Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents Day: A Political & Culinary American Portrait

Presidents’ Day is an American holiday celebrated on the third Monday in February. Originally established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington, it's still officially called 'Washington’s Birthday' by the U.S. federal government. Traditionally celebrated on February 22, Washington’s actual day of birth, the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved in 1971 to create a long weekend in February for American families. While several states still have individual holidays honouring the birthdays of Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other figures, Presidents’ Day is now a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present, and maybe a time to take a light-hearted look at some their culinary rather than patriotic passions.

President Obama is a fan of ice cream

It may be too early to predict whether President Obama is going to be one of the great foodie presidents, but the signs are good. Recently, Michelle Obama told Paula Deen that one of her husband's favourite foods aside from pizza, toasted cheese sandwiches and ice cream, is chili, which prompted endless unsolicited recipes to the presidential inbox. But aside from a craving for chili, the prez's plate also includes tons of veggies given the First Lady's campaign to get everyone in the country to eat better. The White House chefs source local, seasonal, and organic ingredients whenever possible. In fact, most of what winds up on the First Family's table is grown right there in the White House Kitchen Garden, including honey produced by the resident beekeeper.

LBJ enjoying a barbecued rib with his VP

Lyndon Johnson wasn't a gourmet either, yet he loved nothing more than barbecue, with pork ribs his special favourite. He was fond of entertaining the press and visiting dignitaries at his ranch in Texas, where he'd often serve giant Tex-Mex buffets. Sometimes playing a trick on his guests, he'd have the food made super-spicy, the way he liked it himself, and then stand back and smile as his "tender-tongued dining companions sputtered and turned red". The LBJ Library keeps a list of the foods he liked best, and includes chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, spicy deer sausage served with scrambled eggs and grits, and anything made with peaches. Also, Johnson's love of Fresca was so deep that a soda dispenser was even installed in the Oval Office.

LBJ at one of his pork rib buffets at his ranch in Stonewall, Texas

Ronald Reagan will always be associated with jelly beans, which he started eating when he gave up smoking in the early 1960's. It may not have been his favourite food but he was certainly well known for them — licorice-flavoured ones, in fact. He kept a jar of jelly beans on his desk in the Oval Office and on Air Force One during his two terms, from 1980 to 1988. "You can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful." His sweet tooth went beyond candy to macaroni and cheese, pumpkin pecan pie, ice cream, and a whole lot of chocolate: chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies, and Nancy's fudge brownies. Reagan’s other favourite foods, according to the Reagan archives at the University of Texas, also included carrot cake, cornbread dressing, eggplant lasagna, meatloaf, split pea soup, monkey bread and hamburgers.

Chowing down at a McDonald's in Alabama - a big one for the Gipper.

As the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton was known as an enthusiastic eater of all sorts of unhealthy foods, often frequenting Doe’s Eat Place in Little Rock, where he often ate greasy jalapeño cheeseburgers and later, while on the campaign trail, loved to indulge in doughnuts and fried chickenAccording to White House chefs, Clinton would "down five or six pork chops" at a fairly typical dinner, and despite allergies to flour and chocolate, was an especially avid eater of cake, once eating half a strawberry cake in one sitting. While in the White House, the President’s penchant for McDonald’s fast food was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, but since undergoing quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2004, Clinton became probably the most famous vegan in the world. 

Before his South Beach Diet, President Bill Clinton 
finds himself in hot dog heaven with Hilary

The Kennedy's however, were very sophisticated about food. "They liked to eat well, and they understood the meaning of good taste." Jacqueline stepped up the quality of White House cuisine with the help of Chef René Verdun, who was the chef at the White House during the Kennedy ‘Camelot’ years, a time when classic French cuisine reigned supreme. It turns out John Kennedy wasn't a big foodie, and often had to be reminded that it was dinner time - politics always took preference over food. But he was particularly fond of soup, and true to his New England roots, creamy New England Fish 'Chowdah' was the presidents favourite, along with corn muffins, baked beans and ice cream with hot fudge.

Jackie Kennedy & John F Kennedy in Hyannis Port, their waterfront property 
on Cape Cod along Nantucket Sound, 1959

But let's not forget about America's founding fathers. Beyond their legacy as revolutionaries and politicians, they were first and foremost a group of farmers, passionate about the land and the bounty it produced. Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin penned original recipes, encouraged local production of beer and wine, but when it came to food, Thomas Jefferson was at the leading edge. Gourmet, scientist, traveler, farmer, diplomat, Jefferson was truly a Renaissance man, with a love for native foods and passion for foreign fare. Back in his day, he introduced many foods to the U.S. from his travels abroad, importing oil from Italy and mustard from France. He also introduced vanilla and macaroni to the U.S. and owned the first ice cream freezer on record. It's even believed that Jefferson introduced french fries to America after travelling back from Paris, for at a White House dinner “potatoes served in the French manner” were on the menu!

Thomas Jefferson

Each president presents a unique culinary account of their time: some were gourmets relishing classic French cuisine, others were "down home" simple eaters, while others viewed food as fuel or opportunities for cultural exchange. George Washington will always be associated with cherries, Jimmy Carter with peanuts and JFK with "Ich bin ein Berliner," meaning "I am a jelly doughnut." Historically, favoured recipes from heads of state also gave a nation insight into their past, such as Jefferson's French-inspired Monticello White Bean Soup, JFK's Fish Chowder, Ronny's Mac & Cheese and George Washington's Eggnog. Together, they help illustrate a unique gastronomic portrait of some of the colourful personalities who have helped shape America's culinary landscape over the years. Enjoy.

Thomas Jefferson's White Bean Soup
Serves 8
Recipe: The History Kitchen; photo Monica @ Sweetbites

4 cups dried great Northern or cannellini beans
16 cups water
Salt and pepper
2 large carrots, trimmed, peeled, and diced
2 small turnips, trimmed, peeled, and diced
1 medium parsnip, trimmed, peeled, and diced
3 large ribs of celery with leafy green tops, chopped
2-3 tbsp unsalted butter

4 slices rustic artisan bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick - traditional garnish
4 oz thick bacon or pancetta, cooked and crumbled
1/2 cup heavy cream
8 sprigs fresh parsley

Rinse and sort the beans, removing any stones or impurities. Drain the beans and put them in a large bowl, then cover by a few inches of cold water. Soak the beans overnight. 

Put the beans in a large pot and cover with 4 quarts of water and bring slowly to a simmer over medium heat, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Simmer gently until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Replenish the liquid with additional water as needed. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. Add the diced carrots and turnips and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the parsnip and celery and continue to simmer until all of the vegetables and beans are quite soft, 15-30 minutes longer. Taste the soup and adjust seasoning, adding more salt or pepper to taste, if desired. Use an immersion blender to blend the soup until it reaches the desired texture.

Serve hot ladled into warm soup bowls and garish with a swirl of cream, a sprinkle of crisp bacon and garnish with a sprig of parsley. The traditional garnish, would be toasted buttered bread cut into bite-sized croutons.

George Washington's Christmas Eggnog & Hoecakes
Makes 6 quarts
Recipe by George Washington, Mount Veron

"One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, 1/2 pint rye whiskey, 1/2 pint Jamaica rum, 1/4 pint sherry—mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 10 large eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently."

Mount Vernon Hoecakes
Serves 8
Recipe by Nelly Custis, George Washington' step-granddaughter

"George Washington often rose before sunrise, always wrote or read until 7 in summer or half past seven in winter. His breakfast was then ready – he ate three small mush cakes swimming in butter and honey, and drank three cups of tea without cream".

8 3/4 cups white cornmeal
1/4 tsp dry yeast
1 egg
Warm water
Shortening or other cooking grease
Honey & Butter

In large container, mix together 4 cups white cornmeal, 1 1/4 teaspoons dry yeast, and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter, probably 3-4 cups. Cover and set on the stove or counter overnight.Add cooking grease to a griddle or skillet and heat until water sprinkled onto it will bead up. In the morning, gradually add remaining cornmeal, egg and enough warm water to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter, about 3-4 cups. Cover and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes. Pour batter, by the spoonful, onto the hot griddle. When the hoecake is brown on one side, turn it over and brown the other. Serve warm with butter and honey.

LBJ Pedernales River Chili
Serves 12
Adapted from Lady Bird Johnson

4 lb ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp chile powder, or to taste
1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes, cut up
2 to 6 dashes hot sauce, or to taste
Salt to taste

Cook the meat, onion and garlic in a Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring, until lightly browned. Stir in the oregano, cumin, chile powder, tomatoes, hot sauce, salt and 2 cups hot water. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour, skimming off the fat as it cooks.

JFK's New England Fish Chowder
Serves 6
Recipe from the US National Archives

2 lb Haddock
2 oz salt pork, diced
2 onions, sliced
4 potatoes, diced
1 cup celery, chopped
1 Bay leaf, crumbled
1 quart milk
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Simmer haddock in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes, drain and reserve broth. Remove bones from fish.
Saute diced pork until crisp, remove and set aside. Saute onions in pork fat until golden brown. Add fish, potatoes, celery, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Pour in fish broth plus enough boiling water to make 3 cups of liquid. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add milk and butter nd simmer for 5 minutes. Serve chowder srinkled over pork dice.

President Obama's Favourite Chili
Serves 6

1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
2 -3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 lb ground beef
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground oregano
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp dried basil
1 tbsp chili powder
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 -3 tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
14 oz red kidney beans

grated cheddar cheese, onion and sour cream

Sauté onions, green pepper and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add ground beef and brown. Combine spices together into a mixture and then add to ground beef. Add red wine vinegar and tomatoes, and let simmer until tomatoes cook down. Add kidney beans and cook for a few more minutes. Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream.

Bill Clinton's Favourite Chicken Enchiladas
Makes 15 enchiladas
Recipe by Bill Clinton

1 tbsp olive oil
2 4 oz cans green chiles
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
2 cup onion, finely chopped
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried oregano
3 cups shredded cooked chicken
2 cups sour cream
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
15 6-inch tortillas - corn is best

In a large skillet over a medium-high heat, sauté the chillies and garlic in a small amount of oil. Drain the tomatoes, reserving cup of liquid. Break up tomatoes and add to skillet. Add the onion, 1 tsp salt, oregano, and reserved liquid. Simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the chicken, sour cream, cheese, and remaining 1 tsp salt. In the same skillet over a medium-high heat, heat cup oil. Dip the tortillas in the oil until they become limp and drain well on paper towels. Fill the tortillas with the chicken mixture; roll up and arrange side by side, seam side down, in a 9x13x2-inch baking dish. Pour the tomato mixture over the enchiladas. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes or until heated thoroughly.

Ronald Reagan's Favourite Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 4-6

1/2 lb. uncooked macaroni
1 tsp butter
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp dry mustard
1 cup warm milk
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, reserving 1/4 cup for topping

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a 2 quart casserole dish with non-stick coating. Cook macaroni in a pot of salted water until tender, drain. In a large mixing bowl, mix butter, egg, mustard and milk. Add cooked macaroni to mix and stir to coat. Add cheese, combine. Pour into casserole dish and sprinkle with additional shredded cheese. Bake for 45 minutes or until the custard is set and the top is crusty.

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