Michelle Obama's Hamburger and How First Ladies Play a Role in the Politics and Pop Culture of Presidential Food, Part II

The First Lady samples a cookie from the White House kitchen.

As Michelle Obama has learned through her love of the potato, fried or baked, a First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) is held to the same standard as a President [POTUS] and used as ammunition in political attacks. In addition, however, the food impact of a FLOTUS tends to also reflect or shape pop culture wars.

The legend of Dolley Madison popularizing ice cream led to a confectioner naming a brand after her.

Although exaggerated in the two centuries since her reign, Dolley Madison did indeed give unwitting currency to ice cream by dishing it out to sweeten up the sourest of her husband’s foes as the War of 1812 broke out, though the cool treat undoubtedly contributed to a diplomat’s disdainful description of her as “fat and forty.”

Teetotaler Mrs. Polk or as Washington wit Byron Kennard dubbed her, “Sahara Sarah.”

Lucy Hayes smiles from a water bottle and frowns from a wine decanter in an anti-Prohibition cartoon.

With iced tea, Mrs. Carter was called “Rose’ Rosalynn” for serving wine but no hard liquor.

The bane of boozy Congressmen, First Ladies Polk, Carter and Hayes, respectively dubbed “Sahara Sarah,” “Rose’ Rosalynn,” by Washington wag Byron Kennard and “Lemonade Lucy” by someone else were the sweethearts of the temperance movement, although Mrs. Carter simply refused to serve hard liquor and did serve wine. In the case of Lucy Hayes, it turns out that the decision to keep a dry White House was the President’s, a concession to the powerful Prohibition Party that was part of his base.

Florence Harding’s waffle iron, preserved in the kitchen of her Ohio home.

Florence Harding was the first FLOTUS to flip the dinner tables, bragging to suffragists that, as a feminist, she never cooked dinner for her husband while proving her traditional breakfast skills to male reporters by working her waffle iron. Not coincidentally, of course, that was during the 1920 campaign when all American women were first given the right to vote – Flo from Ohio was making good with both progressives and traditionalists. While not technically breaking Prohibition laws by mixing whiskey drinks for her husband’s poker cronies, her placing toothpicks on the table was deemed an egregiously permissive sin.

A public service announcement from President Wilson urging World War I Americans to adhere to food rationing guidelines – which his wife Edith did in the White House.

National economics and wartime was dramatically illustrated by the choices of the First Ladies in the cookery arts. Edith Wilson initiated “meatless” and “wheatless” days to set an example of adhering to food rationing standards enacted during World War I.

Lou Hoover and her imported out-of-season apricots left a bad taste with the poor of the Great Depression.

Lou Hoovercontinued to serve expensive out-of-season and imported fruits during the Great Depression, and it contributed to the impression her husband was a President out of touch with the reality of American life.

The wife of the man who defeated her husband in the 1932 election, Eleanor Roosevelt, publicized her White House dinner menus which cost two-cents a serving in solidarity with the “ill-nourished” of the nation that FDR spoke of during his Inaugural address, and as practical recipes to keep them eating on a budget.

Amid 70s inflation, Betty Ford served less-expensive poultry and pork, in lieu of beef, to both state dinner guests and her own family.

However high the cost of food at any given time in the U.S., its citizens raise hell if they perceive that the First Family is dining finer than them – that is until word gets out about tight food budgets in the White House kitchens.

Eleanor Roosevelt spooning out nourishment in a Great Depression soup kitchen.

The little Crabmeat Casserole recipe card that caused so much trouble.

Then the complaints are that the First Lady (who is always blamed or praised for the food – even if it is often just as equally the President who is firing off directives about the vittles being served to him, his family and guests.Trouble came when a correspondence unit worker routinely sent a recipe card for the First Lady’s favorite dish of Crabmeat Casserole with artichokes in response to a letter sent her from a single mother wrote asking how she could be expected to feed her family of four on food stamps.

Nancy Reagan served healthier, lighter desserts in the form of fruit sorbets, helping to popularize them in the 80s.

Nancy Reagan served healthier, lighter desserts in the form of fruit sorbets, helping to popularize them in the 80s.

The indignant mother took it to a reporter who then publicized the fact that serving the dish to feed four would have exhausted the mother’s monthly food allowance.

Liberal pundits used it to dramatize Reagan’s “trickle-down” economic belief that limiting the burden on the wealthy would eventually help the working class.

Of course, Mrs. Reagan had never even seen the original letter.

A Reagan Agricultural Department report proposed that ketchup might qualify as a vegetable in federally-supported school lunches was similarly used to suggest “Reaganomics” hit the poor the hardest and blamed the President for the idea – despite his never having approved nor even yet read the proposal.

Mamie Eisenhower regularly inspected the White House pantries, packed with the kind of canned foods that were popular in 50s households.

Few, however, more essentially captured the flavor her era than did Mamie Eisenhower. She perused the paper for grocery store sales, ordered up baked goods from the newfangled boxed cake mixes, tinted gelatin salads in atomically appetizing pinks and greens and kept a canny account of the cupboard canned goods.

Mamie’s “Frosted Mint Delight from the 50s.

When pressed about her political influence, the famed Fabulous Fifties housewife used a kitchen defense: “Ike fights the wars, I turn the porkchops.”

To read the first part of this article, go to: http://carlanthonyonline.com/2011/07/29/hail-to-the-chef-michelle-obamas-hamburger-and-the-politics-and-pop-culture-of-presidential-food-part-one-of-two/


Categories: Betty Ford, Dolley Madison, Edith Wilson, First Ladies, Florence Harding, Herbert Hoover, Presidential Foods, Presidents, Regional Food, Ronald Reagan, The Eisenhowers, The Obamas, Woodrow Wilson

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2 replies »

  1. What about “Rose Roslyn” Carter who served only wine but not hard liqour in the White House?

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  1. Hail to the Chef: The Hamburger of Michelle Obama and the Politics and Pop Culture of Presidential Food « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Holiday & Food Americana, Myths & Old Dogs
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