Not all first ladies serve up turkey and pie for White House Thanksgivings

Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive (Getty Images)

Comb back through 100 years of White House Thanksgivings, and you’ll see that presidents eat a lot of turkey and pie. The Obamas, for instance, were known for serving six kinds of pie, as well as an apple cobbler that required three layers of store-bought pie crust. Patricia Nixon served chestnut stuffing inside her White House turkey, with ingredients that included bacon, raisins, apples, and chopped celery.

But some first ladies didn’t stick to the script.

One of the first to depart from the standard Thanksgiving dinner menu was Eleanor Roosevelt. A lasting heroine to many women, she was famous for serving terrible food at the White House, much to the disgruntlement of her husband, Franklin, who grew up eating lavish meals suited to his upper-class upbringing.

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By contrast, Mrs. Roosevelt went to boarding school in England at a time when English food was legendary for dreariness. And even during the Depression, what Mrs. Roosevelt served was kind of, well, depressing. Aiming for thrift, she became attached to New England dessert called Indian pudding.

I’ve actually made this—and liked it—in small portions. But it’s less than festive for a holiday meal: Indian pudding is essentially cornmeal pudding, which can be cooked in a Boston bean pot or a baking dish. You can top it with maple syrup, sorghum, or molasses, and vanilla ice cream really improves it.

Skipping ahead a few decades, many people think of Nancy Reagan as being a beautifully dressed first lady who gazed adoringly at her husband whenever he spoke in public. In private, however, Mrs. Reagan had a secret passion: monkey bread. Yes, the same sticky pull-apart that your mom might have whipped up for brunch guests. It isn’t clear whether this affinity was a product of her Chicago childhood, or something she acquired once she moved to Hollywood.

Mrs. Reagan’s monkey bread recipe calls for a lot of butter, and the whole thing requires some time to take shape, which might deter modern cooks. The bread dough has to rise for an initial 60 to 90 minutes, and then it has a second proofing after you shape it into balls and place it in a ring mold. (Presumably, that gave Mrs. Reagan ample time to check in with her astrologer.)

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In 2003, the White House distributed a menu for a Thanksgiving dinner in Crawford, Texas that President George W. Bush didn’t end up eating. Instead, he surprised American troops in Baghdad that year to serve them Thanksgiving dinner. Had he been home, he would have been able to sample first lady Laura’s sweet potato purée, a refreshing departure from old-school candied sweet potatoes.

I first discovered the recipe about 10 years ago in The New York Times, and I’ve put my own twist on it. You can make this recipe the day before Thanksgiving, and pop it in the oven just before you’re going to serve it. Not an issue for any first lady with a full kitchen staff, of course, but if you’re cooking alone, it’s a time saver. The ease of preparation is one advantage of this dish; the unique Texan spin on a holiday classic is another. You can almost picture it on the Bush family table in Crawford.

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In fact, for many of these first ladies, their departures from the Thanksgiving norm were likely an effort to incorporate a little bit of home into an otherwise grand meal. Anyone who’s seen the China Room in the White House knows their tables were groaning with fancy food on even fancier dishware, and a desire to bring a touch of the familiar to all that seems only natural.


Laura Bush’s Sweet Potato Purée

  • 6 to 8 sweet potatoes, whole and unpeeled
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream or whipping cream
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (see note below)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (optional)
  • salt, to taste
  • 3/4 cup chopped and toasted pecans

Set the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Roast the sweet potatoes on a parchment-covered cookie sheet for about 55 minutes. When you remove them from the oven, cut a slit in the skin to let the steam escape. Set them aside to cool slightly.

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Turn the oven down to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they’re cooled a bit, remove the skins from the sweet potatoes. Cut them open at the slits, and place the roasted potato flesh in a bowl.

Taste your sweet potatoes before you add more ingredients, because sweet potatoes can be unreliable. If they are not as sweet as you like, add the half cup of brown sugar.

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Mash the sweet potatoes as smoothly as possible, and break up any stringy parts. Add the melted butter, cream, beaten eggs, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt. Mix thoroughly. Add 1/2 cup of pecans and incorporate them into the sweet potato mixture.

Spray a baking dish or deep dish pie plate with non-stick spray. Spread the sweet potato mixture in the pan. Place the remaining 1/2 cup of pecans around the edge of the baking dish.

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Bake for about 30-35 minutes. Serve warm.

NOTE: This recipe can easily be modified to reflect your taste in spices. If you’d like something more along the pumpkin spice lines, you can add 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, ginger or cloves. For a more savory take, add 1/2 teaspoon of ground chipotle pepper, Chinese five spice powder, sumac or za’atar (make sure that the za’atar is finely ground). Chile lovers might enjoy mixing in a small can of green chiles or chopped jalapenos.

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The flavor of the purée will intensify after it rests, which makes it perfect for Black Friday brunch or a side dish for left over turkey. You can also mix another egg into the leftovers, and turn it into sweet potato cakes that can either be fried in a little butter, or baked at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes.

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