Captures Our Culinary
‘Dinner with the President’ Author,
and Julia Child’s Nephew,
Comes to Taste of Santa Barbara
By George Yatchisin | May 11, 2023
Read all of our Taste of Santa Barbara 2023 stories here.
Despite looking somewhat like a fuzzy hard-boiled egg himself, Dwight Eisenhower oversaw one of the most interesting culinary programs in White House history and was probably the best president-cook. That’s the kind of tidbit you’ll learn by attending a May 18 soiree showcasing journalist Alex Prud’homme, author of the recently published Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House. While you’re sipping on reverse martinis and noshing on Field + Fort nibbles inspired by his book, Prud’homme will regale the crowd with, as he puts it, “gastronomic political history.”
The event, hosted by Taste of Santa Barbara, sports local hooks too, even if the 478-page book only touches down at Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo — a k a the Western White House — for a mere two pages. That’s because Prud’homme’s great-aunt is Julia Child, and he co-wrote her memoir My Life in France.
While doing that work, he spent part of eight months with Child at Casa Dorinda in Montecito, interviewing her and her friends. “She was 91 years old and would run out of steam after a couple of hours and take a nap, so I would go on trail runs in the Santa Ynez hills,” said Prud’homme, who praised our region’s “otherworldly beauty, which I love.”
Not that he and his great aunt only delighted in the sublime. “Julia and I used to have an In-N-Out burger while we were working — she liked the double patty with fried onions and I’d get the cheeseburger — and she’d say, ‘Let’s go find a nice view and we’ll eat our burgers and look out over the ocean,’ ” he remembers. Child would suggest Prud’homme cruise up a clearly marked private driveway. “She was mischievous and she’d say, ‘If anybody bothers us, we’ll say we’re looking for Mrs. McGillicuddy,’ ” he says. “That is classic Julia, always pushing the envelope, so I have fond memories of In-N-Out burgers overlooking the ocean.”
The Thursday night affair may deliver a Child chestnut or two, but it will primarily focus on Prud’homme’s Dinner with the President. Only 26 of the 46 commanders-in-chief get full consideration (Warren G. Harding was one of the toughest cuts), but the major criteria was whether a president “had a good food story.” Overall, the enlightening volume — complete with 10 presidential recipes so you can play White House chef at home — provided Prud’homme with the opportunity to “look at American history through the lens of food, which, oddly, has never been done before. I was surprised to find out there hadn’t been a book quite like this, so that was a blessing for me.”
If he could be blessed with the gift of time travel, Prud’homme claimed he would like to eat at Thomas Jefferson’s White House, suggesting how Jefferson and his slave chef James Hemings helped invent American cuisine. “They included indigenous ingredients, like corn and venison and cod, with French technique, British recipes, and the slaves’ herbs and spices with their own intuition to form the basis of what we now think of as American food,” he explained. “Of course, today American food is even more polyglot than then because we’ve expanded our reach so you have Asian and Latin flavors that are prominent these days.”
On the other hand, Prud’homme would have avoided the food at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt White House, which even Ernest Hemingway abhorred. Wartime rationing encumbered culinary creativity, yet more was afoot, as Eleanor Roosevelt felt food was merely fuel. The otherwise exemplary First Lady hired “the notorious Mrs. [Henrietta] Nesbitt” as housekeeper and cook despite her having “absolutely no food sense whatsoever,” Prud’homme explained. “For FDR, this great gourmet who loved crayfish and elk tongue, well, she would serve him leftovers. She used the cheaper cuts of meat. She thought that vegetables should be canned and salads should be made of Jell-O.”
“People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Ever the diligent researcher, Prud’homme tried to track down a “squirrel stew or a possum to roast.” He was unsuccessful. “I’m sure my wife is thankful,” he said. “But I thought, for the sake of journalistic integrity, I better try it.” Alas, he had to rely on the word of others to relay the flavors experienced during meals served in the earliest White Houses.
Prud’homme will be interviewed by Les Firestein, a former TV producer/writer and current Montecito Journal columnist who is an old friend of Prud’homme’s from their New York days. “I thought he would make a good interlocutor because he knows me from way back,” he said. “He’s a smart and funny guy, and I thought he’d be an entertaining interviewer.”
Here’s hoping Firestein asks about Woodrow Wilson’s breakfast of champions: two raw eggs floated in grape juice.
Celebrating the Debut of Dinner with the President takes place Thursday, May 18, 5-7 p.m., at Field + Fort (2580 Lillie Ave., Summerland). Tickets are $45.
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