Hail to the Chef: The Hamburger of Michelle Obama and the Politics and Pop Culture of Presidential Food

President Jefferson serves some Italian spaghetti.

President Jefferson serves some Italian spaghetti.

On July 11, the Washington Post reported that First Lady Michelle Obama slipped the security-confined 18th century mansion she calls home to enjoy a heartily caloric (1700) meal at a new restaurant, “Shake Shack,” consisting of a “ShackBurger,” milk shake, and soda, accessorized by a specialty she’s admitted to be among her favorite palate pleaser, French fries.

Mrs. Obama eating at a restaurant.

Mrs. Obama eating at a restaurant.

She got bit back for it, so to speak, from the food police police, that is, mostly right-wing critics like Glenn Beck and Matt Drudge who thought it hypocritical that the president’s wife who’s public interest project, “Let’s Move!” intends to teach the nation’s children how to eat healthily and exercise regularly would dare to so indulge.

It’s not the first time Mrs. Obama’s personal choices and public project has been called out by those who failed to either read or listen to what she’s said from her first day in the White House vegetable garden: the intention is not to deny all delicious and caloric content to the stomach, but to let sparing doses of such foods on occasion within an overall daily diet of healthy foods and always moving the body to keep the fat burning.

None of the critics, for example, demanded their taxpayer’s right to know whether she hit the tennis court or running track the next day. Nor is it surprising that partisan politics has peppered that plate. Earlier this year, in February, her carnivorousness for ribs during a vacation in Vail, Colorado, was vociferously chewed up by a leading anti-Administration mouth Rush Limbaugh, himself a fellow with not a little avoirdupois, “Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice.”

Jack Kennedy enjoys summertime ice cream.

The French cookbook by the Kennedy White House French chef.

In recent years, it would seem, what a President put in his mouth is seasoned more by politics than what comes out of it.  Jack Kennedy’s hiring a French chef while still preferring New England clam chowder managed to keep his highbrow tastes low enough while flavoring American culture with a pinch of sophistication.

LBJ at one of his LBJ Ranch barbeques.

Inheriting the chef, Texan President Lyndon Baines Johnson sent back filet with foie gras as “rotten,” and from then it was a matter of, as a popular ad years ago ran, “beef, it’s what for dinner.”  His constant barbeques for masses of journalists, civil rights leaders, congressional colleagues, and advisory boards, gave a better taste of his inclusive “Great Society” policies than merely reading them could. A majority of Americans silently tightening the belt in check related to Nixon’s lo-cal love of cottage cheese but hearing he put ketchup on it flared nostrils and left a conflicted aftertaste.

Jerry Ford making his own muffins in the private White House family kitchen.

Soon enough, Presidents took on their own official “favorite snack.” Jerry Ford invited the press to watch him toast his own beloved English muffins in the White House kitchen as proof of a more accessible post-Watergate presidency.

Ronald Reagan so loved his JellyBelly jellybeans, he gave out jars of them with the presidential seal as gifts.

A giant peanut with Jimmy Carter’s toothy smile greeted visitors to his hometown of Plains, Georgia during the ’76 campaign

In the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter beat Ford on the humble factor by using the lowly peanut, grown by him in the red clay of Georgia, as his unofficial campaign logo. Even those who eschewed the empty calories of Reagan’s sugary soft spot for jelly beans couldn’t deny the man had a sweet touch. There were even official “Reagan Jelly Bean Jars,” given out by the White House as gifts to special guests.

George H. Bush’s declaration that he would not eat broccoli prompted this pop culture parody of the famous Pez candy dispenser.

In more recent years, however, pundits so savored a good metaphor that they began to fold the tastes of Chief Executives into verbal food fights.

The press skewered George H. Bush as churlish after he refused to eat his broccoli, and blanched him for claiming the southwest twang of fried pork rinds with hot sauce was seriously this native New Englander’s snack of choice.

Bill Clinton’s proclivity in his early presidency for fast food earned him the dubious distinction of having a short-lived cola named for him.

In his early presidency, Bill Clinton put fast food on such a fast track that installing a running track around the White House lawn seemed to be a media-induced penance.  After launching two controversial, expensive, high-tech wars, even filmmaker Oliver Stone used the fact that George W. Bush choked and passed out all alone, on a tiny bit of pretzel as the primal moment in his film biography of the President.

President Obama hoisted a cold frosty one at his 2009 “Beer Summit.”

Nor is it  presidential food alone that makes news. At his July 30, 2009 “Beer Summit,” intended to raise racial understanding by bringing together a white Boston Police Sergeant James Crowley and the black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who the former mistakenly arrested for breaking into his own home, Barack Obama avoided creating any further controversy by choosing Bud Light, a cheaper and more Joe-Sixpack rather than an import. Meanwhile the professor showed his Boston loyalty with a Sam Adams light, Vice President Biden went non-alcoholic by grabbing a Buckler’s and the Seargent went for an artisan brew, a Blue Moon.

From the very beginning, however, what got cooked down in the presidential kitchens boiled furiously in the national kettle pot. Worldly Thomas Jefferson, a genuine connoisseur of cuisine credited with importing Italian pasta to America and sneaking in seeds of sensitive French vegetables to be cultivated at his Monticello estate, was attacked for “abjuring native vittles.”

Martin Van Buren was assailed during the depression of 1837 in a legendary Congressional rant known as the “Gold Spoon Speech,” by Pennsylvania Congressman Charles Ogle for serving fancy foods on regal place settings.

In this bit of 1840 ephemera, pull the tab and Democrat Van Buren’s goblet of champagne and smile from it turns to Whig hard cider – and his resulting frown.

William Henry Harrison campaign booklet shows him with his barrels of hard cider.

When he ran for re-election in 1840, Whig candidate and victor William Henry Harrison ran on a platform of “hard cider and hominy,” to illustrate how he shared the tastes of the common man – who also got free mugs of hard cider at campaign headquarters.William Henry Harrison campaign booklet shows him with his barrel of hard cider.

“Big Bill” Taft engorging on a massive breakfast.

The initial public reaction to obese William Howard Taft’s love of all things edible was a sign of prosperity but quickly soured into a perception of inertia. Beginning each morning with his traditional fare of country corn muffins and warm rye and wheat cereal fostered the depiction of Calvin Coolidge as following a steady, reliable course, in contrast to the dizzy days of the Roaring Twenties he oversaw.

George Washington did have a special taste for cherries and Martha Washington did serve cherry trifle at Mount Vernon.

The food and drink of many other Presidents assumed mythic proportions that became part of the national folklore. The most obvious example of this is the association between the first President, George Washington, and the tale of his childhood honesty in admitting he had chopped down one of his father’s cherry trees, forever leading to everything edibly cherry being linked to him. Believed for generations, then dismissed for generations, some recent evidence suggests that he did indeed love cherries, that they grew at his childhood home and that his family had a close association with the tart fruit.

More than myth may have been involved in the cherry story associated with one of the eight Presidents to have died in office. In 1850, Zachary Taylor returned to the White House from an intensely hot Independence Day ceremony at the base of what would become the Washington Monument. Exhausted, thirsty and famished, he bwegan consuming vast quantities of cherries and iced water and iced milk. By that night, he was suffering severe stomach cramps. Within five days, he was laying in the East Room in his coffin, the victim of an intestinal attack, likely dysentary, which began with the cherries.

The worn Rough and Ready, President Zachary Taylor ate some cherries and died – so the summarized legend goes.

To read Part II of this article: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2011/07/31/hail-to-the-chef-the-hamburger-of-michelle-obama-and-the-politics-and-pop-culture-of-presidential-food-part-2-of-2/

Categories: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Calvin Coolidge, Dolley Madison, First Ladies, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Presidential Foods, Presidents, Regional Food, Ronald Reagan, The Obamas, Thomas Jefferson, William Howard Taft

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6 replies »

  1. Illustrations are absolutely wonderful and funny too!

  2. Thanks again, Carl. Your blog is truly an example of the Web being a wonderful gift to those in pursuit of life-long learning. This is really entertaining material that makes history pop alive w/all our human follies. I especially enjoyed the pictures you choose; I loved that Smiling Peanut at Jimmy Carters home in GA!

    It is rather ridiculous for those of us who are not enamoured with
    Mrs. Obama to waste time reprimanding her for eating a burger, washed down with a shake & (diet
    coke). Yes, she has said repeatedly she is not out to “ban” foods, just promote better nuturition for
    school-aged children. STILL, one nutritionist who was Pro-Obama, thought it was bad judgement of her to be so public about eating foods she is trying to discourage in her “let’s move” effort. LadyMichelle has a way of flaunting “tude”. This is not the 1st time she’s been caught grand-standing. I don’t blarme her for getting a hi-fat/hi-carb fix at a stressful time like this, but why, oh why did she practically call a press conference to the Shake Shack? There is such a thing as take-out. (as well as discretion) I understand there are about 400 folks employed by WH(?); nobody would have been the wiser. As a bad food addict, I would have loved chilling out on the Truman Balcony, leisurly enjoying every butter-dripping bite of a cheese burger. Wasting good food times in a crowded hot Shake Shack is no way to treat a burger/frys lunch! (well it wasn’t crowded cuz the SS emptied it for her, still, she was under pressure, just eating in public & being photographed)

  3. Carl… I really loved this one. The picture of Thomas Jefferson serving spaghetti is priceless. And, I hate to admit it, but every time I eat cherries, I think of poor President Harrison.

    The furor over Michelle Obama’s visit to Shake Shack drove me crazy. I wish I could look on these things for the foolishness they are, but I always get a little too upset. For Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck for that matter, to feel the need to comment is truly laughable. No wonder I can’t bear to listen or look at them.

    I, for one, am glad that Mrs. O got out for a bit and that she showed that one can include such indulgences in a healthy and active lifestyle. Far from tarnishing her image or diluting her message, I think she proved her point!

    Looking forward to the next installment…

    All the best,


    • Jake–

      I think that you meant to say President Taylor, who died after serving a little more than a year of his term. Allegedly, his death came soon after he he ate cherries and raw milk in hot weather during an Independence Day celebration in Washington in 1850.

  4. spagetti, icecream, cheries, cola, hamburgers, beer, etc… these POTUS makes us feel so human – they have craves like everyone else… we tend to forget that, as we place them somehow above us, due to their demanding job *winks*


  1. Michelle Obama’s Hamburger and How First Ladies Play a Role in the Politics and Pop Culture of Presidential Food, Part II « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Holiday & Food Americana, Myths & Old Dogs
  2. The Drunk Vote: Harrison Hard Cider vs. Van Buren Champagne in 1840 Election « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Mythic Americana, Holidays, Legends, Pie & Dogs
  3. Peanut, Big Mac & Jelly Bean: The Brief Era of Presidential Campaign Snacks « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Mythic Americana, Holidays, Legends, Pie & Dogs
  4. The Drunk Vote: Harrison Hard Cider vs. Van Buren Champagne in 1840 Election « Carl Anthony Online
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