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.
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.”
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 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.
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 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.
Often, a First Lady has no direct role in a political food issue she’s blamed with. Nancy Reagan reflected the popular tastes of her era, whether trying the “new Coke” to serving new-flavor fruit sorbets.
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. 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.
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.
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, Lou Hoover, Mamie Eisenhower, Michelle Obama, Presidential Foods, Presidents, Regional Food, Ronald Reagan, Woodrow Wilson