Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Theodore Roosevelt, Muckrakers, and the "Monarchical Manners" of the White House

In keeping with the progressive, muckraking nature of the times, a journalist for Harper's Weekly complained about "the monarchical manners" of the White House during Theodore Roosevelt's administration.

In particular, the journalist alleged that "since Mr. Roosevelt became President there have been witnessed behind the White House doors an exclusiveness, a rigor of etiquette, and a display of swords and gold braid such as no one of his predecessors ever dreamed of...The atmosphere of the White House, once democratic and free, has become tainted with the manners of monarchy."

Similar criticisms were expressed in a June 1906 Washington Post column in which Roosevelt was condemned for indulging in extravagant dining practices at the White House. Responding to the allegations, a spokesman for the president sent a letter to the Post which appeared the next day:

When anyone endeavors to create a widespread impression that the President and his family sit down to a four or five course breakfast, a six or seven course luncheon, and a ten-course dinner, the President feels that a denial is not inappropriate. Instead of a breakfast consisting of oranges, cantaloupes, cereals, eggs, bacon, lamb chops, hot cakes, and waffles, President Roosevelt insists that the regular White House breakfast consists of hard boiled eggs, rolls, and coffee.

Instead of a luncheon of such delicious viands as Little Neck clams, stuffed olives, celery, consommé of chicken, fish sauté, eggs a la turque, Spring lamb, new string beans, asparagus, mashed potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and ice cream, President Roosevelt declares that when alone he always contents himself with a bowl of bread and milk.

When Mrs. Roosevelt or the children are present, the luncheon consists of cold meat, tea, cantaloupe in season, and bread. Instead of a ten-course dinner, the President declares that nine times out of ten a three-course dinner is served, and the other time a two-course dinner.

Despite the muckrakers' monarchical allegations, Roosevelt's reputation inside the White House was that of a simple family man. Ike Hoover served in the White House for forty-two years, eventually serving as Chief Usher in charge of day-to-day operations. In his memoirs, published in 1934, Hoover provided insight into the Roosevelt family’s daily dining habits:

The entire family [sat] down [for] breakfast at eight o'clock. After breakfast the President spent an hour or so in his study, perhaps reading, while Mrs. Roosevelt arranged the details of the day's program. The President went to his office at nine-thirty or ten o'clock, and Mrs. Roosevelt for a walk or shopping...All returned just about in time for lunch. Those famous lunches!

Something indeed was wrong when there were not two or more guests for this meal. To prepare properly for a certain number was almost a physical impossibility, for notice was continually coming from the office that someone had been invited at the last minute, and many times the family and guests had to wait until the table was made larger before they could be seated. The place was really a transient boardinghouse, and how every one got enough to eat was the wonder of the household...

Although Hoover didn't mention what particular dishes were served at those famous Roosevelt luncheons, researchers tell us that TR's diet consisted of "quite a bit of game from hunting expeditions" and that he was also fond of Southern Fried Chicken with White Gravy and Grits. If you'd like to whip up some Southern Fried Chicken for your next family luncheon or dinner this week, here's a simple and simply delicious recipe to try from Paula Dean:

3 eggs
1/3 cup water
About 1 cup hot red pepper sauce
2 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon pepper
House seasoning, recipe follows
1 (1 to 2 pound) chicken, cut into pieces
Oil, for frying, preferably peanut oil

In a medium size bowl, beat the eggs with the water. Add enough hot sauce so the egg mixture is bright orange. In another bowl, combine the flour and pepper. Season the chicken with the house seasoning. Dip the seasoned chicken in the egg, and then coat well in the flour mixture. Heat the oil to 350 degrees F in a deep pot. Do not fill the pot more than 1/2 full with oil. Fry the chicken in the oil until brown and crisp. Dark meat takes longer then white meat. It should take dark meat about 13 to 14 minutes, white meat around 8 to 10 minutes.

FAST FACT: As for the Roosevelt's evenings, Hoover noted that "it was more to the liking of the family to spend a quiet evening in the library, either playing cards or reading the current magazines. The whole family were fiends when it came to reading. No newspapers. Never a moment was allowed to go to waste; from the oldest to the youngest they always had a book or a magazine before them. The President...would just devour a book and it was no uncommon thing for him to go entirely through three or four volumes in the course of an evening. Likewise we frequently saw one of the children stretched out on the floor flat on his stomach eating a piece of candy and with his face buried deep in a book."