Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Jackie Liked to Eat

The White House

Flashbulbs popped on the night of the Pre-Inaugural Gala, when Jacqueline Kennedy emerged from a townhouse in Georgetown into the swirling snow, dressed in a shimmering, winter-white satin gown by Oleg Cassini. It was the country’s first glimpse of Jackie in the role of First Lady, revealing the grace, elegance and unique style that she would bring to the White House.

On the inaugural stand, she appeared in a simple fawn-colored suit with a muff and trim of sable, also by Cassini, and a matching pillbox hat by Halston. A few hours later, she looked regal at the ball in a silk chiffon gown and matching cape. Expressing herself through the clothes that she wore, Jackie captured the imagination of modern America which would soon begin to emulate her “good taste” in fashion, interior design, and French cuisine.

Although the Kennedys embodied the spirit of American optimism, Jackie’s tastes were decidedly French, strongly influencing how she would approach her new position.  In addition to being fluent in French, Jackie was well-versed in French art, architecture, and history. Even when she undertook a major project to restore the historic integrity of the White House, gathering outstanding examples of American art and furniture from around the United States, she quietly hired a French designer to redecorate the rooms. However, one of the first things she did as First Lady was hire Rene Verdon, a French chef then working in New York.1,2

Rene Verdon died in 2011. The following year, items from his estate began appearing at auction, including a lot of twenty-six presidential menus. This seemingly-random group came from a broad cross-section of events, ranging from political luncheons to state dinners over the three-year-span of the Kennedy administration. The White House kitchen had previously been the purview of caterers and Navy stewards known for their five- and six-course meals, making up in quantity what was lacking in quality. Collaborating with her new executive chef, Mrs. Kennedy introduced a more straightforward and elegant style of dining that was expressed in three  courses. Although the dishes may appear somewhat tame by today’s standards, the cuisine was considered very sophisticated at the time. It generated a lot of interest and excitement, setting the stage for a culinary revival that would soon spread across the country when a colorful disciple of French cooking named Julia Child burst onto the national scene. 

The menus also recall some of the world leaders and key events of the era. Shortly after Verdon began working at the White House, he prepared this luncheon honoring Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, a frequent visitor during the Cold War. The menu is dated April 12, 1961, marking the day that the Soviet Union launched an astronaut into low Earth orbit.3 It was the first time that a human had been sent into outer space.

In mid-April, the U.S. sponsored the ill-fated invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Although the military operation was a fiasco, JFK’s popularity soared to 82% that month, an all-time high. Deeply embarrassed by the debacle, the president remarked after seeing the opinion polls, “The worse you do, the better they like you.” The popularity of the Kennedys has remained high for more than fifty years, even though the reputation of the administration declined among historians and political scientists. Like an enduring work of art, blending opposite elements into a coherent whole, the Kennedys combined the casual sophistication and elegance of the European aristocracy with American traits like youth and energy. By all accounts, they were a glamorous couple who knew how to turn on the charm, and a real team when it came to entertaining, each marveling at the others ability to captivate their guests. 

On May 3, the Kennedys hosted their first state dinner, honoring President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. The menu below features carre d’agneau bouquetière, a rack of lamb covered with parsley, garlic, and bread crumbs. One of surprising things about these menus is the degree to which they reflect what Jackie liked to eat at that point in her life. Of course, it is not unusual for the meals to be in sync with the First Lady’s tastes, nor is it surprising for things to follow a certain pattern, especially when entertaining at a high frequency. Nevertheless, the dishes fall within a narrow band, closely mirroring her preferences. Her favorite meal was described as cold poached salmon, followed by a lamb entrée served with potatoes and string beans, and a dessert made with ice cream. In fact, lamb dishes appear on ten of these menus. Potatoes and string beans are also served often, while most other vegetables appear only once or twice. In one sense, this is not surprising, since JFK had no particular interest in food. Writing to the wife of the British Prime Minister in June 1963 about an upcoming visit of the president, Jackie advised, “Just do whatever you would do in your own home—His tastes are distressingly normal—plain food—children’s food—good food—He likes anything.”4

While President Kennedy may have had no particular interest in what was served, he did care about which language was used to describe the dishes, especially after the White House was accused of becoming “too French.” To avoid such criticism, he asked that French only be used when necessary. The resulting tug-of-war can be observed in the green beans. They appear in English at this Senate Ladies Red Cross luncheon, but are later called haricots vert au beurre, haricots vert aux amandes, string beans amandines, and green beans aux amandes. By the fall of 1963, this vegetable had gone full circle name-wise, making its tenth and final appearance on these menus as “string beans.”

The First Couple looked happy and relaxed as they waited for Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco to arrive for lunch the next day. Jackie was thirty-one years old, just a few months younger than the former actress Grace Kelly.

In addition to being the same age, the two women had a few other things in common. Both were Roman Catholic and had a daughter named Caroline. They were also photogenic and adept at using haute couture to create the image they wanted to project. On this occasion, Princess Grace wore a green dress by the Parisian designer Hubert de Givenchy that the fashion press described as a “red-hot moment.”  JFK certainly noticed the dress, turning to Grace during lunch and asking, Is that a Givenchy you're wearing? 
How clever of you, Mr. President!, she responded, However, did you know?
Oh, he replied, I'm getting pretty good at itnow that fashion is becoming more important than politics and the press is paying more attention to Jackie's clothes than my speeches.5

Princess Grace also looked happy and relaxed that day, having downed two double Bloody Marys to calm her nerves before going over to the White House. One of the eleven people who attended this luncheon remembered her as being bombed” when she arrived. 6

The soft shell crabs on the above menu were simply cooked to a nice crispness. They were followed by lamb loin on skewers with a garnish of oven-braised spring vegetables. Modifying a classic French dessert, Verdon “lightened” the strawberries Romanoff by folding whipped cream into softened ice cream. “I designed this menu with a warm afternoon in mind,” the chef later recalled. “It was touching to learn that Princess Grace, in an interview…four years later, was able to recall exactly the dishes she had eaten at luncheon that day.”10 (Her memory may have been aided by the menu she saved as a memento.) 

Chef Rene Verdon

In 1961, there were about eighteen official luncheons and dinners for foreign leaders, such as this one for Prime Minister Ikeda of Japan in June.

The cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in August 1961. Written by Julia Child, in collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Berthold, it quickly became a best seller. “I was lucky the Kennedys were in the White House…and Jackie hired French chef Rene Verdon to cook for them,” Child recounted. “Suddenly everyone was interested in French cuisine.” 

On August 15 (coincidentally, Child’s 49th birthday), East Germany began construction on the Berlin Wall, sparking a confrontation between the super powers. In response to Soviet moves to cut off allied access to Berlin, President Kennedy ordered 140,000 reservists to active duty. The luncheon below was held in mid-September for the foreign ministers of France, Britain, and West Germany who came to Washington to discuss the crisis.

The Senegalese soup on the above menu is reminiscent of the era. First appearing by that name in the 1950s, this rich curry soup was a specialty of the “21” Club, a celebrity haunt in midtown Manhattan that was then at the height of its popularity. President Kennedy gave the restaurant a model of PT109, the torpedo boat he commanded during WWII, so that it could be could hung from the ceiling along with the other “toys” on display.

Jackie appointed Oleg Cassini as her exclusive couturier in 1961. The French-born American fashion designer later wrote, “All I remember about those days are nerves, and Jackie on the phone ‘Hurry, hurry, Oleg, I’ve got nothing to wear.”’7 While the appointment provided Cassini with a position of prestige, it did not constrain her from wearing the work of other designers. For example, at the season’s first state dinner, honoring President Mañuel Prado Ugarteche of Peru, she wore a black silk velvet and Chinese yellow silk satin evening dress by Chez Ninon. (The fashionable wife of the Peruvian president was dressed in a gown by Dior.)

Showcasing the best of the performing arts, the White House became known for its “luxurious air of informality” during the Kennedy years. After this state dinner, Metropolitan Opera stars Roberta Peters and Jerome Hines performed selections from The Barber of Seville and Porgy and Bess in the East Room.

On September 21, the Kennedys hosted a luncheon for director Otto Preminger, and the cast of the movie “Advise & Consent,” a political thriller that was being filmed on location in Washington, D.C. The ensemble included Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and Peter Lawford, the president’s brother-in-law. The movie was a screen comeback for actress Gene Tierney who had had a romance with JFK in mid-1940s and was seated next to him at lunch. Although the singer Frank Sinatra was not in the film, he also attended this lunch, calling out “Hey, Chickie baby” when the President arrived, using the nickname he coined for Kennedy, much to the annoyance of the First Lady.

Returning to Washington in October 1961, after several long stays at the family summer home in Hyannis Port, Jackie became active again in planning social events at the White House. “She crawled on the floor among diagrams as she arranged the complex seating,” recalled journalist Hugh Sidey. “She went over the menus minutely.” To make the dinner conversations more stimulating, she mixed artists, writers, and entertainers with politicians and statesmen. After this state dinner for President Ibrahim Abboud of Sudan, actors from the American Shakespeare Festival Theater of Stratford, Connecticut performed five different scenes.

With press secretary Pierre Salinger in tow, President Kennedy hosted a number of lunches for out-of-town editors and publishers, confidant in his ability to handle the press. The one below was held for newspaper executives from Missouri.

On October 16, the luncheon shown below was held for Urho Kekkonen, President of Finland.

The Peace Corps was signed into law in the fall of 1961. Competing with communism for the hearts and minds of the developing world, the president often entertained leaders from South American and Africa, such as this luncheon for President Sékou Touré of the Republic of Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa that is only slightly larger than Missouri. 

The luncheon menu below is one of four Friday meals in this series that feature fish as the main course, in keeping with the spiritual practice that Catholics once followed, abstaining from eating meat on that day each week. (Six years later, Pope Paul VI decreed that the discipline commonly referred to as “Meatless Fridays” was no longer obligatory, except during Lent.) This bill of fare for a group of newspaper executives from Texas is printed entirely in French.

A small dinner party was held for the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky in January 1962. The nineteen guests came from London, Paris, and New York and included such notables as composer Leonard Bernstein and novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

Everyone was disappointed when the guest of honor had to leave early that evening. According to the official explanation, the seventy-nine-year-old was “weary” after a long day of rehearsals, failing to mention that the maestro became so drunk that his assistant had to carry him out.6

A luncheon was held for leaders of the Democratic Party on January 20, marking the first anniversary of the Kennedy inauguration. Salade mimosa begins to appear more often in 1962. Chef Verdon dressed this classic green salad with a light vinaigrette and tossed it with finely chopped hard-cooked egg yolk.

The New York Times ran an article that day reporting that the First Lady was transmitting “upper-crust habits” to the “common woman.” On Valentine’s Day, the commoners received another tutorial on good taste, when Jackie gave a televised tour of the newly-restored White House. Over forty-six million people (75% of the viewing audience) watched as she moved from room to room, knowledgeably describing the new acquisitions in her distinctive low, soft voice. With the help of many experts, and some of the country’s richest families like the Henry Fords, the Walter Annenbergs, the Marshall Fields, and the Henry Francis du Ponts, she had transformed the Executive Mansion into a living museum of the nation’s heritage. 

In March, newspaper editors from Michigan were entertained at this luncheon which begins with boula-boula, an American soup made by combining green pea soup and turtle soup, seasoned with sherry and topped with unsweetened whipped cream. Named after a Yale football cheer, it was popular in the 1930s at some of New York’s luxury hotels like the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria. In fact, the first dinner that Verdon prepared for the Kennedy family began with a bowl of boula-boula, followed by leg of lamb, roast potatoes, and corn on the cob. “When it came to the menus served to her family and friends, Vedon recalled, Mrs. Kennedy was no less attentive than for a state dinner. She preferred simple meals prepared with the freshest seasonal ingredients.”

The press tended to be unabashedly friendly in those years. A few hours after this luncheon, the headline of the evening edition of the News-Palladium in Benton Harbor declared: “JFK Charms Our GOP Boss!” 

Luncheon for Michigan publishers (March 16, 1961)

The luncheon shown below was held for President Sylvanus Olympio of Togo on March 20, 1962.

In early April, JFK hosted this luncheon for João Goulart, President of Brazil, without the First Lady who was still on spring vacation in Palm Beach.

The President and Mrs. Kennedy hosted this luncheon for Prime Minister and Mrs. Gerhardsen of Norway on May 9. Often served at the end of such meals, petits fours sec were bite-size pastries, or cookies, made without a cream filling, but which were sometimes dipped in chocolate.

Taking a momentary break from roast spring lamb, this luncheon honoring Prime Minister Robert Menzies of Australia in June features tournedos Rossini, a classic French dish comprising filets mignons topped with hot foie gras, sliced truffles, and a rich sauce that is finished with Madeira. Once a mainstay of French restaurants in New York, this classic dish faded from the scene in the 1970s when nouvelle cuisine came into vogue.

The luncheon below was held for President-elect Guillermo León Valencia of Colombia on June 25, 1962.

By nature an introvert, Jackie was driven by a need for privacy, prompting her to spend long periods away from the White House. During the summer of 1962, she went on a three-month extended vacation, visiting  in Hyannis Port and traveling abroad. Family matriarch Rose Kennedy acted as the hostess for the luncheon on July 23 of that year honoring President Carlos Julio Arosemena of Ecuador.

Three days later on July 26, Julia Child’s first cooking show aired on educational television in Boston. Describing her performance, Child recalled, “There was this woman tossing French omelettes, splashing eggs about the place, brandishing big knives, (and) panting heavily as she careened around the stove.” The three pilots were so successful that they were turned into a series the following year.

Jackie returned to Washington in mid-October, arriving in time for a dinner dance scheduled for the following week. The purpose of this social event was to thank the Maharaja of Jaipur and his wife for their help during her recent trip to India. However, the dinner was cancelled due to the Cuban missile crisis; the menu shown below was never used. On October 23, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3504, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba. Seemingly on the brink of nuclear war, the White House staff was issued pink cards, allowing them access to the presidential bomb shelter deep below the Catoctin Mountains near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Fortuitously, historian Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece The Guns of August was published two months earlier, providing a narrative of the misconceptions, miscalculations, and mistakes that resulted in World War I. The new book weighed heavily on President Kennedy’s mind as he maneuvered for thirteen days, looking for a peaceful resolution of this confrontation with the Soviet Union.

War was averted and the previously cancelled dinner dance was held on November 9, only without the Maharaja and his wife who had by then gone home. The new guest of honor was Ambassador James Gavin who recently returned from his posting in Paris. Actually, the Gavins were on the original guest list along with usual family members, old friends, and administration insiders who regularly attended such events. However, switching “honorees” was not as unusual at it might sound. The dinner dance was “the signature event of Jackie’s social calendar—formal only in their requirement of black tie and gowns,” recounts historian Sally Bedell Smith. “To make such frivolous occasions ‘more publicly acceptable,’ the trick was finding a ‘beard’—friends or relatives whom the Kennedys could ‘honor’ with a party.”6 (Although he did not attend, the president’s brother Edward Kennedy had just won his first race for the U.S. Senate three days earlier, giving the family cause for celebration.) 
There was political pressure to serve American wines at White House events, which in those years primarily meant wines from the California vineyards of Almaden, Inglenook, and the Wente Brothers. However, this stricture was ignored when it came to the dinner dances, since these were essentially private affairs. The menu shown above includes two first-growth Bordeaux wines—Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion, a prestigious estate owned by the family of Treasury secretary Douglas Dillon. (In 1961, Dillon turned over ownership to his children in compliance with rules preventing Treasury officials from owning alcohol beverage companies.) The wines of Château Haut-Brion appear on five of these twenty-six menus.

Julia Child’s television series “The French Chef” premiered on February 11, 1963. At the time, eating well at a restaurant of note in the United States usually meant eating French. Synonymous with the most cultured dining experience, French cuisine was an intimating subject until Child convinced Americans that cooking did not need to be fancy to be good. Before long, people were turning out dishes like coq au vin and beef bourgonoine in their own kitchens.

The state dinner in February for President Rómulo Betancourt of Venezuela was one of the few White House events that Jackie attended in 1963.  The menu below includes potatoes Anna. In Child's 107th show titled More about Potatoes, the French chef explained that this buttery cake needed to be crisp and brown on the outside without having it stick to the dish.


On March 8, the Kennedy’s sixth and final dinner dance honored Eugene Black, the
banker who helped JFK build support in Congress for the foreign aid bill. The dishes shown below refer to various aspects of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1963. Although it sounds like an inside joke, the entrée named “breast of IDA” (International Development Association) may have been a fish dish, since the dinner was held on a Friday night.

A dozen violinists played Viennese and Hungarian music during dinner in the Blue Room. Afterward, society bandleader Lester Lanin and his orchestra played dance music until the early hours of the morning. Although Jackie made some sly comments to friends that evening, she was not ready to reveal, even to her mother, that she was three-months pregnant. After the announcement was made in mid-April, Jackie significantly reduced her participation in official events, even canceling previous commitments. As a result, she came to be regarded as capricious and unreliable. On August 7, 1963, the Kennedy’s son was born prematurely and died two days later. 

Still grieving, Jackie was not yet attending public functions on October 1 of that year when Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia came to Washington. Nevertheless, she went to the train station with the President to greet the legendary monarch who she later entertained at tea. Rose Kennedy acted as the hostess at the state dinner that night. Just as the first guests were beginning to arrive, Jackie slipped out of the White House and headed for the airport.8 Although JFK had repeatedly asked her not to go on this trip, she decided to join her sister Lee Radziwill and others for a two-week cruise around the Greek islands on the Christina, the opulent, 325-foot yacht owned by shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. (Tabloids romantically linked Lee Radziwill with Mr. Onassis, a notorious womanizer.)

The state dinner for Haile Selassie was the fifteenth and last such dinner of the Kennedy administration. After returning from Greece, Jackie made her first official appearance that fall, accompanying her husband on a political trip to Dallas in the third week of November. 

In 1966, shortly after leaving the White House, Rene Verdon received a call from Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, wife of wealthy banking heir Paul Mellon. She was planning to host a luncheon at her home on Cape Cod for her friend Jacqueline Kennedy and wanted the chef to prepare the meal. When they later met to plan the large event for sixty-nine people, Mellon began by asking Verdon what Jackie liked to eat. He suggested that cold fresh salmon be served as the first course. (When the five- to six- pound size he preferred was not available, the chef settled for rock bass.) The recommended entrée was a rack of lamb, accompanied by short shoe-string potatoes with truffles and sliced string beans with almonds. Following the main course, a Bibb-lettuce salad would be served with Brie cheese on the side. For dessert, he proposed glace Alexandra, a vanilla-ice-cream creation similar to strawberries Romanoff, only made with fresh peaches poached in heavy syrup, and covered with a raspberry sauce. Petits fours sec would be served at an end, just as they had been at the White House.10

1. Jackie’s first choice was Bui Van Han, the tiny (5 ft.) Tonkinese chef of French Ambassador Jean Chauvel in London. Bui, who was regarded as one of the world’s great chefs, turned down the job which was fortunate for the Chauvels who had grown particularly fond of his Pauppiette de Sole à la Richelieu and Cotelettes de Pigeone à l'Espagnole
2. Rene Verdon was recommended by Chef Roger Fessaguet at La Caravelle, a French restaurant that opened in New York in 1960, quickly becoming a favorite of the Kennedy clan. Verdon had already been working at the White House on a part time basis to help with the inaugural festivities. He was an experienced chef with a long resume that included Le Ronceray, La Calvados, and Cercle Hausmann in Paris, the Normandy Hotel in Deauville, and the French liner S. S. Liberté. He had also worked in New York, first at the Carlyle Hotel, where the Kennedys maintained an apartment, and most recently at the Essex House. On 25 March 1961, Verdon arrived at the White House gate, suitcase in hand, ready to assume his duties as the executive chef for the next five years.
3. This less formal format, printed on regular 5- x 7½-inch paper embossed with the presidential seal, was used for eight of these luncheons; the other menus shown here were printed on 4⅛- x 6½-inch heavy card stock with a beveled gilt edge and embossed presidential seal, reflecting the traditional format established during the Eisenhower administration. 
4. Alistair Horne, Macmillan, Vol. 2, 1957-1862, 1989, p. 513. 
5. Oral history, 19 June 1965, JFK Library and Museum
6. Sally Bedell Smith, Grace and Power, 2004.  
7. Oleg Cassini, A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House, 1995.
8. Barbara Leaming, Mrs. Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years, 2002. 
9. Letitia Baldridge, In the Kennedy Style, 1998. 
10. Rene Verdon, The White House Chef Cookbook, 1968.


Deana Sidney said...

Absolutely brilliant. I learned so much, even after researching this myself. I love the way you dig into the topic and come up with such gold. The menus are amazing. Our Jackie did love her lamb, didn't she?

I love the way you tied Julia Child' s success to Jackie's tastes and the desire of American women to emulate her style (as if a mortal could do that successfully).

Well done.

Andrea said...

Love the way you tell a story and am amazed that Grace Kelly needed to stready here nerves with two double Bloody Mary's before meeting the Kennedys.

ephemeralist said...

It seems as though you have an insider's view about who had a few too many drinks!

Jeanne Schinto said...

What a feast, Henry! What a great piece of work!

Anonymous said...

wow. such an interesting and informative post. i love it.

sharon said...

Loved reading about Rene Verdon, WH chef during the Kennedy administration. What a great collaboration between this much sought after chef & our Queen of Camelot. Highly informative! Great job, thank you!

Anonymous said...

well Jackie certainly wasn't into a healthy diet. Tons of saturated fat..I am not surprised she died of cancer. She also smoked..those were the days...

As for Grace Kelly, I had read she had a drinking problem. this certainly attests to it. The marriage was a joke - neither took their vows seriously. But that's a whole other story.

What did Jackie and Grace really have in common? Daddy issues. Read up on it.

Charlotte said...

Wonderful article, thank you so much! One question: do you have any idea what "roast beef Brabant style" is? Never heard of that.