Teddy Roosevelt Ate What?! The Fascinating History of Soul Food in the White House

Posted at 6:00 pm on July 03, 2017 by Jim Jamitis

There was whole lot of crazy in the news this past June. So much in fact that you may have missed the fact that it was “National Soul Food Month.” In honor of the occasion Adrian Miller (a soul food scholar) published a fascinating history of soul food served at the White House.

“National Soul Food Month,” sometimes called “June,” deserves a presidential proclamation.

Why? Because this cuisine, which combines the food traditions of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas, has long been the foundation for home cooking in the White House.

Here are three things you probably didn’t know about Presidential eating habits.

1. You can thank Thomas Jefferson (at least in part) for bringing Macaroni and Cheese to America.

Yes, it’s clearly Italian in origin, but mac ‘n’ cheese has a special place in the soul-food repertoire. While he served as the U.S. minister to France, future president Thomas Jefferson fell so in love with the dish that he brought a pasta machine from Italy and recipes back to Virginia. As president, he served mac ‘n’ cheese at the White House on Feb. 6, 1802, at a dinner party that included guests Rep. Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts and future explorer Meriweather Lewis. Jefferson was very fond of the dish, but Cutler later wrote in his diary that it was “strong and had a disagreeable taste.”

Mac and cheese is also the first thing President Reagan ate in the hospital after being shot by John Hinckley.

2. FDR liked him some pig’s feet, but a visiting Winston Churchill was unimpressed.

Our pig’s-feet- loving president was, surprisingly, Franklin Roosevelt. When he was governor of New York, Roosevelt spent long periods in Warm Springs, Ga., to get relief for his polio. During his sojourns there, a local, wealthy white family sent their African American cook, Daisy Bonner, to his kitchen. Bonner quickly got him hooked on many Southern delicacies, including broiled pig’s feet served split and buttered. Roosevelt proudly served sweet-and-sour pig’s feet to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a White House visit. Though Roosevelt relished the dish, Churchill was unenthusiastic and declined the offer of a second helping.

I like eating pig in many forms, but I may have been in Mr. Churchill’s camp on this one.

3. Teddy Roosevelt loved “possum and taters” (and so did William Howard Taft).

At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans held a dish of opossum and roasted sweet potatoes in high esteem. So did President Theodore Roosevelt, as he frequently dined on it during his presidency. In 1909, possum ‘n’ taters made its biggest splash in the press when president-elect William Howard Taft specifically requested the dish at a dinner for him hosted in Atlanta by the city’s chamber of commerce. He never lived that down outside the South, but he didn’t care. He loved the dish.

I’ll pass. Making fun of Obama for putting mustard on a cheeseburger or Trump for eating well done steak with ketchup seems  a little trivial compared to “possum ‘n’ taters.” That’s a meal for a man with real grit.