Tag Archives: White House

Shelf Love: The White House Cookbook

Some time ago, on one of my forays through Vancouver’s used book stores, I happened upon a stack of noticeably old cookbooks, so old it was difficult to make out the words on the binding. The big white book at the very bottom of the pile was calling to me. The shopkeep kindly climbed her stepladder to retrieve it and a few others from her top shelf, and I sat down to have a look see.

WHCB CoverOld cookbooks are some of the very best reference books. Methods and ingredients are typically simple, basic, and locally sourced without a lot of fussiness. These recipes are just the thing I want when I’m feeling creative or when I’m trying a new technique. Pioneers, settlers, and pre-industrial cooks did most things from scratch, and recipes had to be reliable. It must have been such a gas to work on a cookbook back when there weren’t a lot of them around, back when books were precious and kept and handed down.

When I finally got that book in my hands and realized what it was, I was struck by an urgency to possess it for my collection. The cover is worn so that only a mild impression of the cover art remains, and the binding is a little shaky, but has so far lasted beyond a century. The pages have a feel unlike modern books and are fragile due to their age. Some pages have stains and marks, and sadly one or two pages are gone (easily replaced by a photocopy, though). The binding reads “WhiteHouse Cook Book , New And Enlarged Edition, Illustrated” hinting that this is not the first printing. However, there is no publication data, no copyright page. Perhaps it fell out. I have 590 numbered pages, expecting that a couple are missing from the index at the back, since it ends at Macaroni, timbale of. I confess that despite its condition, holding in my hands a piece of history makes me giddy.

The book is dedicated “To the wives of our presidents, those noble women who have graced the White House, and whose names and memories are dear to all Americans.” Illustrations, though few, are a delight. In addition to a couple of photos of food preparation, there are plates illustrating meat carving and butchering, as well as the famous rooms (and women) of the White House.


Chapters cover a wide range of subjects essential for running one’s home at the turn of the century. In addition to a section devoted entirely to 10 types of “Catsups” (that’s ketchup to some folks) as well as a “Confectionery” chapter for all your pre-industrial candy-making needs, there is a wealth of information about cooking for the sick, dying your own fabrics, making household cleaning products and toiletries, and a whole 5 pages describing 20 ways to make toast (including a recipe that looks very similar to French Toast, but is patriotically titled “American Toast”).

The chapter entitled “Health Suggestions” offers a remedy or preventative for everything from earaches and chillbains to lockjaw and cholera, including a helpful chart showing “Time of Digestion” for a variety of foods. In “Miscellaneous Recipes,” you can learn to make your own glue, wallpaper paste, and soap. Plus, there are instructions for making “Incombustible Dresses” with the warning “Remember this and save the lives of your children.” Also, among the “Facts Worth Knowing” are tips for keeping ants out of your sugar, destroying cockroaches, and banishing rats, as well as how to clean and care for darn near everything a household could need.

The Publisher’s Preface clearly states that this book “more fully represents the progress and present perfection of the culinary art than any previous work.” Contributor Mr. Hugo Ziemann comes with an exciting work history, having once catered for Prince Napoleon (who was killed during a war with the Zulus of Africa), not to mention his hotel experience in Paris, New York, and Chicago. Mrs. Fanny Lemira Gillette’s credentials aren’t so exotic, though it is written she was “no less proficient and capable, having made a lifelong and thorough study of cookery and housekeeping.” (iii) If the name Gillette sounds familiar, that is no mistake. Her son King invented the safety razor and helped introduce Americans to the “disposable” lifestyle before losing his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929.*

A single post really isn’t enough to do this cookbook justice, so I’ll save some commentary and share some interesting tidbits in future posts. If you’re interested, you can look through the entire book online via Google Books.

* NNDB: King Camp Gillette


The White House gets a kitchen garden.

Nothing rounds out a happy home like a planting a garden and getting a dog (two things I surely wish I could do, but alas, not yet). Shortly after moving into the White House, Michelle Obama announced plans to plant a vegetable garden. I can imagine the stir this may have caused among landscaping purists, but I’m all for it. Get the country interested in being self-sustainable again. Industrialization of food has made the “modern” world lazy and so far removed from food origins that some people can’t make the connection between a real live chicken and a McNugget. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: chickens don’t have nuggets.

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more about “The Garden of Eatin’ Video“, posted with vodpod

Recent post-industrial presidents haven’t done much to improve American nutritional understanding. As I recall, President Regan declared that ketchup is a vegetable, thus making our school lunches instantly more nutritious. In 1990, Bush senior publicly denounced broccoli, banning it from Air Force One and declaring, “I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”* I think it’s about dang time a First Lady got involved in the kitchen doing something other than buying new White House china.

According to the White House Blog, Michelle Obama and 12 students from the DC area broke ground for the new White House Kitchen Garden in March, 2009. The students will continue to help develop the garden, growing vegetables to be used in the White House Kitchen. Produce from the garden will also be sent to Miriam’s Kitchen, which prepares meals and provides services for the homeless in Washington, DC. Well done, First Lady!

And how does the garden grow?

White House Garden

With lettuces and spinach and sugar snap peas, salad fixins and shallots, onions (of course), collard greens and kale, and carrots, too. There’s a bed full of broccoli (no Bushes allowed!) and a big section for herbs, as well. There’s a rhubarb bed, and a separate section for mint (which grows like a weed and will take over the place if you let it). Along the edges are plantings of edible flowers: nasturtiums and zinnias and marigolds. Bugs are repelled by marigolds, too. My sisters plant them next to their tomatoes. The First Lady also has plans for a berry patch and a beehive. Wouldn’t it be fun to have some White House Honey?

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more about “First Lady Breaks Ground“, posted with vodpod

Garden Layout from the White House Blog, cropped and colorized by me.
*Maureen Dowd, “I’m President, So No More Broccoli.” The New York Times: March 23, 1990.

Post Script: NY Times article from March ’09 reveals President Obama does not like beets, but arugula is okay. I rather agree. 8)

The White House Dog: Bo Comes Home

It was an exciting day for the whole family when the First Dog set paws on the White House lawn. Of course, you can’t introduce a Presidential Pooch without a press conference. Let’s hope they keep up with his training. I’d like to see Bo earn his stripes as a Canine Good Citizen.

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The first time I saw a Portuguese Water Dog (affectionately known as a “Portie”), I thought it was a Poodle. The coat is similar, and there is an alert intelligence about them both. Fishermen in Portugal began breeding dogs to help them do their work. A dog that could swim out and retrieve something that fell off the boat would be really handy, and if it could dive underwater and get it, that’d be even better! And since no one had invented cell phones yet, getting messages to shore or between ships via dogmail would be extremely useful. They also selectively bred for certain physical traits like webbed toes (a very cool feature for a water-loving dog).

In 1297, the same year Scottish rebel William Wallace defeated the English in a battle at Stirling Bridge (on September 11th)*, these unique canines made it into the history books when a monk filed an accident report. A sailor found himself headed for Davy Jones’ Locker when he was pulled to safety by a wooly black dog with a poofy tail. The rescue dog turned out to be a Cao de Aqua, a local “water dog.”**

Billie the PortieThe Portie’s fur does not have an undercoat; their fur is wavy or curly, with none of the “fluffiness” you’d see on a Collie or a Husky, for example. That’s why the Obamas were looking at this breed in particular. One of their daughters has allergies, and a dog that does not shed can be much easier to tolerate. Their hair grows constantly, like ours, so they need a haircut occasionally to look their best (and not get waterlogged when they swim).

When industrialization changed the fishing business, the breed nearly died out. Breeding programs in the US and Canada kept the line going with a small population, which has increased as the dog has gained popularity (and now, notoriety). Because the gene pool is quite small, it is extremely important that breeders understand the animal’s genetic predispositions and work toward improvements in health and temperament. Some genetic health concerns for this breed include Progressive Retinal Atrophy (which can lead to blindness),  Cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart), Addison’s Disease, Hip Dysplasia, and GM-1 Storage Disease (a metabolic disorder fatal to puppies if both parents carry the gene). One unusual (but not health-threatening) genetic problem called Follicular Dysplasia can result in dog pattern-baldness (hair falls out and might not grow back).

If you are looking for a pup, choose a breeder wisely. There are Portie rescue organizations, and the Portuguese Water Dog Club of Canada provides excellent information on the breed, in addition to the following caveat:

The Portuguese Water Dog is not a breed for everyone. The challenge of channeling the stamina, intelligence, and exuberance of this dynamic dog can be frustrating at times but ultimately rewarding. The commitment of your time and effort to training and caring for your Portuguese Water Dog is a responsibility that can not be taken lightly.

Apparently, they also like tomatoes, so Michelle better put a dog-proof fence around the White House Kitchen Garden.


Billie’s photo by tore_urnes: Flickr Creative Commons
* History Orb: Today in History 1297
** Kathryn Braund and Deyanne Farrell Miller, The Complete Portugese Water Dog. (New York: Howell Book House Inc., 1986) p. 13.