About the Book Titled “Dinner With the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House.”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Moira Hodgson of the book by Alex Prud’homme titled “Dinner With the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House.”:

In 2019 Donald Trump held a much-publicized banquet for the Clemson Tigers football team in the State Dining Room of the White House. He posed before a large table piled high with Quarter Pounders, a portrait of Lincoln behind him. In “Dinner With the President,” Alex Prud’homme, co-author with Julia Child of the bestselling memoir “My Life in France” (2006), describes the display: “Giving the spectacle a truculent, anarchic edge, the greasy burgers were plopped on sterling silver trays, wilting fries sagged in paper cups embossed with the presidential seal, McNugget sauce pods were stuffed in antique silver gravy boats, plastic salad bowls teetered on venerable tureens, and the spread was framed by golden candelabra holding tall white tapers.”

Many people dismissed this show as a laughable example of crass bad taste. But Mr. Trump had made a shrewd political move. As Mr. Prud’homme writes: “The critics’ howls . . . amplified his message” to his base: “I like the same food you do, so vote for me.” Ronald Reagan achieved a similar goal when he revealed that he kept a jar of jelly beans on his desk. Hoping to impress working-class Southern voters, George H.W. Bush (who was such a WASP that he sometimes ate cereal for dinner) claimed to be a fan of pork rinds splashed with Tabasco sauce. As for Joe Biden, who could fail to empathize with his weakness for chocolate-chip ice cream?

Mr. Prud’homme reports on 26 presidents and how their food choices played a pivotal role in American politics. Our “founding epicure,” Thomas Jefferson, who gave sumptuous congressional banquets, understood “the power of feasting.” Some of the country’s most important international decisions have been made over the dinner table. In 1978 Jimmy Carter’s traditional Southern cooking, cakes and pies helped spur the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Before Richard Nixon made his legendary trip to China in 1972 he learned to use chopsticks, practicing on wood chips, marbles and mothballs. “It was the image of Nixon wielding a duck gizzard with chopsticks,” Mr. Prud’homme argues, “that helped convince American voters he was worthy of reelection.” (The notoriously stingy Nixon, a keen oenophile, is said to have served $6 bottles of wine to guests while keeping a vintage Margaux, decanted or wrapped in a napkin, for himself.)

Even a throwaway remark by a president could have national repercussions. After George H.W. Bush confessed his loathing for broccoli, enraged farmers sent truckloads of it to Washington in protest. When Barack Obama said he liked arugula, he was dismissed as an elitist, a “limousine liberal” who, worse still, put Dijon mustard on his hamburgers. Reagan, trying to cut down school-lunch portions, faced an intense backlash after he called ketchup and relish “vegetables.”

Mr. Prud’homme has come up with a slew of entertaining believe-it-or-not tidbits. George Washington’s false teeth were not wood but stained brown from the dark Madeira he drank (his celebrated chef Hercules Posey was a slave who made his escape during the president’s 65th-birthday party). Temperance advocate John Adams began every day with half a cup of hard cider and a handful of Baptist cakes—dough fried in bacon fat—“for his health.” Abraham Lincoln liked raw honey from the comb. For lunch Gerald Ford had cottage cheese with A.1. sauce and raw onion. Nixon liked his cottage cheese for breakfast, on a ring of canned pineapple.

Men of simple appetites, presidents consumed a great deal of steak. Ulysses Grant and Donald Trump liked theirs well-done, the latter’s smothered in ketchup. William Howard Taft, who was big as a house, began the day with a 12-ounce steak cooked medium and slathered with butter. Dwight Eisenhower, an inveterate carnivore, sometimes had beef three times a day: rare steak for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch and steak again for dinner. He also had quite a reputation as a cook, and liked to barbecue for prime ministers and generals, even installing a charcoal grill on the White House roof. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ate healthy meals with their wives but when Hillary was out of town, Bill would enjoy a 24-ounce porterhouse with béarnaise and fried onion rings, while in Laura’s absence, W. went for a thick steak and consumed bags of Lay’s potato chips.

Mr. Prud’homme provides 10 presidential recipes, including Franklin Roosevelt’s “reverse martini” made with five parts dry vermouth to one part gin (so keen was he on this drink that he traveled to global summits with a special martini kit). FDR strived to serve good food in the White House but was thwarted at every turn by his wife, Eleanor. Ernest Hemingway described a dinner there in 1937 as “the worst I’ve ever eaten.” After Eleanor discovered her husband was having an affair, meals had become her instrument of revenge, ruthlessly waged under the auspices of Mrs. Nesbitt, her housekeeper and chief ally. Spaghetti topped with boiled carrots anyone?

James Madison was not interested in entertaining but his wife, Dolley, became a consummate hostess whose dazzling soirees mapped out the role of First Lady. Jackie Kennedy modeled her evenings on the court of Louis XIV, producing “a heady blend of politics, food and culture” with excellent meals thanks to chef René Verdon. (He resigned under Lyndon Johnson, who preferred canned and frozen vegetables.)

When Mr. Clinton took office in 1993 eating well had become a major cultural topic. Chefs were stars. Although he was notoriously fond of junk food (one day scarfing down nearly a dozen doughnuts), Bill and Hillary led the way to lighter, healthier meals at the White House, inviting restaurant chefs to advise them. After a quadruple bypass put an end to doughnuts, he became the first vegan president.

Mr. Obama kept up with food trends and often dined with Michelle at fine restaurants. He succeeded in limiting junk food in schools but failed in antitrust initiatives against agribusiness. It was the large vegetable garden Michelle planted on the South Lawn in 2009 that did the most to encourage healthy eating.

“Dinner With the President” opens with an epigraph by Anthony Bourdain: “Nothing is more political than food.” Mr. Prud’homme’s fascinating book drives the point home.

Moira Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Food and Life.”

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