Journalist and Julia Child’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme (My Life in France; The French Chef in America) has crafted a finely balanced, scrupulously researched account of gastronomy and culture, history and politics in Dinner With the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House.
Even for those of us who paid the barest of attention in history class, Prud’homme’s exceptional writing and good nose for a lively anecdote make the book’s portraits of 26 American presidents vibrant, entertaining and relevant. Food in the White House is both “sustenance and metaphor,” he writes. In a literal sense, these meals reflect the preferences of presidential palates. For example, George H.W. Bush despised broccoli; Barack Obama had a “global palate”; Richard Nixon didn’t care what he ate; Abraham Lincoln loved his cornbread; and Lyndon B. Johnson doted on Texas barbecue. In a broader sense, whatever food is served in the White House influences the nation’s economic, social, cultural and political climate. Food even has the power to bring together disparate parties for productive political debate, such as Thomas Jefferson’s “Dinner Table Bargain” and Jimmy Carter’s Camp David peace brokering efforts between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. As the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain put it, “Nothing is more political than food. Nothing.”
Prud’homme also gives credit to the less visible figures who have wielded food’s power, such as the many Black chefs and diverse cooks who have staffed the White House kitchen throughout history. He also shows the powerful influence first ladies have had over the presidential diet and their canny oversight of White House entertaining, from State dinners to receptions and more.
The book’s coda is a short curation of presidential families’ favorite recipes, including Martha Washington’s preserved cherries, Jefferson’s salad with tarragon vinaigrette, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “reverse martini,” Dwight D. Eisenhower’s steak and Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River chili. A captivating epicurean history with a political twist, Dinner With the President is a fascinating look at life in the “People’s House.”