In a blink, it seems, Memorial Day the symbolic kickoff of summertime is here.
Call it grilling or barbecuing, but cooking food over hot coals outside has been a traditional component of the holiday weekend ever since the “Fabulous Fifties,” that Mid-Century Modern decade of tail-finned cars, Elvis and hula hooping. And the President who presided over the USA in that decade was doing it too.
Cookouts became the ubiquitous forum for neighborliness out among the burgeoning citizens populating those cookie-cutter ranch-style houses in massive developments in a land dubbed suburbia.
Even without a square plot of backyard crabgrass, however, city dwellers were in on the craze, grilling on walk-up fire escapes or small apartment patios. In the 1950s, it seemed that everyone was up for summertime barbecuing beneath the sky.
Whether cooking out became the rage because the smiling, golfing grandfather President Dwight D. Eisenhower was seen grilling continuously during the years of his White House residency from 1953 to 1961, or was a matter of him simply mirroring the popular national trend, he certainly gave high visibility to, and popularized the venue for cooking.
Ike, the nickname by which this victorious commander of the Allied Forces during World War II was known around the world, did it in several ways.
First, he not only rhapsodized over his own favorite food, the red-meat beefsteak, (in a McCall’s magazine article, “The Dinner I’d Like to Come Home to,” Ike said he could eat steak everyday of the week, for weeks on end, as did baseball legend Jackie Robinson) but also precisely how he liked it prepared and cooked on the grill.
For him, it was the scorched-coal tactic of getting coals red hot and then placing the steaks strategically right on several level clumps of coals, so it was immediately seared and sealed in the juices. There was rare, medium and well-done, but Eisenhower actually called for his to be “black and blue,” meaning singed with some burned black on the outside and red rare on the inside. The process, in his own words:
“Get a sirloin steak two and a half to three inches thick. Roll the steak in a mixture of fine salt, black pepper and garlic powder. Throw the steak in the fire. After about 10 minutes nudge it over once and let it stay in the fire for a total of about 20 minutes. Take it out, brush off the ashes and coating of seasoning, and slice on the diagonal.”
Another of his barbecue boosts was eagerly sharing his recipes for different sauces to be sent to the inquiring public who wrote the White House for it.
Famously declaring her own “no garlic or onions” palate policy, its unlikely First Lady Mamie Eisenhower spread the sauces on her plate.
If her food fame was the ubiquitous dissemination of her “Million Dollar Fudge” and “Pumpkin Chiffon Pie,” the barbecue bit was all Ike.
And he gave her a run for her money, the requests coming from both men and women in their eternal quest for the perfect barbecue sauces.
Two of his spicy sauces are printed below, one for steak, the other for chicken. Also included is Ike’s recipe for Green Goddess Dressing, his favorite standard used on salads he had served at his barbecues.
Presiding over the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, President Eisenhower was not immune to fanning the Fabulous Fifties flames of “conspicuous consumption” which helped rotate the American economy like a country fair tilt-a-whirl and fuel the “American Dream” of consumerism like a Buick’s full gas tank.
Among the annual upgrades of what was promoted in the 1950s as “new and improved,” were two barbecue sets that the President was known to use and love.
The first was the super-delux contraption that not only let the fellow with a bit of discretionary income to grill beefsteak but simultaneously rotisserie roast chicken.
Also included were a griddle and two gas burners to heat up cans of baked beans, a chopping block made of sturdy maplewood, and even a vinyl umbrella that tilted, to keep the grilling man cool. It even had wheels, making it portable to the poolside.
Produced by General Electric in 1956, it even had a Fabulous Fifties name. It was called the “Partio.”
And while the 50s may be colored by the First Lady’s famously favored shade of “Mamie Pink,” the General didn’t do so bad for himself, his preferred color of greenish-blue appearing in a range of shades from public school draperies to, yes, Ike’s very own “Partio Kitchen-BBQ Cart,” in an unmistakable, eye-popping Aqua.
“It’s the most fantastic thing you ever saw!” Eisenhower exclaimed about his Partio.
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan apparently thought so too.
In 2011, the presidentially perfect Partio sold at auction to the museum for $20,000. They also own Ike’s old Lincoln-Mercury limousine.
That’s not all the President used for his grilling, however.
Sure, Ike could afford a Partio.
His best-selling wartime memoir earned him a half-million dollars, and he embraced the privileges of prestige and befriending a band of corporate fat cats.
Before rising to five-star general, however, he and Mamie had long made do in minimal military quarters, budgeting on a relatively low-paying military income. In fact, much Eisenhower food lore can often be traced to practical matters of money. Ike was already cookout commander, his earliest snap in a barbecue apron dating to 1940.
Even during World War II, he got more for his mile in gas by heating up his Army rations on the engine of his jeep. Weather and war permitting, he’d still grill in Europe, his personal aide and friend John Moaney serving as his second in command of the coals.
Many suspected that Eisenhower never stopped perceiving life through the lens of a poor, Kansas farmboy (“Squirrel Stew with Leftovers,” was a staple of his childhood).
Certainly, his love of grilling had started back then, after he and his brothers and friends went fishing and cooked the fresh catch over a pit fire. It wasn’t just for fun, it was free food.
Disciplined about getting value for his dollar, even did the food shopping. “Ike runs the country, I turn the pork chops,” Mamie famously quipped to dodge questions about her potential political influence. It wasn’t true.
Ike ran the country and turned the pork chops.
Cook the President did, from simmering his legendary beef stew to flipping cornmeal pancakes all from his specially-built small kitchen on the White House third floor, where he could whip up whatever he wanted without too many cooks spoiling his broth.
Ike still wanted to grill, but the only truly private outdoor space was a somewhat narrow crescent-shaped terrace just outside the Solarium, its flooring being the ceiling of the Truman Balcony one flight below.
So, just like those big-city living Beatniks in tiny apartments who still wanted to cook out, he was not so big and fancy that he didn’t get one of those new, little imported grills that were all the postwar rage, doing double duty as an example of efficient national economy while also helping free-trade a bit.
It was called the Hibachi.
A small outdoor stove using charcoal that had been part of Japanese cooking tradition since ancient times, the hibachi first caught the eye of American G.I.’s stationed in postwar Japan and in Japanese neighborhoods of Hawaii, where those scraping by often grilled skewers of meats, vegetables and even fruit right out on the city sidewalks.
They soon started popping up on tables at tiki bars, where patrons grilled up tidbits to slow down the Mai Tai’s.
Urbanites adopted the novelty and by the Ike Era, the contraptions had been Americanized, retooled in rugged, black cast iron and given a super-sized grill, double in size so big, fat Brontosaurus steaks could fit on them.
Manufactured by the newly-formed Hibachi Company, they were stamped with that ubiquitous identifier: “Made in Taiwan.”
And, up there, on the roof of the most famous house in America, the President of the United States was using an Hibachi himself, a dome-shaped version more similar to the original Japanese ones.
It was also at the White House, where Ike turned his birds, basting chicken with his sauces, though there was no sign of the Partio atop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Nothing symbolized the good life better than the backyard cookout,” noted historian W.J. Roabaugh, “even if President Eisenhower had to grill his thick, succulent steaks on the White House roof.”
Ike had more room for bigger barbecues at Camp David, where the white-brick permanent grill with chimney was substantial and sturdy, but it paled in comparison to the one he built at his private farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Meant to serve not just his family and close friends, but bigger crowds of weekend guests, it may still stand as the most impressive permanent brick barbecue stove in the nation.
Today, it is virtually a pilgrimage shrine for global grillers, a monumental Mid-Century Modern marvel.
Seeming to embody the moderate views, Midwestern values and middle-class lifestyle of that mythic “average American,” perhaps nothing more reinforced that impression about President Eisenhower than pictures of him grilling away.
For, despite his modern gizmos and brick fortresses, more often than not Ike was leaned over a rickety aluminum round grill, extending a long fork, his hand over the hot coals, smiling as he flipped the t-bone.
By the turn of the decade, 1960, Ike was in his last year as President; inevitably the need for something new overcame the comfort with the familiar.
Intellectuals, comedians, beatniks goofed on Ike and his barbecues as squaresville.
The former President didn’t seem to care.
He was too busy golfing in Palm Springs near his new desert home. And grilling away.
President Eisenhower’s Barbecue Sauce
1⁄4 cup butter
46 ounces canned tomatoes, strained (crushed)
1⁄4 cup vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
3 teaspoons paprika
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 1⁄2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1⁄4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, according to taste (or more)
1 teaspoon black pepper
Mix ingredients in a small sauce pan. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Use for basting meat or chicken, and serve as sauce for it as well. This makes a lot of barbecue sauce so you will want to store some for later use.
Ike’s Barbecued Chicken
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 (3 -3 1/2 lb) roasting chickens, cut up
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1⁄2 cup celery, chopped
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1⁄4 cup lemon juice
1 cup ketchup
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1⁄3 tablespoon yellow mustard
1 cup water
salt, to taste
1 pinch red pepper flakes
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium high heat. Brown the chicken pieces, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding the skillet. When nicely browned on all sides, remove chicken, drain briefly and place in a large ovenproof casserole dish. Add the chopped onion and celery to the oil remaining in the skillet. Cook until the vegetables soften, 5-8 minute.
Add the vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, prepared mustard and 1 cup of water. Mix well and taste; adjust seasoning to your taste. Add red pepper flakes, to taste. Simmer the sauce for 30 min to blend the flavors together. While sauce is simmering, preheat the oven to 325ºF. Pour the sauce over the browned chicken in the casserole dish. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 1 hour, or until the juices run clear.
President Eisenhower’s Green Goddess Salad Dressing
2 cups mayonnaise
1 cup sour cream
1/8 cup (2 tablespoons) anchovy paste (available in squeeze tubes)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup, chopped green onions
1/4 cup tarragon vinegar (couldn’t find it locally so I just steeped dried tarragon leaves in white vinegar overnight, then strained the leaves out)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (fresh lemon juice really adds to the taste)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1. Whisk together all ingredients.
2. Refrigerate until ready to serve and pour over favorite salad or greens. (After adding the dressing, we garnished it with chopped chives.)