The favorite foods of few Presidents may be linked more directly to their policy than the wild greens loved by Theodore Roosevelt.
His fascination with the world of birds emerged in his childhood and extended to his taking up taxidermy. Famous as a game hunter who shot to kill large beings like bears and moose, he later recognized the endangerment of species if people like him were allowed to continue doing so unregulated, a recognition which led to his support of wildlife protection measures. His love of the land sprang not only from his study of animal habitats but his early adult trip, in 1887, to survey the Dakota Territory, opening this New Yorker’s reverence for the sacredness of America’s wide, open spaces.
As President, he forcibly initiated a far vaster network of national game preserves, parks and forests, totaling some 230 million acres, including the little-known 1906 Antiquities Act which gave the chief executive power over the legislature to protect any region a president deemed to be of value to environmental scientists.
The central figure in a circle of conservationists and naturalists ranging from poet John Burroughs to the Sierra Club founder John Muir to the New York Natural History Museum’s Henry Fairfield Osborne, Roosevelt trusted his own judgment on such matters. He preferred spending as much of his life as possible outdoors, exploring the natural world, be it in the numerous New England and New York State mountain ranges where he camped his entire life, the dramatic and remote rock and river lands of the West he explored as an adult, the fields he hiked around “Sagamore Hill,” his Oyster Bay, Long Island home, or the verdant forest stripe of Rock Creek Park that cuts through Washington, he thrashed into on horseback.
Through all seasons and weather, “Teddy” kept a rapid clip in Rock Creek, leaving an entourage drawn from Congress and the Cabinet panting as they strove to catch the nuance of his every suggestion. Between his legislative strategy spouts, the President was fond of pointing out the sprouts growing along creeks and trunks, sometimes springing from his steed to tear a taste of the edible greens he’d become expert at identifying from years of camping in the wild. While there’s no evidence he stuffed his pockets with leaves worthy of that night’s supper salad,Roosevelt’s appreciation of home-grown produce was in evidence when home at Sagamore Hill.
Decades later, in the latter 20th century, his daughter Alice unenthusiastically recalled his trampling through the sulfurous marshes, flowing streams, freshwater lakes and sandy-bogs around Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s north shore, including excursions to nearby Massapequa Lake. Here, Theodore Roosevelt applied his expertise in identifying flora and fauna by foraging for a multitude of fresh field foods with the colorful names of lambsquarters, purslain, cat tails, ramps, watercress, chickory, collards, manna, spice grass, mustard greens, grape leaves, beechnuts, bullrush, choke-cherries, ramps, fireweed, baby milkweed pods, and wild asparagus.
Among recipes recorded by the family’s reliable cook Annie McManus, the President had particular preferences for her preparation of greens he gathered. His dandelion salad, for example, was made by wilting the greens with hot bacon drippings, and mixed with crushed garlic, buttered breadcrumbs and apple cider vinegar.
The rarer Roosevelt delicacy was fiddlehead ferns, sometimes recorded as “gooseneck greens,” which have a short harvest period from about mid-April to early May. The oddly named vegetable derives from the end of the long-stemmed plant’s appearance of a tightly-wound circular end, resembling the carved wood end of a fiddle. Rich in vitamin B2, B3, C, manganese and potassium, it has the crunch and bite of asparagus, and flourishes in dank, partially-shaded lowland forests in the Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest, Mid-Atlantic andNew England. Although fiddlehead ferns were usually preserved for good eating all summer long, Teddy wanted his fresh, “boiled in meat stock, drained and served with a rich cream sauce flavored with a tablespoon of prepared mustard.”
It wasn’t greens alone that were grown and engorged by Roosevelt. An expansive orchard at Sagamore Hill produced a variety of old-school apples; a recent ecological project at the historic site is now, in fact, seeking to restore the orchards and again produce them. At a time when the American population had already begun moving from its agrarian roots to an urban majority, living off the land was a quaint notion that was quickly vanishing. Alice Roosevelt Longworth observed that the vegetables people ate by the 1970s had only a faint taste of those she remembered from her childhood. Industrialization made sustenance a matter to be handled by canning factories, but even here Rooseveltfought to enact legislation. Famously repulsed by the descriptions of unsanitary meat factories in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, he initiated the Safe Food and Drug Act.
Roosevelt never explicitly explained to what degree greens led to his green policies, for eating, like breathing and exercising, was an obvious part of thriving. While his successors may have been less conscious of the need for sustaining the environmental foundations he laid out in his policies, at least one was shockingly reminded of his green palate. As particular about his fowl as Teddy was about his leafy vegetables, in 1923 President Calvin Coolidge had a coop built on a small portion of the White House South Lawn, so his chickens would be free-range. Munching on a roasted leg and breast sprung from his coop, President Coolidge detected pungency in his palate and ordered an investigation. The kitchen staff went wild in a tizzy ‘til the gardening staff rooted out the roots.
Cal’s chicken coop was built on Teddy’s old mint bed.