Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Meat Rationing at the Roosevelt White House

When she toured the White House kitchen in 1933, Henrietta Nesbitt, Eleanor Roosevelt's housekeeper, reportedly found cockroaches crawling about. In her book White House Diary Nesbitt described her first inspection of the premises: “I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary...The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.”

“There is only one solution,” she told Mrs. Roosevelt. “We must have a new kitchen.”

And so it was that Public Works Project No. 634 was instituted, with demolition and construction on the kitchen beginning in the summer of 1935. But because the jobless rate was so high during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt insisted that "relief workers be employed for the reconstruction whenever possible." According to historian Mary Barrett:

The renovation, planned by the White House staff and engineers from General Electric and Westinghouse corporations, reconfigured the working space, replaced rusted pipes, put in a whole new electrical system with all-new electric appliances, and installed more efficient dumbwaiters to transport the food to the State Floor dining rooms above.

New equipment included six roasting ovens, a sixteen-foot-long stove, eight refrigerators, five dishwashers, a soup kettle, a meat grinder, waffle irons, multiple mixers, a thirty-gallon ice-cream storage freezer, and a deep fryer that held five gallons of fat. Stainless steel storage and counter tops were installed throughout.

The President and Mrs. Roosevelt were delighted, but Mrs. Nesbitt reported that the staff was overwhelmed by the latest technological innovations. They continued to do things the way they had been done in the past: washing dishes, as well as chopping and slicing food—by hand. And unfortunately for President Roosevelt, a new kitchen did not improve the quality or variety of Mrs. Nesbitt’s menus.

Mrs. Nesbitt believed in economical, simple, American fare: cheap cuts of meat including brains, sweetbreads, and beef tongues; mashed potatoes; flavorless canned vegetables; molded gelatin salads dotted with marshmallows; and insipid desserts. Franklin Roosevelt once joked that the only reason he sought a fourth term of office was so that he could return to the White House to fire Mrs. Nesbitt!

Of course, Roosevelt did win a fourth election, but Mrs. Nesbitt "and her bland menus remained." In her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Blanche Cook conjectured that Eleanor's "curious disregard for her husband’s tastes suggests an explanation for her persistent defense of Henrietta Nesbitt: The housekeeper was one expression of her passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage of remarkable and labyrinthine complexity.”

But culinary historian Barbara Haber offers a different take on the relationship between Eleanor, Nesbitt, and the meals that appeared on the Roosevelt's table. In an essay titled, “Home Cooking in the FDR White House,” Haber explains that Eleanor cared little about what she ate. Her goal for White House menus was to "keep them strictly within the bounds of culinary propriety for a nation that was suffering first from economic hardship, and later from the restrictions of rationing." It was her social conscience, Haber claims, not her marital frustrations, that ruled the table.

Whatever the case may be, Nesbitt herself confirmed that when meat was rationed during World War II, the White House had to stretch its meat allotment, too, which led to some rather bland meals at the Roosevelt White House. Some of Nesbitt's usual “meat-stretcher foods” included stuffed peppers, stew, ham scallops, noodles and mushrooms with chicken scraps, spaghetti with meat-cakes “cut down to the size of mere marbles,” curries and omelets with meat tidbits, croquettes for “a sustaining meal in themselves,” minestrone soup, fish chowder, gumbo z’herbes, stuffed eggs with meat bits for stuffing, baked beans, deviled meats, and casseroles.

And at an old-fashioned, American-style picnic held in the summer of 1939 in honor of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of England, menu items included Virginia Ham, Smoked Turkey, and Hot Dogs! The next day, news of the picnic made the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “KING TRIES HOT DOG AND ASKS FOR MORE.” While the King reportedly “ate his hot dog by hand like an American,” the Queen daintily cut hers with a knife and fork.

Although that particlar recipe may have been lost to posterity, you can try this recipe for Hot Dogs with Homemade Pickle Relish from Bobby Flay for your next old-fashioned, All-American style barbecue:

8 link hot dogs
quality hot dog buns
Homemade Pickle Relish, recipe follows

Directions: Heat grill to high. Grill the hot dogs until golden brown on all sides. Place in buns and top with your favorite mustard and the homemade pickle relish.

For the Pickle Relish:
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
8 large dill pickles (sour, not half-sour), finely diced
1 small red pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small yellow pepper, grilled, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
1 small white onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Bring vinegar, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds to a boil in a medium saucepan on the grates of the grill; cook until reduced by half and slightly syrupy. Remove from the heat, add remaining ingredients, and gently toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

To read an excerpt from my new book from Simon and Schuster click here