Occasionally White House food has been nearly inedible. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was a certified gourmet who raved about “weird foods” such as buffalo tongue, Greenland ptarmigan, and “fresh from Duluth” whitefish, his White House food was legendarily lousy This was partly due to wartime rationing, but mainly to the housekeeper, Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt, who, under the wing of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, produced a mess of liver and beans, mysterious casseroles, salads of jelly with marshmallows and others. “cheap menus”. After a dinner chez Roosevelt in 1937, Ernest Hemingway described the meal as “the worst I have ever eaten…rainwater soup followed by rubber pigeon, a good wilted salad, and a cake sent by an admirer. An admirer enthusiastic but inexperienced”. Hem’s future third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, ate three sandwiches at the airport before flying to Washington: “She said the food was always inedible,” she wrote. “It has stayed there a lot. Me, I won’t stay there anymore.”
What is the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I was amazed by the story of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook, James Hemings, which I pieced together from various books. Jefferson brought James to Paris when he was 18 or 19, where he trained in some of the best kitchens in the city and learned to speak French better than his teacher. Returning to the United States with a pocket full of prescriptions and money (slavery was rare in France and paid comparatively well there), Hemings followed Jefferson from New York to Philadelphia and the Monticello plantation in Virginia. There, he prepared some of the biggest meals of the day and, in the process, helped define American cuisine as we know it: a fusion of indigenous ingredients cooked with French tools and techniques, English recipes, African herbs and spices, and a soup of your own creativity.
James was also one of Sally Hemings’ brothers. Sally was a servant to Jefferson’s white daughters in Paris, and DNA testing has shown she was the mother of at least six Jefferson children. (Those children were three-quarters white but treated as slaves; four survived to adulthood and were not freed until late in Jefferson’s life.) It is a lineage that boggles the modern mind, although it was not unknown at the time.
After James Hemings bought his freedom, he struggled to find his identity: as a former slave who was literate, well-traveled, and a culinary artist of the highest caliber, he was neither entirely black nor white; he never married or had children, and his sexuality may have been fluid. He just didn’t fit into the world the way he was. Following his election, Jefferson offered Hemings the job of White House chef, but the two men could not agree on the terms. Instead, James settled in Baltimore, cooking in a tavern and drinking heavily until his death at the age of 36. His story is worthy of being included in the curriculum, or at least deserving of the Hollywood treatment.
What topics would you like more authors to write about?
Fresh water, which I believe will be the defining resource of this century. I wrote about the challenges of floods, droughts, pollution, and sustainable use in my 2011 book “The Ripple Effect.” Dire predictions my sources made a decade ago are proving accurate sooner than expected, and their message remains clear: We can survive without oil, but not without water.
How do you organize your books?
Out of necessity, I organize the books I’m using for current projects relatively coherently: My office shelf contains sections on food history and recipes, presidents, political and social history, the White House, and so on. But the rest of my library is a series of jumbled collections. It doesn’t help that my wife is an artist and avid reader, whose shelves are lined with oversized art and photography books, along with a trove of novels, poetry, health and fitness guides, and random volumes. Most of our books aren’t on the floor, at least, but on a shelf I see “The Soul of a New Machine” next to “All the King’s Men” surmounted by “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Why? I have no idea. It’s crazy, but I can usually get my hands on the volumes I need.
What book might surprise people to find on their shelves?
Marie Kondo, just kidding! I like big, picture-filled books on marine biology, like Ernst Haeckel’s “Art Forms in Nature” or the American Museum of Natural History’s “Rich Oceans.” I find them beautiful and mysterious, and they tickle my inner Jacques Cousteau. I bet James Cameron likes them too.