America's Five Greatest Foodie Presidents

Categories: Featured, Sietsema

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Library of Congress
Perhaps not the straightest president to occupy the White House.
2. James Buchanan (15th president, 1857-61) might have been our first gay president. Flamboyant of style, unmarried (his niece, Harriet Lane, served as the first lady), and an epicurean in every sense, Buchanan installed a Frenchman named Gautier as his personal chef, and caterer for his banquets.

Due partly to his Pennsylvania upbringing, Buchanan preferred a combination of French and Pennsylvania Dutch (German-American) food at the lavish banquets he threw, sometimes paying the expenses out of his own pocket. According to The First Ladies Cook Book (by Margaret Klapthor, Parents Magazine Press, 1982), "Buchanan was so particular about the quality of his food that he had fresh butter sent him regularly from Philadelphia in a locked brass-bound kettle."

At one notable banquet in commemoration of the Prince of Wales' visit in 1857, 5,000 revelers were served eight rounds of beef, 75 hams, 60 saddles of mutton, four saddles of venison, 400 gallons of oysters, five quarts of jellies, 1,200 quarts of ice cream in assorted flavors, and large quantities of patés. Buchanan's favorite dishes included turtle soup, boiled lobster, calf's head, scrapple, sauerbraten, chicken salad, duck un kraut, succotash, peach charlotte, and grape pie.

Alas, history has not been kind to President Buchanan. He allowed slavery to be extended into the territories, and did nothing statesmanlike to forestall the Civil War. But was he gay? Apparently there is little doubt. His longtime companion was William Rufus King, who was sometimes referred to as Buchanan's wife, or "Aunt Fancy," and when King was appointed envoy to France in 1844, Buchanan complained to a friend, "I have gone wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any of them."

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Emerson Creek Pottery
1. Thomas Jefferson (third president, 1801-09) has no competition when it comes to top foodie president; in fact, he was the Alice Waters of his age. His work on the plantings at his Monticello estate alone would garner him weekly coverage in food blogs all over the country.

Jefferson developed a taste for fine wines while studying at the College of William & Mary. As minister plenipotentiary to France right after the Revolutionary War, he attended dinner parties frequented by Parisian gourmands, and had one of the enslaved Africans who accompanied him trained as a French chef. He made extensive trips around the French countryside collecting wines, and had them sent back to the States to fill out his cellars. During this era, he proclaimed, "We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good."

At his Monticello plantation he kept a concrete-lined pond for fresh eels. Over the course of many years, he supervised the growing of 170 varieties of fruit and 330 of vegetables, planting 27 varieties of kidney bean alone. He scoured the earth for new varieties of seeds that would grow well in the Virginia climate, even directing Lewis and Clark to collect seeds for him as they pressed westward. Jefferson kept the details of the growth of these plants in a series of notebooks, and succeeded in introducing eggplant and sugar snap peas to the United States, among other plants. Needless to say, most of the work in the gardens was accomplished by slaves.

In fact, such was Jefferson's love of vegetables that he became a quasi-vegetarian, writing in 1819, "I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet." Jefferson particularly liked tomatoes, and grew dozens of varieties. Recipes written by a relative indicate some of the uses he put them to: gumbo (okra) soups, cayenne-spiced tomato soup, green tomato pickles, tomato preserves, and tomato omelets.

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View of Monticello with the garden in the foreground.

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