Freedom Fries — the bogus re-naming bestowed by right-wingers requiring simple-minded revenge during the Iraq War when France was a hesitant ally to the U.S. — weren’t the first occasion food nomenclature became a patriotic battlefield. During World War I, Herbert Hoover, then the head of Woodrow Wilson’s Food Administration and years prior to his own presidency, decided sauerkraut was too Germanic to stomach. He renamed it Liberty Cabbage. If tasty bits of trivia like that entertain, they will be one of the many motors propelling you through Alex Prud’homme’s extensive and entirely fascinating Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House.
Believing “the president is the eater in chief,” Prud’homme explores not only what was eaten and with whom in the White House, but also the history of U.S. food policy. In his introduction he asserts, “[The President’s] messaging about food touches on everything from personal taste to global nutrition, politics, economics, science, and war — not to mention race, class, gender, money, religion, history, culture, and many other things.” Overall, the enlightening volume — complete with 10 presidential recipes so you can play White House chef at home — provides Prud’homme with the opportunity (as he told me in an interview I conducted with him for a different publication) “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.”
Twenty-six of the 46 commanders-in-chief receive fuller consideration, generally based on how important their food story was. The bulk of the book focuses on the 20th century to Joe Biden, as more recent presidents offered more material for Prud’homme to research. His previous books include titles like Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know, an Oxford University Press 2013 release, and most relevantly he is the co-author of his grand aunt Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France. He clearly has keen research skills (the book has 50 pages of notes), but more importantly he has a love of food and a sense of noblesse oblige back before the term got mucked up in class wars.
Prud’homme makes a great case for commensality, which he explains is a term social anthropologists nicked from biology, meaning sharing the table. As he elaborates, “This is the defining human trait: even our closest primate relatives — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas — don’t eat together the way we do. And the larger a social group is, the better its chances of survival become. Almost inevitably, small cooking circles expand into large feasts, which took on their own rituals and meanings, and enhance the building of societies.”
With such a theoretical frame, he tends to praise those who pull this off well and make clear his disdain for those who fail or can’t even seem to bother to fulfill their role in making the White House a place to break bread and come together. Presidential spouses and marriage dynamics often become key — Dolley Madison is a tiny dynamo of political savvy, for instance, while Eleanor Roosevelt kept on the fearsome Mrs. Nesbitt as head “housekeeper,” partially to punish her gourmet husband for his infidelities. Turns out epicurean FDR, eager to try every new food, from buffalo tongue to tripe pepper pot, was forced to eat Mrs. Nesbitt’s meager meals, from “croquettes of leftovers” to “an Echo Emerald ‘salad’ made of lime gelatin, celery, pineapple, pimento, and vinegar.” There was a joke Roosevelt ran for a fourth term just so he could finally fire Nesbitt.
The whiff of scandal and personal peccadillos certainly keeps the book fascinating, but that’s just the most sensational way Prud’homme manages to bring White House residents to life. Nothing humanizes a semi-mythic figure like Abe Lincoln, for example, than seeing him at the table or cooking in his Illinois kitchen wearing a blue apron. Nothing complicates a figure easy to demonize like Richard Nixon than to hear of all his study before his trip to China in 1972, particularly hours practicing with chopsticks. That said, one of Prud’homme’s best digs comes at Tricky Dick’s expense; he writes, “Though the Oval Office would prove as narcotic to Nixon as the One Ring was to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, he began his administration on a gracious note, saying, ‘The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.’”
Prud’homme’s handling of Donald Trump, then, is a case study of damning with faint damns. He opens the chapter asserting, “Trump understood the politics of the dinner table better than any president since the Kennedys wowed Nobel laureates,” and makes clear Trump’s love of fast food was one way to draw him closer to MAGA Republicans. But Trump had no use for commensality, holding only two state dinners (obviously COVID complicated that) and refusing to take part in events like the Kennedy Center Honors or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. To deliver the closing statement of the chapter, Prud’homme interviews Lea Berman, George W. Bush’s social secretary, known for being a bit fearsome herself in the day. Admitting, “We [the coterie of D.C. Republicans] almost hate him more than the Democrats do,” Berman concludes, “There’s also a White House tradition of civility. It was developed over many years. By people from both sides of the aisle. It is important to them, and for continuity at the White House. It’s important. And when he leaves, it will return again.’”
Turn the page to the Joe Biden chapter and there’s a photo of smiling Joe in his happy place, ice cream cone in hand.
I would also be remiss not to mention one of the great joys of the book is to revel in four centuries of vivid kitchen and political language. So many of the menus read like secret poems, with dishes like sorrel soup with sippets or Tipsy Squire tansy pie, holy pokes, or huffjuffs. Speaking of poetry, of all people Ulysses Grant held a wedding at the White House for his daughter Nellie and had Walt Whitman recite a poem at the event.
The political name-calling was of a higher caliber in the day, too (how many people has Trump lazily called Lyin’ ____?). How rich, then, was it when Teddy Roosevelt called Howard Taft a puzzlewit, so Taft retorted by calling TR a honeyfugler. How great for Prud’homme to dish up all this meaty language for us.
This review originally appeared in the California Review of Books.