Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Celebrations at the White House, from the Eisenhowers to the Obamas

To celebrate their first Halloween in the White House in 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama got in the spirit by dressing as a leopard, replete with furry ears, dramatic cat-like eyes and a spotted orange-and-black animal print top while President Obama played it safe, dressing as, well, “a middle-aged dad, with a black cardigan, checkered shirt and sensible brown slacks.”

According to the Washington Post, about 2,600 trick-or-treaters from local schools swooped, skulked and pitter-pattered their way through the front drive of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, stopping at the North Portico to get their treat: a plastic baggy containing White House M&Ms, an orange sugar cookie in the shape of the residence, and clumps of [dried] apricots, apples and papayas. Meanwhile, wandering around in front of the eerily, orange-lit White House was a motley crew of odd creatures, including musicians dressed as skeletons, walking trees, Star Wars characters, and dancers dressed as red and gold butterflies inside giant bubbles.

After casually chatting with the trick-or-treaters, the President and the First Lady hosted a reception for military families in the East Room of the White House. In his brief welcoming remarks, the president acknowledged the many sacrifices made by military families and said, “'We are so grateful to you. Especially now, a lot of the times, you guys are separated. It's tough. The spouses who are at home are serving just as much as folks who are deployed. So we are just so thrilled that you guys could be here.”

Of course, this wasn't the first Halloween celebration held at the White House. Known for her playful personality, Mamie Eisenhower hosted a Halloween party for the wives White House staff members. Described as “the most interesting party ever given in the dignified setting of the White House,” it reportedly included “skeletons hanging from the State Dining Room chandeliers and witches on broomsticks riding over the white tablecloth.”

In more recent years, Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia hosted a Halloween carnival for underprivileged school children while the Fords and Carters welcomed trick-or-treaters from charitable organizations like UNICEF. And to mark their first Halloween in the White House, George Bush and his wife Barbara staged an Anti-Drug Youth Rally for 500 local school children on the South Lawn of the White House, where they loaded the youngsters up with treats and spoke to them about the dangers of illegal drugs.

FAST FACT: the origins of Halloween likely lie in the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. According to historians at the Library of Congress, “the wearing of costumes and roaming from door-to-door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of the Christian era, when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. As the centuries wore on, people began dressing like these dreadful creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink."

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ulysses S. Grant's Twenty-Nine Course Banquets

"The inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 did more than usher into the Presidency an honored war hero," according to historian Poppy Cannon, it launched an era of opulence in the White House "the United States had not seen before and has seldom seen since."

Culinarily speaking, however, Grant’s first few months in office could hardly be described as extravagant. When the 46-year-old military hero moved into the White House, he brought with him a quartermaster from his army days to serve as cook. To her credit, Grant’s wife Julia refrained from complaining at first, but when it became clear that the "chef" viewed the White House dining room as little more than “an enlarged mess hall,” she replaced him with an Italian steward named Valentino Melah, who had catered for some of the finest hotels in the United States and "specialized in opulent banquents."

Describing a particular twenty-nine course State Banquet at the Grant White House, Emily Edson Briggs, a Washington newspaper columnist, wrote:

In the beginning of the feast, fruit, flowers, and sweetmeats grace the tables, while bread and butter only give a Spartan simplicity to the "first course," which is composed of a French vegetables oul, and according to the description by those who have tasted it, no soup, foreign or domestic, has ever been known to equal it.

The ambrosial soup is followed by a French croquet of meat...The third "course" of the dinner is composed of a fillet of beef, flanked on each side by potatoes the size of a walnut, with plenty of mushrooms to keep them company. The next course is...made up entirely of luscious leg of partridges, and baptized by a French name entirely beyond my comprehension.

It will readily be seen that a full description of the twenty-nine courses would be altogether too much for the healthy columns of a newspaper to bear, so we pass to the dessert...[which] is inaugurated by...a rice pudding [that] would make our grandmothers clap their hands with joy. After the rice pudding, canned peaches, pears, and quinces are served. Then follow confectionery, nuts, ice-cream, coffee, and chocolate...

Although President Grant enjoyed partaking in such opulent banquets, he retained a taste for more basic fare, no doubt shaped by his old soldier's days. One of his favorite breakfasts reportedly consisted of "broiled Spanish mackerel and steak, fried apples with bacon, buckwheat cakes, and a cup of strong black coffee."

At lunch and dinner, he enjoyed such simple meals as roast beef with wheat bread and boiled hominy. And for dessert, historians tell us that "nothing ever pleased President Grant as much as simple rice pudding."

Although Grant's favorite recipe for Rice Pudding may have been lost to posterity, you can try this delicious recipe from which is great to serve at breakfast or as a light dessert:

2 1/2 cups of whole milk
1/3 cup of uncooked short grain white rice
Pinch of salt
1 egg
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the milk, rice and salt to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the rice is tender, about 20-25 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together egg and brown sugar until well mixed. Add a half cup of the hot rice mixture to the egg mixture, a tablespoon at a time, vigorously whisking to incorporate.

Add egg mixture back into the saucepan of rice and milk and stir, on low heat, for 10minutes or so, until thickened. Be careful not to have the mixture come to a boil at this point. Stir in the vanilla. Remove from heat and stir in the raisins and cinnamon. Serve warm or cold and enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Kentucky Corncakes

Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary were great animal lovers and allowed their four young sons to keep all sorts of pets on White House grounds. Among other animals, Abe and his family had three cats, a dog named Fido, rabbits, horses, and two rambunctious billygoats named Nanny and Nunko.

Another was a wild turkey named Jack with whom Lincoln’s youngest son Tad played with daily. When it came time for Jack to be sacrificed for a holiday dinner, Tad supposedly begged his dad to spare the turkey’s life, and, to this day, the White House maintains the tradition of pardoning a wild turkey each holiday season!

Although it’s a "tad" early to be thinking about preparing your next holiday dinner, you can whip up a batch of Kentucky Corncakes, which are a great side dish at just about any meal and were a Lincoln family favorite. If you’d like to make some Kentucky Corncakes today, here is a simple and simply delicious recipe to try from the Food Network:

1 cup roasted cornmeal (fine ground yellow cornmeal)
1 cup self-rising flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
3 ounces corn oil
2 cups fresh corn kernels

Place cornmeal, flour, and sugar in a bowl and mix together. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, corn oil, and fresh corn and mix together. Fold mixtures together. Place 4 ounces of pancake mix onto a hot griddle. Cook on medium high heat for 4 minutes on each side, until cooked through. Serve warm with lots of butter and honey enjoy!

FAST FACT: According to historians at the Miller Center, the Lincoln family's routine in the White House reflected "the presence of their sons, the demands of war, and the highly complex and many-sided character of Abraham and Mary. [T]he day went from breakfast together as a family at 8:00 in the morning, reunion again for dinner at 8:00 in the evening, and then bedtime. Until little Willie's death in 1862, the two younger sons demanded a good deal of attention, and both parents gave them ample attention, although Lincoln grew more distant as the war progressed and occupied much of his day."