White House kitchen history

From State Dinners to family meals, the basement kitchens have prepared a huge variety and amount of food since President Adams moved into the White House. The original kitchen, one observer noted, with its two huge hearths was “large enough to hold the house of representatives of the Congress, and that the Senate may find room to sit in the chimney corner.” Later Presidents would add a range [Jefferson], Rumford Roaster [Jackson], cookstove [Fillmore] and a twelve foot French Coal Range [Taft]. Over the years the kitchen would be moved and completely renovated several times.

"White House Kitchens and Cooking", the entire Spring 2007 issue (number 20) of White House History,
published by the White House Historical Association, is focused on the 200 years of cooking in the White House. The following is part of review of the journal I wrote for the Oct. 2007 issue of CHoWLine. Culinary Historians of Washington DC

The fascinating article on the changes in the White House kitchens, by Lydia Barker Tederick [assistant WH curator], is available on-line at the White House History webpage Also on the site is another article of interest, "A Well-Ordered Household: Domestic Servants in Jefferson's White House."

Noted food historian, Alice Ross, discusses the process of hearth cooking by listing cooking utensils from sources such as Jefferson and Monroe inventories. After quoting a visitor’s list of dishes at a meal during Jefferson’s time in the White House, Ross states “For a cook who knew how, clearly it was possible to cook very ambitiously on the hearth.”

In the article, ‘Home Cooking in the White House.’ famed culinary historian, Barbara Haber writes about recipes, food, housekeepers, and staff. “In a memo to his wife, President Roosevelt said about Mrs. Nesbitt’s monotonous food: ‘I am getting to the point where my stomach positively rebels and this does not help my relations with foreign powers. I bit two of them today.’”

Past and current White House chefs write about their experiences. Roland Mesnier, known for his elaborate gingerbread houses, served from the Carter to the current administration. The number of guests to be fed could be huge. “The State Dinner for Japan: six hundred people. The State Dinner for India: eight hundred people. The NATO dinner: nine hundred people. Receptions were up to twelve hundred people. The Millennium dinners and receptions: four thousand people.” Cristeta Comerford gives the steps to prepare a dinner for the Prince of Wales in 2005.

The selection process for the wines is discussed by Daniel Shanks, assistant usher since 1995. Since “…a formal meal of four courses, three wines, and toasts to be allocated approximately an hour...what a steward wishes for are wines of youth and vigor that carry a strong impression of their presence, yet balance and purity on the palate.”

The first kitchen is c1890, and the second picture is from 1901. More pictures of the White House kitchens are available at the Library of Congress prints online site.

Washington Cake, Madison Cake, Jackson Jumbles, Tyler Pudding

©2007 Patricia Bixler Reber

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