Food Arts Magazine | November, 2008
By Carol Kramer
If you didn't contribute a couple of tons of money to either side this election year, it's a good bet that dinner at the White House isn't in the cards for you anytime soon. Here's the next best thing: A clever caterer in Sarasota, Florida, is throwing presidential dinners faster than President George W. Bush can say "no wet fish."
You choose the president, and Larry Barrett and his wife and business partner, Jamie, of Simply Gourmet Caterers, will handle everything from soup to nuts. (Make that peanuts if you request a Jimmy Carter presidential dinner - Carter replaced the mixed nuts served at cocktail receptions with goobers almost immediately after checking in to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)
A former actor and producer in New York City, Larry quit showbiz when he was 35 (he'd appeared in washer loads of soap operas, including General Hospital), moved to Sarasota, and started cooking up a Category 4 storm. He'd learned how by working in a restaurant kitchen every summer while going to college.
This year he's produced six presidential banquets for customers in and around Sarasota. He and Jamie try to duplicate the invitations, flower arrangements, table settings, and even the music for these events. "It's a chance to combine history with drama," he says. "And it's a great idea for a fund-raiser."
After considerable research, much from The Presiden'ts Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy by Barry H. Landau and a half dozen other books, Larry became an expert on presidential food and could probably ace the "Presidential Dinner" category on Jeopardy. He started out offering two presidential menus - a 1961 dinner that John and Jacqueline Kennedy gave for Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco and a 1987 dinner served in the Reagan White House. So far, only the Kennedy dinner has been ordered.
But Larry doesn't think that's a political comment, just a reflection of the glamor and sophistication that the Kennedys brought to Washington. Jacqueline Kennedy hired a first rate French chef - René Verdon - early in her husband's administration, reintroduced hard liquor for cocktails (bye-bye ditsy punch), and switched dining tables (from library style to 72-inch rounds). Suddenly people were having a whole lot more fun.
To be fair, it wasn't hard to gain attention for improving presidential cuisine. In several of the previous administrations, the food was as bland as the first ladies' wardrobes. (Jackie Kennedy, we know, set the standard for fashion as well as food.)
Mamie Eisenhower, for instance, hated garlic and onions. Try working with that restriction, Verdon. The Trumans liked to serve celery curls as appetizers and ice cream molds as dessert; Warren Harding thought knockwurst and sauerkraut were haute cuisine; and the Roosevelts, well, Eleanor, who had a legitimate gripe with her husband, got even by serving him pedestrian roasts and inedible vegetables. On Sunday nights, when members of FDR's brain trust dropped in, Mrs. R scrambled eggs in a chafing dish for her husband's guests. The events came to be called "brains and eggs." And when the king and queen of England visited Hyde Park, New York, the Roosevelts introduced them to all-American hot dogs.
It was better a hundred years ago. Theodore Roosevelt liked to serve quail and truffled risotto with Moet & Chandon. William Howard Taft, who added 55 pounds to his 300 pound frame in his year in office, offered guests lobster stews and vintage Champagne.
Of course, during Prohibition, almost no one had a good time at the White House, and during the administration of teetotaler Rutherford B. Hayes, "the water flowed like Champagne," according to a disgruntled guest. However, for most of the 19th century, you could get pretty oiled at the White House.
James Buchanan served French Champagne when he entertained England's Prince of Wales and on any other occasion he felt merited it. When members of a temperance group had an audience with Buchanan, trying to enlist him into their cause, he replied, "Madam, I may be President of the United States, but my private life is no one's damn business."
Chester Arthur, a New Yorker with a fashionable wardrobe and similar tastes, was known to serve eight different wines during a banquet, each in its appropriate glass.
But it was Thomas Jefferson who set the gold standard for presidential food and wine. A committed enophile, he adored French wines, and in the first two years of his administration he spent $4,000 on them. In fact, until 1923, the Presidents were responsible for all their for all their entertaining bills.
That didn't deter Jefferson from having people in at least three times a week, serving round of beef, loin of veal, oysters and sweet breads in a puff pastry case, a "pie called macaroni" (the country's first mac and cheese made with imported Parmigiano), duck, partridges, terrapin, fennel (his favorite vegetable), arugula (then called rocket), and conversation stopping desserts, among them an astonishment of ice cream balls enclosed in warm pastry, prepared by French cooks. Jefferson was so enthusiastic about good food
that he would accompany his staff members to the Georgetown food market in Washington in search of the best ingredients. Of course, items like anchovies, tarragon vinegar, seedless raisins, and figs were imported from France.
The White House dinners the Barretts are prepared to serve up would please Jefferson. The Kennedy menu includes shrimp amandine, garlic encrusted spring lamb chops, salad mimosa with crab and avocado, strawberries Romanoff, and petits fours - accompanied by three fine California wines. The Barretts charge $85 a head
for that menu. For $60, they'll do a Nancy Reagan menu of dilled salmon, chicken Véronique, and Grand Mamier soufflé. Why the price difference? A true businessman, Larry replies, "When you're
into chicken, you're in a good place in this business."
What if someone requested a menu from a more recent administration? That might be difficult. George W. Bush hates "wet fish" and "green food," and Bill Clinton loves fried onion rings. As for Lyndon Johnson, who brought a favorite Texas barbecue outfit to the White House garden, he was certainly no Kennedy-era
gourmet. During one official dinner, confronted with tournedos Rossini, LBJ tasted the dish and jumped up shouting that the meat was rotten. That's not exactly how I'd describe foie gras, but hey - "chacun à son goût," as Jefferson may have said.
And speaking of son goût what might the next White House be serving? According to Raymond Sokolov of the Wall Street Journal, both John McCain and Barack Obarna love pizza - pepperoni for
McCain, vegetarian for Obama. But not at a presidential banquet, of course.
Sokolov visited the candidates' favorite restaurants, trying to get a feel for future presidential meals. In Chicago, he discovered that the Obamas frequent Rick Bayless' Topolobampo, a shrine to authentic Mexican cuisine. And Michele Obarna loves Sepia, a restaurant that impressed Sokolov with its walleyed pike, artisanal
cheeses, and signature flatbreads. The Obamas have also enjoyed Art Smith's food both when Oprah tapped her personal chef to produce a fund-raiser and at his restaurant Table Fifty-Two, where Barrack ate shrimp and grits and Michelle tucked into the fried catfish. The McCains' favorite restaurants in Phoenix and Sedona
did not impress the Journal. Sokolov in fact, went out on a limb and predicted that "the Obama administration would be a golden era for American gastronomy."
This correspondent wants to go out on a gustatory limb as well. It turns out that there's a Hawaiian connection for both couples. Obama, of course, grew up in Hawaii, and the McCains met and honeymooned in Hawaii.
Could it be that in the next four years, there'll be tiki torches in the Rose Garden and blackened ahi on Nancy Reagan's china? And better yet: White House stewards passing around pupu platters
and Mai Tais?
Carol Kramer is a New York City-based freelance writer.