doesn't even crack into the top five gastronomically notable presidents. According to the Village Voice, proto-locavore Thomas Jefferson was "the Alice Waters of his age" and grew 500 varieties of fruit and vegetables on his Monticello estate, traveled France in order to fill his wine cellar, and championed the then-zygotic American wine industry. Also cracking the top five are Lyndon Johnson, a barbecue fan who liked to prank his guests with super-spicy Mexican food; Andrew Jackson, who kept "wheels and wheels" of cheese in the White House at all times; William Howard Taft, whose breakfasts had as many courses as a dinner at Per Se; and James Buchanan, who once served up 1,200 quarts of ice cream at a single party.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.