When it comes to the tricky business of shaping a legacy, every president has some measure of control over elements like their leadership style, foreign policy approaches, and other political decisions that have impact long after the individual has left office. But when it comes to the cultural side of a president’s legacy—how they’re remembered in the public’s collective consciousness—the list of contributing factors can skew a bit more flighty: personality quirks, memorable public appearances, pop culture entertainment choices, and what they liked to eat. Our more recent presidents have had their culinary choices captured and analyzed everywhere from late-night talk show monologues to Twitter. But a wide variety of food-related stories have contributed to the legacies of past presidents via tall tales, newspaper clippings, and history books.
When Thomas Jefferson took office as our third president in 1801, he already had a rich reputation as a cultured Renaissance man with dignified, Parisian-influenced tastes. Jefferson cultivated his love for French cuisine during his years as the U.S. Minister to France and was known to have both an adventurous palette and an extremely inquisitive spirit when it came to food. Not satisfied to just enjoy a meal in the moment, Jefferson took detailed notes about dishes, recipes, ingredients, and techniques so that region-specific dishes could be recreated for him when he was back in the United States. He’s often credited with popularizing macaroni and cheese with American audiences after enjoying it while in Paris and Italy and shipping the integral ingredients and a pasta-making machine back to the U.S. for his own use. Ever the staunch Virginian, Jefferson was also keen to keep strong the culinary influences he grew up on, often mixing the two geographical gourmets together by growing Virginian crops in the garden of his Parisian home and keeping a variety of French crops in rotation in his garden at Monticello.
Jefferson’s renown as a Francophile proved to be a complicated issue for him during the presidential election of 1800, as American voters seemed to be equally split as to whether his allegiance qualified him as an aesthete or an elitist. After winning the contentious election, Jefferson held lavishly catered White House soirées that fascinated his constituents, who enjoyed reading about regal presidential spreads that included Parisian pastries, ragouts, soufflés, and expensive French wines alongside generous helpings of rustic root vegetables, cornbread, field greens, and Virginia ham.
While Jefferson’s culinary legacy is anchored around actual dishes and ingredients, Teddy Roosevelt’s mealtime anecdotes show how our 26th president used what was on the table merely as a means to entertain and connect with those gathered around it. Where Roosevelt’s own day-to-day menus may have been notoriously run-of-the-mill, any chance to entertain guests proved a call for exotic table spreads of colorful game and curious international teas that functioned as a catalyst for Roosevelt to hold court over lively conversations and bouts of storytelling around his extravagant travels and fantastical adventures. For all of the many legislative accomplishments that were enacted under his tenure, Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality may be what endures longest in history’s remembrance of him, a fact that would not be surprising to anyone who shared in one of his mealtime performances.
William Howard Taft had the unenviable position of following in Roosevelt’s celebrated footsteps. His failure to fully step out of that shadow can be summarized in a story with roots in Taft’s insatiable love of a dish usually considered to be more roadkill than refined fare. Taft’s love of roasted possum was so well documented, a post-election, pre-inauguration banquet in 1909 featured a Taft-requested main course of “possum and taters”—an 18-pound possum presented on a mound of sweet potatoes—followed by the president-elect being ceremoniously presented with a stuffed toy possum. More than just a playful gift, the stuffed animal called “Billy Possum” was designed to become the nation’s next frenzied toy trend in the same way that Taft hoped to successfully succeed his predecessor Roosevelt (whom the teddy bear toy was actually inspired by and named after). While the “Billy Possum” toy craze never took off and Taft himself never came close to achieving the level of national adoration that Roosevelt did, Taft does hold the distinction of being the only president to serve a 26-pound possum as the pièce de résistance at the annual White House Thanksgiving feast.
Theodore’s cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the country through most of The Great Depression, the era of the New Deal, and World War II, and he was always mindful of the optics of his office in light of the economic turmoil of his first and second terms. In 1939, with the country still hard at work trying to rebound from the Great Depression, the Roosevelts hosted a state dinner for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at their summer home in Hyde Park, New York. Instead of an extravagant, multi-course meal meant to dazzle and impress, the British monarchs were instead treated to a picnic of hot dogs, beer, and strawberry shortcake. It was a spread both all-American and economical, two incredibly important ideals to the constituents of a country in rebuilding mode. Dubbed by the press as the “Hot Dog Summit,” the meal was part of a significant trip by the royals, as it marked the first time a reigning British monarchy had visited the United States. It was also meant to help warm the frosty relationship between the two countries that had lingered after World War I. England declared war on Germany just three months after the political picnic, and historians give much credit to Roosevelt’s wiener roast as the PR stunt that cemented the English as U.S. allies, while moving America away from isolationism.
For presidents who have served in the modern era of perpetual visibility, their food-based experiences and anecdotes can range wildly from endearing to disastrous. When Gerald Ford was visiting the Alamo on the campaign trail during his bid for a second term in 1976, he was handed a plate of tamales and took a bite of one without removing the outer cornhusk. The faux pas spread so quickly that it became known as “The Great Tamale Incident” and was used by Ford’s critics to frame him as culturally out of touch and incompetent. Ford would eventually lose the state of Texas (and the overall presidential bid) to Jimmy Carter.
All of our recent presidents have ties to food that translate into deeper characterizations about these leaders. Jimmy Carter’s depiction as a hayseed Georgia peanut farmer contributed to his unfairly marginalized reputation for running an ineffectual presidency. Ronald Reagan’s furiously documented love of jellybeans played into his reputation as being a warm, grandfatherly leader or a manipulable child-like dolt, depending on which side of the ballot you were on. Cable news channels delighted in running seemingly infinite loops of George H.W. Bush vomiting on the Prime Minister of Japan and did their best to capture all of Bill Clinton’s multiple pop-ins to fast food joints while out “McJogging,” providing much fodder for Letterman monologues and Saturday Night Live skits. Did the playfully manufactured story about Barack Obama’s “seven almonds before bed” routine gain such quick legs because he was already seen as having a measured character or do those types of tongue-in-cheek tales actually help create and crystallize the narrative of a diplomatic disciplinarian for future generations?
And then there’s our current commander-in-chief, who has amassed an impressive amount of food-based foibles in his very short time of being in the politically minded section of the public eye. Horrific optics include his groan-inducing tweet about Trump Tower taco bowls (“I love Hispanics!”) and the picture of him ready to tackle a KFC bucket like any red-blooded, blue-collar American would… with a stainless steel knife and fork. It’s been widely reported (and confirmed) that Trump like his steaks cooked extremely well done (with a healthy amount of ketchup on the side) and his dessert course finds him with a double scoop of ice cream to everyone else’s single scoop. His love of McDonald’s runs so deep that he’s asked the White House chefs to recreate some of the beloved burger chain’s menu items—all except the non-existent “Fish Delight” that Trump oddly mentioned to Anderson Cooper during a CNN Town Hall question about his favorite McD’s foodstuffs.
So if history ends up remembering Trump as a jingoistic xenophobe, who clumsily mashes together high-brow and low-brow aesthetics, has overtly childish tendencies, and relishes in even the smallest opportunity to manipulate the optics of power, these culinary yarns contribute to the shaping of that memory. While these types of stories may seem insignificant on the surface, they unquestionably help to create and control the way we view a president’s inherent character traits. As each new course of Trump’s food stories give us a bewildering peek at the man-child behind the curtain, it’s hard to anticipate what could possibly follow up having a Diet Coke-summoning button installed on his desk or having a missile launch take a back seat to “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.” But perhaps Trump’s dessert course is the most revealing: He’s the only person in the room getting two scoops of ice cream, putting himself ahead of the concerns of everyone else.