When Ladies’ Home Journal in 1929 asked Eleanor Roosevelt to give her view on food, she confirmed her ill-fated relationship with the quote: “I am sorry to tell you that my husband and I are very bad about food”. Speaking about herself, it could have been true. Though not for her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had quite an appetite for wild duck, lobster, steak, caviar, champagne, women and cocktails.
About politics and unappealing food
From the start of her marriage to Franklin, Eleanor acquired an ill-omened reputation on matters of the palate. Eating gave her no pleasure. During her White House years, Eleanor Roosevelt became notorious for her unappealing dinner menus. She just did not care about food. Everyone who ever ate at the White House complained about the food.
Not that she did not try. Coming from a wealthy background, she knew nothing about preparing a meal, let alone a delicious one. The only thing she was very good at was making scrambled eggs. On most Sunday evenings before, after and during the White House years, she practised what women magazines called ‘dainty cookery.’ Eleanor cracks the eggs, adds cream, plus salt and pepper. In full view of the invited guests, she makes scrambled eggs with gusto.
Low budget meals to help the nation through the Depression
During the years of the Great Depression, Eleanor developed a healthy appetite for politics. She quickly realized that food could be a way to help the nation through the Depression. She joined the new home economics movement, which strived to deliver simple, efficient, scientifically based meals at low costs. Not based on taste or tradition, these cheap meals would kill hunger but were never very flavourful.
Un-appetizing seven-and-a-half-cent meals in the White House
Eleanor prided herself to serve low-budget meals in the White House too. She did not want the public to think they were overindulging during Franklin’s presidency. Aided by the most reviled cook in the history of the White House, the talentless Mrs Nesbitt, Eleanor served her seven-and-a-half-cent meals. Not only to the President and her family but to guests and other dignitaries too. Much to their abhorrence. The food in the White House, was in all likelihood the worst they probably had eaten.
The wine had to be cheap too
After 14 years of Prohibition, the American wine industry was more dead than alive. They could use some support. As the story goes, Eleanor decided to serve two American wines at a cabinet dinner, a New York State sparkling wine and a Californian sherry. The serving was limited to one glass of each. Nobody wanted more wine anyway as the sherry was acceptable, yet the New York State sparkling undrinkable. Eleanor had been ill-advised by the undersecretary of agriculture Rexford Tugwell.
However, at an impromptu meeting the next day, the President makes up for the cabinet dinner wine fiasco. He orders a couple of bottles of real French Champagne. They convivially finish them all. Eleanor was nowhere to be seen.
Hotdogs fit for a king and queen
According to another anecdote, Eleanor famously served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England on June 11, 1939. The royals joined president Roosevelt at his New York mansion for a less-formal picnic. The menu included “Hot Dogs (if weather permits).” The queen supposedly asked Roosevelt how one ate a hotdog. He replied: “Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing it until it is all gone”. She used a knife and fork instead.
Churchill arrives at the White House
The White House kitchen served so much mutton that it became a joke. Prunes, gelatin-filled salads, spaghetti with boiled carrots and sandwiches inundated the lunches and dinners but left the White House table almost untouched. Yet, there were exceptions.
In 1942 Winston Churchill arrives unexpectedly. The White House pulls all the stops and treats Churchill to some remarkably good cooking. Rare roast beef, string beans, salad, Yorkshire pudding and a trifle for dessert. All accompanied by wine, champagne and brandy. Eleanor Roosevelt is astonished, ”that anyone can smoke so much and drink so much and keep perfectly well”.
Don’t trivialize Eleanor Roosevelt
Let no one ever underestimate or trivialize Eleanor’s bad food skills. Away from the White House, alone with her friends, she did cherish the conviviality of food. And through conviviality, being with people she loved, she genuinely amassed a healthy appetite for the delights of the palate.