First Ladies Often Forge Food Trends, But Melania's Menu Is A Mystery
In a photo for GQ earlier this year, Melania Trump sat in a white dress at a white table posed with a fork and spoon, twirling a thick platinum rope necklace in a bowl like a piece of bucatini.
While we know the future first lady subsists on more than precious metals, we know little about her food preferences – except that she eats seven pieces of fruit a day. Given this, it's impossible to discern how or if she will affect the culinary tone of the White House and the country at large—a role that typically falls to the first lady.
Indeed, food was on Michelle Obama's agenda before she got to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. According to Sam Kass, the Obama's former chef dating back to their Chicago days, the family was like all busy families — struggling to get healthy meals on the table for the kids.
"The first lady carried a lot of stress about making sure their daughters were getting what they needed to be healthy," says Kass, who went on to spend six years working with both Obamas at the White House. "That was the underpinning of where our approach and philosophies started to bond."
Kass changed the Obama's diet—more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; less processed foods and desserts. As first lady, Michelle Obama passionately told her family's culinary story, especially how it benefited the health of her girls. She and Kass turned to broader health initiatives beyond the first family's table. They grew a vegetable garden on the South Lawn, launched the health and lifestyle initiative "Let's Move," tackled school lunch reform and redrew the United States Department of Agriculture's food pyramid as a simplified icon called "My Plate."
Kass recalls making the family dinner the night after the "My Plate" announcement. "The First Lady came into the kitchen and said, 'So, we're asking everybody across the country to make their plate look like "My Plate." Every plate coming out of this kitchen better look like "My Plate.""
Michelle Obama has arguably prioritized healthier national eating habits more than any other FLOTUS in history. Past first ladies have had a range of appetites for politicizing the national fork, and the era dictates the initiative. During the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt oversaw a White House of culinary austerity (and infamously bad food). With the help of Cornell University's School of Home Economics, she devised seven-and-a-half-cent meals, designed for both nutrition and economy, and shared these with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and their guests.
"It wasn't about flavor," says National First Ladies' Library historian Carl Anthony. "It was about simple, economic and nutritious. It was an important statement for that time."
Eleanor Roosevelt did have one defining culinary pleasure: She liked to cook scrambled eggs herself in a chafing dish that was brought to her along with the ingredients. The Roosevelt Sunday supper consisted of the first lady's eggs, cold meat, salad and dessert from the kitchen.
After Eleanor Roosevelt's Depression-era austerity, Mamie Eisenhower defined efficiency and thrift during her White House tenure in the 1950s. As a military wife, she had managed the family's finances for years. She kept an account of leftovers, and if an excess of turkey was in the kitchen after a dinner, she'd order the chefs to make turkey hash. Her famous saying was, "I could squeeze a dollar so tight, you could hear the eagle scream." She was also enamored with the innovations of her day—gelatin and all manners of frozen, boxed and canned foods." She wanted the White House kitchen staff to make full use of these things," Anthony explains.
In 1961, when Jacqueline Kennedy became first lady, she brought her impeccable taste for both French style and French food. She hired Gallic chef René Verdon to run the White House kitchen, banishing the bleak culinary era of previous administrations. Under Jackie Kennedy's instruction, White House menus were streamlined to three refined courses, including dishes such as poached salmon, rack of lamb and haricots vert aux amandes.
"Jackie wanted to show the sophistication of the U.S. to the eyes of the world," Anthony says. "In the Cold War we had come of age, and she felt that we must be considered equal to England, France and Russia."
Changes in the White House kitchen were often as dramatic as a change in political Parties or the difference in age between a sitting president and the incoming president-elect. The generational pass-off between grandmotherly Barbara Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton recalled the transition of the elder Mamie Eisenhower to a youthful Jackie Kennedy.
Like Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton came to the role wanting to revamp White House food. Unlike Jackie Kennedy, her mandate was American food and wine as well as healthful menus and a flourish of global flavors. She tapped an American chef named Walter Scheib from the upscale Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. For his audition lunch, Scheib cooked a pecan-crusted lamb with morel sauce and red-curried sweet potatoes, which got him the gig. "It turned out that Mrs. Clinton's favorite meat is lamb," Scheib writes in his book White House Chef. "Her taste for spicy food made the curried sweet potatoes a big hit as well."
"Food was of great interest to her," adds Anthony. "She came into the White House with a plan to make that real sense of diversity and regional American food reflected in the nation's house."
The farm-to-table frenzy had yet to peak during the Clinton White House era. But Hillary Clinton's kitchen was on the cusp. Though Scheib stayed on when the Clintons left, he was at odds with Laura Bush's simpler demands of the kitchen: ready-made spare ribs, smoked turkey breast and other prepackaged food. He left in 2005. "The White House kitchen had become a more mundane place than I ever imagined it could be," Scheib writes.
We can't say yet what will come after Michelle Obama's era. Will Melania Trump articulate a culinary vision? "We presume that Melania Trump doesn't cook, but we don't know that," says Anthony. "Maybe she's sitting in the kitchen with her mom and making goulash."
Anya Sacharow is the author of Brooklyn Street Style: the No-Rules Guide to Fashion. She writes, cooks and lives in Brooklyn.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.