Thursday, September 30, 2010

Woodrow Wilson, Prohibition, and the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919

At 12:40 p.m. on January 15, 1919, in Boston’s Industrial North End, a fifty-five foot high steel storage tank containing more than two million gallons of molasses exploded, unleashing an immense wave of thick, viscous goo that swept through the city streets as fast as 35 miles per hour.

The wave – initially thirty feet high, according to some bystanders – exerted enough force “to break the girders of the adjacent Boston Elevated Railway's Atlantic Avenue structure and lift a train off its tracks.” The force of the blast and the ensuing tsunami also overturned dozens of cars and trucks in its path and "demolished several nearby buildings, including a fire station which was crushed by a huge chunk of the steel tank."

Witnesses later stated that, as the tank collapsed, there was a loud rumbling sound, like a machine gun, and that “the ground shook as if a train were passing by.” In his book, Black Tide, Stephen Puleo described the disaster this way:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was…Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.

The next morning, the Boston Evening Globe ran a front-page story based on eyewitness accounts taken on that terrible day:

Fragments of the great tank were thrown into the air, buildings in the neighborhood began to crumple up as though the underpinnings had been pulled away from under them, and scores of people in the various buildings were buried in the ruins, some dead and others badly injured.

In all, more than 150 people were injured and 21 children and adults were killed, mostly by crushing or asphyxiation. Fueled by the intense anti-immigrant sentiments that swept through the United States during the post-World War I Red Scare, owners of the distillery tried to pin the disaster on Italian anarchists, claiming that they had bombed the tank because they knew that the molasses was intended to be fermented to produce ethyl alcohol, a key component in the manufacturing of munitions at the time.

Although the exact cause of the disaster was never determined, no evidence of sabotage was ever found and experts generally attributed it to unseasonably warm temperatures combined with structural defects and poor maintenance of the tank.

So what does this have to do with President Woodrow Wilson and food? Well, by coincidence, the day after the disaster, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxicating liquors. With Prohibition looming on the horizon, rumors began to circulate which held that the tank had been overfilled to enable the owners of the distillery to produce as much rum as quickly as possible before the law took effect.

This claim was later proven untrue due to the fact that the distillery didn't make rum and specialized instead in the production of industrial alcohol, which was exempt from the state prohibition laws in effect at the time, and would later be exempted from the Volstead Act, which was passed by Congress on October 27, 1919 over President Wilson's veto.

Regardless of the cause, more than one hundred lawsuits were filed against the owners of the tank, and litigation dragged on for six years, during which 3,000 witnesses testified. In the end, the court ruled for the plaintiffs and ordered the company to pay nearly a million dollars in damages - a "bittersweet victory for survivors of one of the strangest disasters in American history."

FOOD FACT: Molasses was once used in the United States as the primary sweetener in cooking and baking. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink, New England colonists also used molasses "as an ingredient in brewing birch beer and molasses beer and in distilling rum." In the early 1700s, "rum made in New England became an essential element in a highly profitable Triangular Trade across the Atlantic. The colonists exported rum to West Africa in trade for slaves; the ships brought the slaves from Africa to the French West Indies, trading them for more molasses and sugar; these products were then shipped to New England to make more rum....When the cost of refined sugar dropped at the end of the nineteenth century...molasses lost its role as an important sweetener in the American diet."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Barack Obama and the "Controversy" over Chicken Fingers in the White House Bowling Alley

So did you know that there is a one-lane bowling alley at the White House? According to the White House Museum website, bowling lanes were first built on the ground floor of the West Wing in 1947 as a birthday gift for President Harry Truman in "the location of what is the present-day Situation Room."

During the Eisenhower administration, the bowling lanes were moved to the Old Executive Office Building "to make way for a mimeograph room." Ten years later, friends of Richard Nixon , an avid bowler, paid for a new one-lane alley to be built in the White House in an underground area below the driveway leading to the North Portico.

Since then, many presidents and politicians have surely thrown a strike or two in the bowling alley, but perhaps no one has enjoyed this perk of living in the White House more than the presidents' children and grandchildren.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, President George Bush and his wife Barbara were enjoying a big family dinner shortly after moving into the White House when the First Lady realized that her twin granddaughters, Jenna and Barbara, were not at the table. Turning to the butler, Mrs. Bush asked if he happened to know where they were, to which he replied, "In the bowling alley, waiting to be served."

Not fully amused, the First Lady ordered the girls back to the family quarters by "sending word that Bush grandchildren do not eat in the bowling alley, they eat with the family in the dining room." She also light-heartedly warned the White House staff to "beware of young charm artists."

But much bigger and more sinister "scandals" involving the White House bowling alley arose late last year. According to new reports, things got a little tense during a White House Press Briefing in October of 2009 when CBS correspondent Chip Reid questioned White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about a Washington Times story "that accused the White House of selling access to the bowling alley," among other things.

Following up on a question posed by a CNN reporter, Reid asked Gibbs if the Obama administration would release the names of donors who were given special access to White House advisors and "perks like the bowling alley.” Gibbs caustically responded by noting that the administration would indeed be releasing "the names of everyone who visited the White House, with whom they met, and for what time period."

Still not satisfied, Reid pressed the bowling alley issue further, at which point Gibbs finally defused the spat with humor, and flatly shot back, "I can report to you that [my son] Ethan Gibbs, with the bumpers down, bowled a couple of games while eating some chicken fingers.”

Now, most of you probably haven't had the chance to bowl a couple of games at the White House while eating chicken fingers, but you can make this healthy recipe for Crispy Chicken Fingers before knocking down a few pins at your local bowling alley.

1 1/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut across into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk
Cooking spray
4 cups whole-grain corn cereal
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine the chicken and buttermilk in a shallow dish. Cover and chill for 15 minutes. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Put the cereal in a sealed plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin. Transfer the crumbs to a shallow dish.

Season the chicken with the salt and a few grinds of pepper. Dip each piece of chicken in the cereal to fully coat and arrange on the baking sheet. Bake until cooked through, about 8 minutes. Leave the chicken on the baking sheet to cool slightly. Serve warm with ketchup or honey mustard sauce.

Credit: The White House Basement Bowling Alley in the 1980s, White House Museum .

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Barack Obama, the White House Family Theatre, and Healthy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

The private Family Theater at the White House is occasionally used by the president to rehearse major speeches, like the State of the Union address each January, but much more often it is where the First Family can watch just about any movie they please, "often sent direct from Hollywood before its release."

According to an adapted article from the Guardian Unlimited posted on the White House Museum website, many presidents have enjoyed private screenings of their favorite films in this luxurious theatre that features four large arm chairs and forty red upholstered seats. This is what the article reveals about some of the presidents' favorite flicks:

Dwight Eisenhower was obsessed with westerns...One of his particular favorites was the Gary Cooper film High Noon, but he would watch almost anything about cowboys...Because of his chronic back pain, John Kennedy's aides installed his favorite rocking chair in the middle of the front row. Later on, he had an orthopedic bed set up in the cinema, so he could watch propped up on pillows...

Richard Nixon saw most of his movies with the same person, his golfing and drinking buddy, Charles "Bebe" Rebozo, who came to the White House theatre 150 times...Their favorites, alongside Patton, were old-fashioned escapist musicals such as the ultra-patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy, with James Cagney.

Starting with All the President's Men - about the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought him to office — Jimmy Carter held 480 screenings at the White House over four years...The devout Baptist started off insisting that only family films be shown, but eventually relented and became the first president to watch an X-rated film at the family theatre: Midnight Cowboy...

Ronald Reagan watched very few films at the White House. He and Nancy watched most of their movies on their weekends at Camp David, preferring Jimmy Stewart movies, High Noon (the president's favorite), and, on special occasions such as the president's birthday, his own films.

Bill Clinton also loved High Noon, but his taste in movies mirrored the style of his presidency. It ranged from the earnest and complex — Schindler's List and American Beauty were among his favorites — to simple and earthy, like the Naked Gun movies.

George Bush is a fan of the Austin Powers series and has been known to raise his little finger to his lips in imitation of the characters Dr Evil and Mini-Me. [After] the September 11 attacks, however, his viewing [became] more somber. In early 2002, after the worst of the fighting was over in Afghanistan and plans were being hatched to invade Iraq, President Bush watched more war movies, like We Were Soldiers, about Vietnam, and Ridley Scott's soldier's-eye view of Mogadishu in 1993, Black Hawk Down.


Like his predecessors, President Obama occasionally rehearses speeches in the Family Theatre and has enjoyed star-studded, pre-release screenings of such Hollywood blockbusters as Julie & Julia (with stars Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in attendance) and Slumdog Millionaire, as well as the recent HBO miniseries "The Pacific," with executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks in attendance.

An avid sports fan, the president also hosted a Super Bowl party last year in the Family Theatre, where he and his guests tried out special 3D effects as they watched the Pittsburgh Steelers narrowly defeat the Arizona Cardinals by a score of 27-23. And when it came time for Super Bowl snacks, the president rolled up his sleeves and personally served Oatmeal Raisin cookies to his invited friends and guests.

Although that particular White House recipe is difficult to obtain, you can try this one from Martha Stewart if you'd like to serve some Healthy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies at your next Family Movie Night or other fun social gathering:

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
1/2 cup dried currants or raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flours and baking powder; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together oil, sugar, egg, and vanilla. Add flour mixture, and stir to combine; mix in oats and currants.

Using two tablespoons of dough per cookie, roll into balls; place on two baking sheets lined with parchment paper, 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake until lightly browned, 15to 17 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Cool 5 minutes on sheets, then transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 5 days.

FAST FACT: According to the White House Museum website, the Family Theatre "was converted in 1942 from a long cloakroom when the current East Wing building was constructed." Since then, some presidents have considered it to be the greatest perk of living in the White House, including Bill Clinton, who remarked, "The best perk out in the White House is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else. It’s the wonderful movie theater I get here, because people send me these movies all the time.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Michelle Obama, the National Football League, and the President's Active Lifestyle Award

On September 8, Michelle Obama and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Campaign and NFL PLAY 60 are teaming up to fight childhood obesity and help kids lead healthier, more active lives.

The announcement was made at Woldenberg Park in New Orleans during the NFL PLAY 60 Youth Football Festival, part of the NFL’s celebration to kick off the 2010 season. After her remarks, the First Lady took part in football drills, along with students from Brock Elementary School and former NFL players Deuce McAllister, Derrick Brooks, and Eddie George. Lending support on the sidelines was country singer Taylor Swift decked out in a patriotic blue and white polka dotted sundress.

Earlier in the day, Mrs. Obama gave a speech in which she encouraged kids around the country to “Play 60” and join her in competing for the President’s Active Lifestyle Award. To earn an award, children need to "engage in physical activity for 60 minutes every day, five days a week, for six weeks." And to show everyone just how much fun it can be, Mrs. Obama sportingly pledged to work toward earning her own award. This is what she said:

I’m going to do it. And I want kids across the country to join me. Actually, I want all you all to join me. Don't just leave it on the kids. I want you all to join me. So in a couple weeks -- I'm not sure when it’s going to start -- starting soon, I'm going to be recording my progress online, so if I start falling behind, I want everyone to be checking on me and make sure that I'm not slacking. Send me emails to shame me into staying on track. So I’m excited about it, and I think it’s something that’s very doable. And the thing is, is that if your kids see you doing it -- your grandparents, uncles, teachers -- they’re going to be engaged. So let’s make this something that we’re all trying to do together.

At the launch of the Let's Move! campaign, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum creating "the first ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity to conduct a review of every single program and policy relating to child nutrition and physical activity."

According to the Let's Move! website, the Task Force’s recommendation focuses on the four pillars of the First Lady's campaign: empowering parents and caregivers; providing healthy food in schools; improving access to healthy, affordable foods; and increasing physical activity.

Of course, the First Lady also emphasizes healthy, organic foods at the White House, as most visibly demonstrated by the Obama's kitchen garden, the first at the White House since the Roosevelt's Victory Garden during World War II.

If you'd like to compete to earn a President's Active Lifestyle award after watching a few NFL games today, please click here and then...get moving! And if you think the First Lady is "falling behind in her progress," send her an email to "shame her into staying on track."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Elegant Arthur's Many Late Night Feasts at the White House

As president, Chester Arthur hosted many elegant state dinners and often stayed up socializing with his guests as late as two or three o’clock in the morning. Biographers say that he also liked to take his friends on midnight tours of the White House. Because of his nocturnal ways, Arthur was often late to his morning meetings and his habitual tardiness led one critic to say, “President Arthur never did today what he could put off until tomorrow.”

Sadly, President Arthur died a year and a half after leaving office. Most historians agree that he died from kidney disease, although, at the time, many people believed that his decadent lifestyle contributed to his illness. Describing his culinary habits, one commentator observed:

Arthur’s illness is largely due to his life in the White House. He lived too high, exercised too little, and kept too late hours. He did not breakfast much before ten o’clock and his dinners did not begin until nine or ten in the evening. He often sat at the table until after midnight, where, though he was not a glutton, he consumed fine wines and terrapin and other rich food...President Arthur rode horseback for a time, but in spite of his doctor’s advice, he discontinued this, and grew heavier and heavier from lack of exercise...

Although no one knows exactly what caused President Arthur's illness, we do know that he was a true gourmet and relished such delicacies as mutton chops with a glass of claret or expensive champagne. An avid fisherman, he was also particularly fond of Terrapin Steak, which he preferred to serve with rich side dishes like fried Macaroni Pie with Oysters.

If President Arthur were here with us today, he surely would have also liked this rich and delicious recipe for Seafood Linguine with Mussels and Oysters from the Food Network's ever-energetic Emeril Lagasse:

2 tablespoons, plus 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1 pound linguine
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 sliced red jalapenos
3/4 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon Essence, divided, recipe follows
1 cup small diced onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 cups canned tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
12 littleneck clams, scrubbed
1/2 pound mussels, scrubbed and de-bearded
1/2 pound calamari, bodies diced into rings, with the tentacles
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, optional

Bring a large 1-gallon pot of water to a boil, add 2 tablespoons of the salt to the pot and place the pasta in it. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and then transfer pasta to a large bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Toss to coat the pasta well, then set aside.

As the pasta cooks, set a 14-inch saute pan over medium-high heat and add the remaining olive oil. Once hot add the red jalapenos. Season the shrimp with 2 teaspoons of the Essence, add the shrimp to the pan and cook for 1 minute. Turn the shrimp over and cook another minute. Remove the shrimp from the pan and set aside as you prepare the sauce.

Place the onions in the pan and cook until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the red pepper flakes and saute briefly before adding the tomato sauce and tomato paste. Cook the sauce briefly, then add the clams to the pan. Cover the pan and cook the clams for 1 minute, remove the lid, add the mussels to the pan and replace the cover.

Cook the mussels for 2 minutes, remove the lid and season the calamari with the remaining 1 teaspoon of Essence before adding them to the pan along with the seared shrimp and the pasta. Continue to cook the pasta, tossing to blend the pasta with the sauce, and season with the remaining 1 1/4 teaspoons of the salt, about 2 minutes. Garnish the pasta with the chopped parsley and cheese and serve.

FAST FACT: Nicknamed "Elegant Arthur" for his fastidious ways, President Arthur reportedly owned more than eighty suits and often changed his pants several times each day!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pauline Wayne, the Last White House Dairy Cow

So did you know that President William Howard Taft kept a Holstein dairy cow named Pauline Wayne on the White House lawn? For two years, Pauline dutifully supplied President Taft and his family with fresh milk every day.

Shortly before Taft left office in 1913, Pauline was shipped back to her former owner in Wisconsin. After that, pasteurized milk replaced raw milk at the White House. A New York Times article dated February 2, 1913 announced the departure of Taft's beloved cow:

Pauline Wayne, President Taft’s famous Holstein cow, will follow him into retirement March 4. The president today called in Senator Walter Stephenson of Wisconsin, who two years ago took Pauline to the White House, and gave her back to her former owner. Pauline has not been in the best of health in several months.

President Taft believes that if she is taken back to Wisconsin and put on Senator Stephenson’s farm again, her youthful vigor will revive. The Senator was glad to recover Pauline, as she had supplied milk to the family of the President for two years, and he thought she would add dignity to his herd.


After leaving office, Taft served as a professor at Yale Law School until President Warren Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. To Taft, the appointment was his greatest honor. So much so that, years later, he wrote, “I don't remember that I ever was President.”

FOOD FACT: A French scientist named Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization in the 1860s. During his many experiments, Pasteur discovered that when you heat a food to a high enough temperature, the heat will kill certain (but not all) bacteria. Raw milk can be pasteurized by heating it to 145 degrees F for about thirty minutes. In the years prior to pasteurization, many lethal diseases were transmitted through raw or contaminated milk. One particularly sad example is that of Abraham Lincoln, whose mother died when he was "in his tenth year" after she drank milk from a dairy cow that had grazed on White Snakeroot, a very poisonous plant.

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Saturday, September 4, 2010

"I Always Give My Occupation as a Farmer"

According to historians, Harry Truman was a farm boy at heart. For much of his childhood, Harry lived with his brother and sister on their grandmother's 600 acre farm near Grandview, Missouri. When the Truman children were old enough to begin school, the family moved to nearby Independence. After high school, Harry applied to West Point but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Instead of attending college, he worked as a newspaper wrapper and as a teller at a bank.

In 1914, Harry returned to Grandview and assumed supervision of his grandmother’s farm, plowing, sowing, harvesting, and repairing farm equipment himself. For the rest of his life, Truman always enjoyed returning to the family farm, so much so that, even after he became president, he was quoted as saying, "I always give my occupation as farmer. I spent the best years of my life trying to run a 600-acre farm successfully, and I know what the problems are."

It's not surprising, then, that even in the White House, Truman and his wife Bess favored hearty, farm-style foods like Meatloaf and Pot Roasted Beef. Tuna Noodle Casserole was another Truman family favorite. If you'd like to get a sense of the dish that often appeared on the Truman's dinner table, here is a simple recipe that has been adapted from Bess Truman’s handwritten recipe which is on file at the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

12 ounces elbow macaroni
1 can white albacore tuna, drained
1 can cream of celery soup
1/3 cup milk
¾ cup cheddar cheese
½ cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 2 ½ to 3-quart casserole dish. In a medium saucepan, cook the noodles until tender, about 10-12 minutes. Remove and drain well. In a medium bowl, combine the noodles, tuna, soup, and milk. Pour mixture into the prepared baking dish. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Mix together bread crumbs and butter in a small bowl, then sprinkle bread crumb mixture and cheese over the top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until bread crumbs are browned.

FAST FACT: As a boy, Harry and his father attended the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City in 1900 and watched as William Jennings Bryan was nominated a second time as the Democratic presidential candidate. Truman's father was passionate about politics, and, in a letter to his wife Bess, Harry later wrote, “Politics is all [my father] ever advises me to neglect the farm for.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teddy Roosevelt Sand Tart Cookies

At home in the White House from 1901 until 1909, Theodore Roosevelt’s six young kids had the complete run of the place. They took their favorite pony for a ride in the White House elevator and frightened visiting officials with a four foot king snake. No doubt famished after such action-packed days, “TR’s Brood” favored hearty country foods, like Southern Fried Chicken with White Gravy and Grits or Chicken Fried Steak with Mashed Potatoes and Dutch Apple Cake.

Historians say that the Roosevelt family also loved eating cookies and other sweet, sugary treats. According to Poppy Cannon, a "particularly cherished family recipe" for Sand Tarts was found written on the inside cover of one of Edith Roosevelt's many cookbooks. Although that particular recipe might be difficult to duplicate today, you can try this sweet and simple recipe for Sand Tart Cookies from Good Housekeeping and Paula Deen:

1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup pecans, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 275°F. In large bowl, with mixer on medium speed, beat butter, vanilla, and 1/2 cup sugar until smooth, occasionally scraping bowl with rubber spatula. Reduce speed to low; gradually beat in flour just until blended, occasionally scraping bowl. With spoon, stir in pecans.

With floured hands, shape dough by level measuring tablespoons into about 2" by 1/2" crescents. Place crescents, 2 inches apart, on 2 ungreased large cookie sheets. Place cookie sheets on 2 oven racks. Bake about 45 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. With metal spatula, transfer cookies to wire racks set over waxed paper. Immediately sprinkle remaining confectioners' sugar through sieve over cookies to coat well. Cool completely and enjoy!

FAST FACT: Teddy and his second wife Edith were married in 1886. His daughter Alice (from his first marriage) was 17 when the family moved into the White House. The other children were Ted, Kermit, Ethel, Archie, and Quentin. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House, they brought along a whole menagerie of exotic pets with them. Kermit had a Kangaroo Rat that reportedly ate lumps of sugar off the breakfast table and four-year-old Quentin had a pet green snake named Emily Spinach!

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