Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Brief History of the Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama

As it often is with political history, there are competing claims as to when the presidential tradition of "pardoning" a Thanksgiving Day holiday turkey began. Some say it dates back to the 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln's young son Tad begged his dad to spare the life of a wild turkey named "Jack" that had been sent to the Lincolns to be part of their Christmas dinner.

Others claim that the tradition began during Harry Truman's administration. Although it's true that the National Turkey Federation has been providing holiday turkeys to the White House since 1947, when Truman was in office, there's no evidence to prove that this story is true. This is what the Truman Library offered on the issue:

The Truman Library has received many requests over the years for information confirming the story that President Truman "pardoned" a Thanksgiving turkey in 1947, thus initiating a Presidential tradition that continues to this day.

The Library's staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency. Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table. In any event, the Library has been unable to determine when the tradition of pardoning the turkey actually began.


While President John F. Kennedy spared a turkey's life on November 19, 1963, just days before his assassination, he didn't use the word "pardon." Instead, the bird had a sign hanging around its neck that read, "GOOD EATING, MR. PRESIDENT!", which prompted Kennedy to quip, "Let's just keep him."

The first president to actually use the word "pardon" in reference to a holiday turkey was reportedly Ronald Reagan, who deflected questions in 1987 about pardoning Oliver North in the Iran-Contra affair by joking that he would also pardon a turkey named "Charlie," who was already heading to a local petting zoo.


Which brings us to President George H.W. Bush, who was apparently the first president to intentionally "pardon" a turkey. At the National Turkey Presentation Ceremony in 1989, Bush light-heartedly remarked to those assembled: "Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy - he's granted a Presidential pardon as of right now - and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here."

Although it's difficult to confirm exactly when this White House tradition began, we do know where some of the more recently pardoned turkeys have been sent after receiving their presidential reprieves. From 1989 until 2004, the fortunate fowls were sent to live out their natural lives at Frying Pan Farm in Virginia.

The venue changed in 2005, however, when Disneyland was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. That year, a lucky turkey named "Marshmallow," and his alternate, "Yam," were taken by police escort to the airport and then flown first class to California. According to the Associated Press:

Marshmallow became the Grand Marshal of Disneyland's Thanksgiving parade, and the sign above his float read "The Happiest Turkey on Earth." The turkeys then retired to a coop at the park's Big Thunder Ranch, where three of the pardoned birds...still live. Florida's Disney World got the birds from 2007, when they arrived on a United Airlines flight that was renamed "Turkey One."

In 2010, the venue changed yet again. Instead of being sent to Disneyland, the 21-week-old turkey that President Obama pardoned was sent to live out the rest of his life at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. Upon its arrival at Mount Vernon, it was reportedly "be driven to his pen in a horse-drawn carriage and be greeted with a trumpet fanfare."


A spokeswoman for Mount Vernon said that it was appropriate that the turkey go to Washington's home since he was the first president to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation, and he raised wild turkeys at Mount Vernon.

Although the spokeswoman didn't say how the Washington's preferred to serve their Thanksgiving birds, the Mount Vernon Inn does offer a daily lunch menu that includes a "Colonial Turkey Pye" which is described as "a turkey stew served with mixed vegetables and topped with a homemade buttermilk biscuit."

While it might be difficult to obtain a copy of that particular recipe, you can try this quick and simple recipe for Turkey Pot Pie if you need something to do with your leftover turkey this Thanksgiving or this one from Pillsubry.com:


1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
2 (11-ounce) cans condensed Cheddar cheese soup
2 (10 3/4-ounce) cans cream of celery soup
1 large turkey skinned, cooked, boned and cubed
2 medium onions, diced
2 cup cooked butternut squash, diced
2 cup cranberries
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. To make the crust, dust surface with flour. Cut 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry into 1-inch strips, 8 inches long.
On a large cookie sheet, weave strips into a lattice large enough to cover each pot pie. Mix egg and milk together and brush onto each lattice square. Bake for 5 minutes. Dough will rise and turn light golden brown. Set aside until ready to assemble pies. In a large saucepan heat the soups. Stir in turkey, onion, squash, cranberries, salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil. In an oven-proof dish, fill with mixture and top with the pre-cooked lattice square. Bake for 5 minutes until bubbly and puff pastry is deep golden brown.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Royal State Dinner at the Reagan White House

The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981 has been aptly described as one of the most celebrated spectacles of the Reagan era. But because of the assassination attempt on President Reagan four months earlier, he couldn't attend, but he encouraged his wife Nancy to “serve as the United States representative at the event.”

Rising to the occasion, Mrs. Reagan traveled to England and spent one week in London, which was the longest amount of time she had been away from her husband in their then-twenty-nine years of marriage. During her stay, the First Lady reportedly attended eighteen events on behalf of the nation, including "a ball at Buckingham Palace, a dinner at the American Embassy, tea with the Queen Mother, and lunch with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.”

According to the Ronald Reagan Foundation,

Mrs. Reagan was an especially appropriate delegate for the United States to send to the Royal Wedding. The Reagans had met Prince Charles many years earlier, when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California. Also, in March of 1975 Ronald and Nancy had met Margaret Thatcher, and the future president and future prime minister found they shared a special connection even then...

Over the years, the President and Mrs. Reagan expressed their immense respect for their British friends in many ways, saving the first and last state dinners to honor Margaret Thatcher. Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II attended the first dinner in February 1981, and the Queen returned the honor when she hosted a state dinner for the Reagans’ visit to London when the president addressed Parliament in 1982.


The following year, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip visited Rancho del Cielo, the Reagans’ Santa Barbara ranch, and invited the Reagans aboard the royal yacht Brittania to celebrate an anniversary dinner. But of all the Royal visits to the Reagan White House, none were more memorable than the star-studded State Dinner held in honor of the Prince and Princess of Wales on November 9, 1985. As the BBC reported at the time:

Prince Charles and Princess Diana have ended the first day of their much-vaunted trip to the USA at a gala dinner in Washington, hosted by President Reagan and his wife Nancy. They mixed with movie stars, such as Clint Eastwood, John Travolta, Tom Selleck and the singer Neil Diamond as well as politicians and businessmen.

A small group of anti-British IRA supporters protested outside and there were a few slip-ups during the glamorous event. For a moment President Reagan forgot the Princess of Wales' name during an after-dinner speech to guests. "Permit me to add our congratulations to Prince Charles on his birthday just five days away," he said, "and express also our great happiness that...er...Princess David...Princess Diane (sic) is here on her first trip to the United States."


According to the report, the Princess herself, still suffering from jetlag, momentarily forgot to return the toast. But all that was forgotten when she famously took to the dance floor with John Travolta in her midnight blue velvet dress and sapphire and diamond choker.

Earlier in the evening, an elegant dinner was held in the State Dining room, where ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov was seated next to Princess Diana, while Prince Charles sat between actress Beverly Sills and the First Lady. In addition to Neal Diamond, Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, and Travolta, other well-known personalities who attended the affair included fasion icons Gloria Vanderbilt and Estee Lauder, Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill, and architect I.M. Pei.

According to White House chef Henry Haller, the dinner menu that evening "was carefully designed to suit the noble tastes of the Prince and Princess, and to appeal to the varied tastes of their table mates. Since the Prince favors fish and fowl, the meal featured fennel-flavored lobster mousse as the first course and lightly glazed chicken for the entree."

If you'd like to whip up some Lobster Mousse for your next formal gathering, here is a delicious recipe to try from the New York Times:

1/2 pound cooked lobster meat
3/4 cup clam broth
1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin
2 ribs celery, chopped fine
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup minced parsley
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped
3/4 cup mayonnaise
Salt, white pepper to taste
Juice of one lemon
Curly kale

Cut lobster into 1/2-inch pieces. Sprinkle gelatin over broth. Place over low heat; stir until thoroughly dissolved. Cool. Whip cream. Combine celery, onion, mustard, parsley, whipped cream, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, salt and pepper, lobster and cooled broth and mix thoroughly.

Spoon into 1-quart mold and seal tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least four hours or overnight. To serve, mix remaining mayonnaise with lemon juice. Unmold mousse and serve on curly kale, with lemon mayonnaise poured over the top. Serve with homemade Melba toast.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Chicken Fricassee

Despite the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln reportedly took his entertaining duties at the White House seriously, and if the only culinary records of his administration were the menus of his gala state banquets and balls, one could justifiably conclude , according to food historian Poppy Cannon, that he was "a gourmet to end gourmets, a connoisseur of exquisite sensitivity [and] a bon vivant supreme."

But nothing could be further from the truth. Not prone to eating breakfast every day, it has been said that he had an egg and biscuit only occasionally. Lunch was often only an apple with a glass of milk, and dinner could be entirely forgotten unless a tray of food was forced on him. “Abe can sit and think longer without food than any other person I have ever met,” Lincoln’s former law partner in Chicago wrote. And, shortly after his death, Lincoln’s sister-in-law recalled, “He loved nothing and ate mechanically. I have seen him sit down at the table and never unless recalled to his senses, would he think of food.”

But when Lincoln did turn his attention to food, he ate heartily and never lost a boyhood taste for Kentucky Corn Cakes, Gooseberry Cobbler, Rail Splitters, Gingerbread Cookies, and Corn Dodgers. And it has been said that one of the few entrees that would tempt Lincoln was Chicken Fricassee. According to A Treasury of White House Cooking by Francois Rysavy, Lincoln "liked the chicken cut up in small pieces, fried with seasonings of nutmeg and mace and served with a gravy made of the chicken drippings."

Although Abe's favorite recipe for Chicken Fricassee has surely been lost to posterity, you can try this more recent one for Tarragon Chicken Fricassee from Gourmet Magazine:

3 1/2 to 4 pounds chicken pieces with skin and bone
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pat chicken dry and sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chicken in 2 batches, skin side down first, turning over once, until browned, 10 to 12 minutes total per batch. Transfer to a plate.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons oil from skillet, then cook shallots, garlic, and bay leaf over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened, about 2 minutes. Add wine and bring to a boil. Stir in cream, broth, and 1 tablespoon tarragon, then add chicken, skin side up, and simmer, covered, until just cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer chicken with tongs to a platter and keep warm, loosely covered. If necessary, boil sauce until thickened slightly. Stir in lemon juice, remaining 1/2 tablespoon tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste. Discard bay leaf; pour sauce over chicken.