Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Jackie Liked to Eat

The White House

Flashbulbs popped on the night of the Pre-Inaugural Gala as Jacqueline Kennedy emerged from a townhouse in Georgetown into the swirling snow. She was dressed in a shimmering, winter-white satin gown designed by Oleg Cassini, marking the country’s first glimpse of Jackie in her role as First Lady. Her appearance revealed 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 accented with a muff and sable trim, crafted by Cassini, complemented by a matching pillbox hat from Halston. Later that evening at the ball, she exuded regal elegance in a silk chiffon gown paired with a matching cape. Jackie's distinctive fashion choices expressed her unique style, captivating the imagination of modern America, which soon sought 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 approached her new position. Fluent in French, she was well-versed in French art, architecture, and history. When undertaking a major project to restore the historic integrity of the White House, she collected outstanding examples of American art and furniture from around the United States, while quietly enlisting a French designer to redecorate the rooms. One of her initial actions as First Lady was to hire a 36-year-old French chef named René Verdon, who was working in New York at the time.1,2

Soon after Rene Verdon died in 2011, items from his estate began appearing at auction, including a seemingly-random group of twenty-six presidential menus from luncheons and dinners held during the Kennedy administration. Previously, the White House kitchen had  been managed by caterers and Navy stewards known for their five- and six-course meals, making up in quantity what may have been 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. This sophisticated cuisine garnered significant interest and excitement, paving the way for a culinary renaissance that would sweep across the nation with the emergence of Julia Child, a vibrant advocate of French cooking. 

The menus document the presence of world leaders and pivotal events during the Cold War era. For instance, a luncheon for Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany took place on April 12, 1961, coinciding with the Soviet Union's historic launch of an astronaut into low Earth orbit, marking the first time a human had been sent into outer space.3 

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. After seeing the opinion polls, the deeply-embarrassed president remarked, “The worse you do, the better they like you.” The popularity of the Kennedys has remained high, 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. It is fascinating how much these menus reflect what Jackie liked to eat at this point in her life. Although it is not unusual for the cuisine at the White House to be in sync with the First Lady’s tastes, nor is it odd for meals to follow a pattern when entertaining at a high frequency, the dishes fall within a particularly narrow band. Her favorite meal comprised cold poached salmon, a lamb entrée served with potatoes and string beans, and a dessert made with ice cream. As it happens, lamb was served on ten of these twenty-six occasions. Potatoes and string beans also appear often. Perhaps it is not surprising that the cuisine closely mirrored her preferences since JFK had no real interest in food. In a letter to the wife of the British Prime Minister in June of 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 been indifferent to food, he was particular about which language was used to describe the dishes 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 on the menu below from the 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 reverted to its original English name, making its tenth and final appearance as “string beans.”

The First Couple appeared happy and relaxed as they awaited the arrival of Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco 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 shared several other similarities. Both were Roman Catholic and named their daughters Caroline. They were also renowned for their photogenic qualities and skillfully used haute couture to cultivate their public image. During this occasion, Princess Grace wore a green dress by Parisian designer Hubert de Givenchy, described by the press as a “red-hot moment.”  On lunch, JFK turned to Grace Kelly and asked, 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 appeared happy and relaxed that day, having downed two double Bloody Marys to calm her nerves before heading to the White House. One of the eleven attendees at this luncheon recalled her as being bombed” when she arrived.6

The soft-shell crabs on the above menu were reportedly cooked to a delightful crispness. They were followed by lamb loin on skewers accompanied by oven-braised spring vegetables as garnish. For dessert, Verdon prepared strawberries Romanoff by "lightening" a classic French recipe, folding whipped cream into softened ice cream. “I designed this menu with a warm afternoon in mind,” the chef later reminisced. “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 recalled. “Suddenly everyone was interested in French cuisine.” 

On August 15, which happened to be Child’s 49th birthday, East Germany began construction on the Berlin Wall, igniting 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 convened in Washington to discuss the crisis.

The above menu commences with Cream Senegalaise, a rich curry soup that was a signature dish at the “21” Club, a renowned celebrity hangout in midtown Manhattan at its peak of popularity. President Kennedy presented the restaurant with a model of PT-109, the torpedo boat he commanded in World War II, which was hung from the ceiling alongside numerous other displayed items.

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 the First Lady from wearing the work of other fashion houses. At the first state dinner of the season, honoring President Mañuel Prado Ugarteche of Peru, she wore a black silk velvet and Chinese yellow silk satin evening dress created by Chez Ninon. Meanwhile, the fashionable wife of the Peruvian president was dressed in a gown by Dior.

During the Kennedy years, the White House was known for its “luxurious air of informality,” highlighting the finest in the performing arts. Following 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 being filmed on location in Washington, D.C. The guests included actors 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 1940s and was seated next to him. Although Frank Sinatra was not part of the film, he also attended this lunch, calling out “Hey, Chickie baby” when the president arrived, much to the annoyance of the First Lady.

After several prolonged stays at the family summer home in Hyannis Port, Jackie returned to Washington in October 1961 and resumed her active role in planning social events at the White House. Journalist Hugh Sidey recalled, She crawled on the floor among diagrams as she arranged the complex seating. She scrutinized the menus meticulously. To foster more engaging dinner conversations, she intermingled politicians and statesmen with artists, writers, and entertainers. Following this state dinner for President Ibrahim Abboud of Sudan, actors from the American Shakespeare Festival Theater of Stratford, Connecticut, performed.

Confidant in his ability to handle the press, President Kennedy hosted a number of luncheons for out-of-town editors and publishers. The one below was held for newspaper executives from Missouri.

On October 16, Urho Kekkonen, President of Finland, visited the White House

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 entertained many leaders from South American and Africa. This luncheon was held for President Sékou Touré of the Republic of Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa. 

The menu below, which is printed entirely in French, is from a luncheon for newspaper executives from Texas. This meal, along with three others in this series, took place on a Friday, when  fish was served as the main course in keeping with the spiritual practice of Catholics who abstained from eating meat on this day each week. (Six years later, Pope Paul VI decreed the discipline commonly known as “meatless Fridays” was no longer obligatory, except during Lent.)

A small dinner party was held for the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky in January 1962. The nineteen guests hailed from London, Paris, and New York and included notable figures such 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, omitting the fact that the maestro had become so intoxicated 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.  Chef Verdon dressed the classic green salad called salade mimosa with a light vinaigrette and tossed it with finely chopped hard-boiled egg yolk. Coincidently, on the same day, the New York Times reported that the First Lady was transmitting “upper-crust habits” to the “common woman.” 

The commoners received another tutorial on Valentine’s Day in 1962 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, 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 of that year, newspaper editors from Michigan attended this luncheon that began with boula-boula, an American concoction made by combining green pea soup and turtle soup. It was seasoned with sherry and topped with unsweetened whipped cream. Named after a Yale football cheer, it was a popular dish in the 1930s at luxury hotels like the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. In fact, the first dinner that Verdon prepared for the Kennedys comprised boula-boula, 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 was unabashedly friendly during the Kennedy 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. Petits fours sec, the bite-size pastries often served at the end of such meals, were made without a cream filling but sometimes were dipped in chocolate.

The luncheon honoring Prime Minister Robert Menzies of Australia in June of that year featured tournedos Rossini, comprising filets mignons topped with hot foie gras, sliced truffles, and a rich sauce finished with Madeira. Once a mainstay of French restaurants in the United States, 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.

Jackie was an introvert whose need for privacy prompted her to spend long periods away from the White House. During the summer of 1962, she spent three months at Hyannis Port and traveling abroad. Family matriarch Rose Kennedy acted as the hostess for this luncheon on July 23 of that year, honoring President Carlos Julio Arosemena of Ecuador.

Three days later, Julia Child made her debut on educational television in Boston. Describing her first cooking show, Child recalled, “There was this woman tossing French omelets, 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, a week before a dinner dance was to be held to thank the Maharaja of Jaipur and his wife for their help during her recent trip to India. However, the Cuban missile crisis caused the dinner to be cancelled; the menu below was never used. Instead, President Kennedy signed Proclamation 3504 on October 23, authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba. Seemingly on the brink of nuclear war, the White House staff received pink cards that allowed them access to the presidential bomb shelter below the Catoctin Mountains near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Fortuitously, historian Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece The Guns of August had been published two months earlier, providing a narrative of the misconceptions and miscalculations that resulted in the First World War. The book weighed heavily on President Kennedy’s mind as he maneuvered for thirteen days, seeking a peaceful resolution of this confrontation with the Soviet Union.

War was averted and the dinner dance was rescheduled for November 9, although without the Maharaja and his wife, who had by then gone home. The new guests of honor were Ambassador James Gavin and his wife, who recently returned from a posting in Paris. In fact, the Gavins were on the original guest list, along with usual family members, old friends, and administration insiders who regularly attended such events. Switching “honorees” was not all that unusual. 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, Edward Kennedy had 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 overlooked for the dinner dances, as these were considered private affairs. The above menu includes two first-growth Bordeaux wines—Château Margaux and Château Haut-Brion, the prestigious estate owned by the family of Treasury secretary Douglas Dillon. 
The wines of Château Haut-Brion appear on five of these twenty-six menus. (In 1961, Dillon transferred ownership to his children to comply with rules preventing Treasury officials from owning alcohol beverage companies.) 

Julia Child’s television series “The French Chef” premiered on February 11, 1963. At the time, dining well at a notable restaurant in the United States typically 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, whom 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 Even though JFK repeatedly asked her not to go on this trip, she decided to join her sister Lee Radziwill on 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 dinner for Haile Selassie was the fifteenth and last state 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. 

Shortly after leaving the White House in 1966, Rene Verdon met with Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, wife of wealthy banking heir Paul Mellon, to plan the menu for a luncheon at her home on Cape Cod, honoring her friend Jacqueline Kennedy. Bunny Mellon began the meeting by asking Verdon what Jackie liked to eat. The chef suggested cold fresh salmon as the first course. (When the five- to six-pound salmon he preferred were not available, the chef settled for rock bass.) The recommended entrée was a rack of lamb, accompanied by 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, but 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 Roger Fessaguet, chef at La Caravelle in New York that became a favorite of the Kennedy clan soon after it opened in September of 1960. Verdon’s resume included Le Ronceray, La Calvados, and Cercle Hausmann in Paris, the Normandy Hotel in Deauville, and the French liner Liberté. He had been working in New York for the past three years, first at the Carlyle Hotel and then at the Essex House. Verdon made his official debut as executive chef at the White House on 6 April 1961 and remained in this position for 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.

Darryl Grant said...

Fabulous revisit of those wonderful days and imaginative menus. By the standards of the day they were quite light, even the sauces, so they were healthy. The desserts were rich, but indulging in a nice way never hurt anyone.

Stephen Schmidt said...

I read this evocative post after reading the fascinating Chester Arthur post. In our current age, Camelot seems almost as far back in time as the Arthur administration.