Review | “Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and the History of Breaking Bread at the White House” by Alex Prud’homme

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Freedom Fries – the false name given by the right demanding naive vengeance during the Iraq War when France was a wavering ally of the United States – was not the first time that food nomenclature had become a patriotic battleground. During World War I, Herbert Hoover, then head of Woodrow Wilson’s Food Administration and years before his own presidency, decided that sauerkraut was too Germanic to digest. He renamed it Liberty Cabbage. If tasty anecdotes like this entertain you, they will be one of the many engines that will propel you through Alex Prud’homme’s vast and utterly fascinating book. Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and the History of Breaking Bread at the White House.

Believing that “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 American food policy. In his introduction, he states: “(The president’s) message on 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 lots of other things.” Overall, this informative volume—complete with 10 presidential recipes so you can play White House chef at home—gives Prud’homme the opportunity (as he tells me ‘ said in an interview I conducted with him for another publication) “to look at American recipes. history through the prism of food, which, oddly enough, has never been done before. J I was surprised to find that there hadn’t been a book like this, so that was a blessing for me.

Twenty-six of the 46 commanders in chief receive more in-depth attention, generally based on the importance of their dietary history. Most of the book focuses on the 20th century up to Joe Biden, while more recent presidents have offered Prud’homme more research material. His previous books include titles like Hydrofracturing: what everyone needs to knowa release from Oxford University Press 2013, and above all, he is the co-author of the memoirs of his great-aunt Julia Child. My life in France. He clearly has great research skills (the book contains 50 pages of notes), but more importantly, he has a love of food and a sense of nobility before the term was wasted in class wars.

Prud’homme argues for commensality, which he says is a term that social anthropologists have borrowed from biology, meaning sharing the table. As he explains: “It’s the characteristic trait of being human: even our closest primate relatives – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas – don’t eat together like we do. And the larger a social group, the greater its chances of survival. Almost inevitably, small culinary circles transform into large festivals, which take on their own rituals and meanings, and contribute to the construction of societies.

With such a theoretical framework, he tends to praise those who do well and clearly express his contempt for those who fail or don’t even seem to bother to fulfill their role, making the White House a place to break bread and to gather. Presidential spouses and marriage dynamics often become pivotal — Dolley Madison is a minor dynamo of statesmanship, for example, while Eleanor Roosevelt kept the formidable Mrs. Nesbitt as chief “housekeeper,” in part to punish her foodie husband for his infidelities. It turns out that epicurean FDR, eager to try every new food, from buffalo tongue to pot of tripe and pepper, was forced to eat Mrs. Nesbitt’s meager meals of “leftover croquettes” at “an Echo Emerald “salad” made with lime gelatin and celery. , pineapple, chili and vinegar. There was a joke that Roosevelt had run for a fourth term just so he could finally fire Nesbitt.

The whiff of scandal and personal peccadilloes certainly makes the book fascinating, but it is precisely the most sensational way in which Prud’homme manages to bring the residents of the White House to life. Nothing humanizes a semi-mythical character like Abe Lincoln, for example, than seeing him at the table or cooking in his Illinois kitchen in a blue apron. Nothing complicates an easily demonized figure like Richard Nixon than hearing about all his studies before his trip to China in 1972, including hours of practice with chopsticks. That said, one of Prud’homme’s best digs comes at the expense of Tricky Dick; he writes: “Even if the Oval Office would prove as narcotic for Nixon as the One Ring was for Gollum in The Lord of the Ringshe began his administration on a kind note, saying: “The greatest honor that history can confer is the title of peacemaker.” »

Prud’homme’s treatment of Donald Trump is therefore a case study of damnation with weak damnations. He opens the chapter by asserting, “Trump has understood table politics better than any president since the Kennedys wooed Nobel Prize winners,” and makes it clear that Trump’s love of fast food was a way to bring him closer to MAGA Republicans. But Trump had no use for commensality, hosting only two state dinners (COVID obviously complicated that) and refusing to attend events like the Kennedy Center Honors or the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. To conclude the chapter, Prud’homme interviews Lea Berman, George W. Bush’s social secretary, known to be a bit formidable herself at the time. Admitting: “We (the Washington DC Republican coterie) hate him almost more than the Democrats,” Berman concludes, “There is also a tradition in the White House of civility. It has developed over many years. By people on both sides of the aisle. This is important for them and for continuity at the White House. It is important. And when he leaves, he will come back.

Turn the page to the Joe Biden chapter and you’ll see a photo of Joe smiling in his happy place, an ice cream cone in hand.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the great joys of the book is reveling in four centuries of vivid cuisine and political language. Many menus read like secret poems, with dishes like sorrel soup with sippets or Tipsy Squire tansy tart, holy pokes or huffjuffs. Speaking of poetry, Ulysses Grant hosted a White House wedding for his daughter Nellie and had Walt Whitman recite a poem at the event.

The political name-calling was also of a higher caliber back then (how many people did Trump lazily call Lyin’ ____?). How rich, then, when Teddy Roosevelt called Howard Taft a brain-teaser, then Taft retorted by calling TR a honeyfugler. How nice of Prud’homme to concoct all this meaty language for us.

This review was originally published in the California Review of Books.

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