Republicans and Democrats are offering each other bitter commentary and salty language in judging the first presidential debate performances on Wednesday night of President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.
But its nothing but sugar when it came to the final call made about Michelle Obama and Ann Romney on Thursday – and their performances in the cookie kitchen. The momentous results of that quadrennial cookie recipe contest between the presidential candidates’ spouses are in. Sponsored by Family Circle magazine and determined by over 9000 votes, Mrs. Obama‘s chocolate and white chocolate chip cookies edged out Ann Romney’s M&M chocolate candy cookies by several hundred votes.
The whole idea, in 2012, of somehow arbitrarily judging a generation of women by the quality of their cookies seems to many, even those who take the whole thing with a dash of salt, as a bit uber-retro. After all, we also just learned that Romney often depends on silent signals from his wife to reassure him he’s doing well during a speech or debate – or not doing well. Its also long been known that Michelle Obama, an attorney and former hospital administrator, has effectively shaped the case for her husband’s re-election through speeches like the one she delivered at the Democratic National Convention last month. While both revel in the traditional domestic arts of holiday prepping, kid-raising, dress-buying and so forth, both have made clear that all that is but one part of who they are and what they’ve chosen to do with their lives.
The tradition of the magazine’s “election” extends back only 20 years. In the course of those years, the likes of Cindy McCain, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Laura Bush, Tipper Gore, Elizabeth Dole, Barbara Bush and that woman lawyer who unwittingly started it all – Hillary Clinton, have been put upon to cough up “their” recipe for a favorite cookie. Several times, it was clear that the women weren’t even sure which of “their” cookie recipes the campaign press office had strategized as the best to submit.
It was during the 1992 Democratic primaries that a gaggle of reporters, following Hillary through a bakery, persistently asked the same question in so many ways: how can someone like you, who earned a graduate degree and worked full-time while also serving as First Lady of Arkansas expect to be accepted as a traditional First Lady of the United States?
Exasperated, she finally quipped that she had simply pursued a professional career for which she was trained, but she supposed “I could have stayed at home and baked cookies all day.” Republicans used the remark as the red flag of war against stay-at-home-moms and commentator Pat Buchanan even ominously warned that if this woman were to become the next president’s wife it would be the end of domestic life (and home-baked goods, apparently) as it had always been in the U.S.
More accurately, how the nation liked to think it had always been.
So, to add lightness (two tsp., baking soda) to a lardy mess, Family Circle cooked up the contest, despite the fact that by the early 90s at least two generations of American mothers had also been working outside the home, whether to pursue professional careers or simply ensure that a two-income family would permit it to survive.
Perhaps more like ten generations.
Just how did the United States get to the point where it needed to know that the spouses of its potential leaders could cook and bake well?
One has to reach back to 1968, that year of social upheaval in the American Pop Culture to find the last two presidential candidates’ spouses who voluntarily offered up their own recipes.
That winter, if the housewives of America were out playing bridge, shopping at the department store downtown or taking macrame lessons at the local crafts store (or working as secretaries, nurses and teachers), flyers were being left on their front doorknobs at home for them across suburbia, by Nixon For President volunteers.
In an appeal for the women’s vote, this Republican campaign literature had nothing to do with Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War or vision for environmental protection. It was, in fact, Pat Nixon’s meatloaf recipe. The former teacher, hospital aide and economist (or the campaign staff) had dubbed it, “More,” because that’s what everyone would be asking for once they tried some.
The Democrats were not to be outdone. Soon enough, tens of thousands of postcards with Muriel Humphrey’s picture were clogging the national postal system. On the reverse side, voters were told that her Beef Soup was the secret to her husband’s “vim, vigor and vitality,” and then listed the recipe.
To this day, mommy-bloggers exchange a sacred old recipe clipped from yellowed newspapers and found in junked recipe-card boxes with as much glee over the Internet as did Fifties housewives a half-century ago.
It’s Mamie Eisenhower‘s Million-Dollar Fudge.
During her husband’s initial presidential campaign in 1952, word got out that the General’s wife made a no-muss, no-fussy super-sweet no-bake quick-and-easy fudge. that kept kids bouncing off the walls but out of the kitchen. The secret ingredient, as it turns out was that most noble and ubiquitous of staples in American life, as enduring a national symbol as the Statue of Liberty as it had been from the time of its invention in the 1920s, the chalky-white, sticky substance known as Marshmallow Fluff.
Unfortunately for Mamie, nobody at the campaign headquarters had thought to have the recipe typed and printed up on cards to be efficiently send out.
As a result, she ended up having to hire a secretary to type out thousands of not-so-much letters as lists of ingredients in response to those writing for her recipe, which she then always signed herself.
It continued for four years, and then again through the 1956 campaign and the entire second term of the Eisenhower Administration. During the campaigns, Republicans had the edge on issues of domestic engineering. The Democratic candidate in both 1952 and 1956 being Adlai Stevenson. He had no wife, and thus no recipes for voting housewives, being the only divorcee to run for presidential candidate in history (not the only candidate who had been divorced).
That’s not to say Marshmallow Fluff wins elections – but it could hardly hurt.
The reality was that Mamie Eisenhower had been raised in a wealthy family with domestic servants – and didn’t cook. Her husband did the cooking. The only times she ever went down into the White House kitchens was to do food-tastings or inspect the pantry cupboards, although she did oversee the food purchases, scanning newspapers for local supermarket sales.
In fact, her fudge recipe was something of a joke among her intimates. “I can make only two things – mayonnaise and fudge,” she often admitted, to which friends retorted, “And nobody can tell the difference.”
Going back another two decades, one finds newspaper stories about Eleanor Roosevelt’s “favorite cake recipe,” circulating during her husband’s campaign.
While it was true that her favorite cake was Angel Food Cake with Pink Clouds (whipped cream and strawberries), the fact is that, as numerous newsreels clips prove, she was often being presented with Angel Food Cake by little girls demonstrating baking as “my favorite hobby.”
There’s no evidence Eleanor Roosevelt ever baked one herself.
This put her at no disadvantage against her “opponent” that year, however, the incumbent First Lady Lou Hoover.
Mrs. Hoover always had a houseful of servants and also worked full-time in the non-salaried position of president of the Girl Scouts of America (she was “honorary president” while she was in the White House but otherwise served in the real job). But the baking business was never far away from her either.
Lou Hoover is credited with having boosted the idea, when it was initially presented, of having thousands of the young girls and young women go out among their communities to sell – yes, Girl Scout Cookies.
In contrast, the wife of 1924’s Republican presidential candidate, Grace Coolidge really did love to bake, especially corn muffins, lemon and blueberry pies. She saw no conflict between her time in the kitchen and the fact that she was the first 20th century First Lady to earn a college degree and then work for a living as a teacher of deaf children. And when she was home in Vermont, she was often doing the baking. Perhaps a bit too often it seems.
That year she was already the incumbent First Lady and enjoying the privileges of a full household staff to carry out domestic chores. After her husband’s campaign released recipe after recipe of her baked goods, and she then she posed for a publicity still making two pies, one Democratic women in her party’s press office finally sniped that she “feared the poor dear was never out of an apron.” Republicans were outraged at the insult to the First Lady’s virtuous skill with sweets! Congressman Sol Bloom even insisted that the New York Times run an apology for quoting the woman’s sarcasm about Mrs. Coolidge.
Of course, during the 1920 presidential campaign, her immediate predecessor Florence Harding told one reporter how much she “hated” to cook and “loved” her work as the business manager of her husband’s newspaper. She could “broil a steak” if she had to, but that was about it. Realizing that women were finally about to get the right to vote with passage that summer of hte 19th Amendment, however, she summoned a New York Times reporter into her kitchen to offer a more balanced view of herself . Mrs. Harding wanted to avoid alienating hundreds of thousands of women who had opposed women’s suffrage – but were nevertheless eager to do so anyway, if the government now simply insisted they be given the right to vote.
She pulled out her old heavy cast-iron waffle skillet and cooked some up for him, then she and her husband-candidate sat him down on the front porch steps of their house, waiting for the reporter to declare how light and fluffy the Harding waffles really were.
This baking and cooking charade goes back even into the late 19th century, when a Canton, Ohio Baptist church women’s group, seeking to make hay while the sun shined, quickly published a cookbook of local women’s recipes in the summer of 1896. Just then, there were hundreds of thousands of women joining hundreds of thousands of their voting husbands pouring into town to hear the Republican presidential candidate William McKinley speak from his front porch. It was no accident that the most popular recipe in the book was Ida McKinley’s Chicken Croquettes. The cookbook sold like hot ca-, well like hot croquettes.
Indeed, Ida liked chicken croquettes. A lot. Not only did Mrs. McKinley never actually cook the croquettes, however, but the world-travelled woman who’d worked as an assistant manager in her father’s bank was never once known to enter a kitchen. It was not from disinterest alone, however.
Suffering from the unpredictability of seizure disorder and thus being told it was dangerous to be near a hot stove or open flames in case she had one of the types of “falling” seizures she was known to endure, she and her husband relied on catered meals in the Columbus and Washington residential hotels where they lived while he was a Congressman and Governor, and on her sister’s family cook, while living in her family home in Canton.
Of course, the public gleefully bought the Baptist women’s cookbook, went home and made Ida McKinley chicken croquettes and had their husbands vote for her husband. Never the wiser that Ida only ate croquettes, the campaign never felt the need to clarify the point.
To understand the cookies of Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, one must follow a breadcrumb trail back to 1888 – and realize just how little we’ve come since. Yes, the truth can now be told: it might all be blamed on Mrs. Harrison’s pigs-in-a-blanket.
That year, Caroline Harrison’s husband Benjamin was the Republican presidential candidate, conducting his front porch campaign from their Indianapolis, Indiana home. Managing the cost of maintaining and repairing their home against the ravages of crowds crushing her garden outside while also providing buffet tables of food for visiting political delegations and officials drew on Carrie’s formidable organization skills. Housekeeping, decorating, entertaining were no mere pastimes for her. Mrs. Harrison would leave today’s mommy-bloggers in the dust. She approached domesticity with ferocity.
Like a lot of wealthy Victorian women, she liked flowers, but instead of making floral arrangements, she made stringent horticulture studies and worked with the Department of Agriculture on experimental orchid pollination theories. She fancied the idea of choosing the shades and patterns of her fine china set, but instead of picking from among those offered by top-drawer furnishing firms, she hired a ceramic teacher, bought her own kiln and painted her own designs. She also liked to know exactly what she was eating and how it was prepared. She didn’t merely collect recipes. She vetted and organized them.
After having had to host so many politicos in her home, which doubled as her husband’s campaign headquarters, she knew best what worked as a cheap and cheeerful crowd-pleaser for a presidential rally – or someone else’s wedding, church picnic, or suffrage meeting. While one can only speculate that her “sausage rolls” (more familiar to us today as “pigs-in-a-blanket”) were the biggest hit in her home during the campaign, they could certainly be turned out in mass and at reasonable cost. Whatever recipe it was that specifically inspired her, if just one did, she got going on a revolutionary idea shortly after her husband won the election.
In 1890, a year after the inauguration and now invested with the social power of being First Lady, Caroline Harrison publicly unveiled the fruition of her imploring the wives (more familiar to us today as “spouses”) of Cabinet members, Congressmen, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, Army and Navy officials and Ambassadors to cough up their “favorite” recipes (which usually meant cornering their cooks to list ingredients and record instructions of meals they’d been making from memory). Caroline categorized them all, organizing the recipes course-by-course, then bound together, published as a book for public sale, marketed to not just fellow socialites but the middle-classes (who usually ate just one course at a meal) and working-classes (who often ate just one meal a day). Even if the readers lacked the resources to bake, cook and entertain on a scale like the wives of the powerful, the book also served the purpose of raising elected officials and their wives into idealized role models whom the voters and their wives might now strive to emulate.
Ttitled Statesmen’s Dishes and How to Cook Them (1890), Caroline Harrison’s book was among the very first of the “celebrity cookbooks” genre, but it set the wives of generations of future presidential candidates’ wives on a kitchen collision course which has had them baking for the nation ever since, often without ever having to burn their own finger.
Also known for her biting wit, First Lady Caroline Harrison of course offered up her own “favorite recipe” in the cookbook. Her contribution was indeed pigs-in-a-blanket, perhaps a sardonic metaphor of the compromising alliances politicians must still make with each other.
- Michelle Obama beats Ann Romney in cookie bake-off (thegrio.com)
- Ann Loses to Michelle (foxnews.com)
- Why the Hell Are We Still Holding First Lady Bake-Offs? Stop It. Stop It Right Now. [Flotus] (jezebel.com)
- Michelle Obama wins cookie bake-off (mnn.com)
- Obama Wins Crucial First Lady Cookie Contest (nymag.com)
- Michelle Obama Bests Ann Romney In Cookie Contest (npr.org)