John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35thPresident of the United States, was tragically assassinated on November the 22nd 1963 – 50 years ago today. Perhaps most noted for his famous words during his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, he asked the nations of the world to join together to fight what he called the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself”. He was a man who once described himself as an “idealist without illusions.”
And while the president deserves to be known and remembered for his many achievements, political and otherwise – as those who are much better qualified than I will do – I wanted to honor his memory by revealing a side to this man which has seldom been appreciated, and which resonates with a passion of my own- an appreciation for good food.
As it turns out, “Jack” had a taste for French cuisine, thanks to his father, Joseph P. Kennedy- former ambassador to England and investor in the famed Le Pavillon – a New York City restaurant that defined French food in the United States from 1941 to 1966.
In fact, the Kennedy’s had many links to Le Pavillon. Henri Soulé, who ran the restaurant, committed what was considered a major snafu by allowing paparazzi to disturb the Kennedys -who were regular customers- as well as their staffers during the Presidential campaign. After the Kennedy Team asked the paparazzi to leave the restaurant, Soulé insisted that only he had the right, as owner, to determine who entered and left the restaurant. Apparently the event caused bad blood between Soulé and the Kennedys. After the election Pépin was offered the job of White House chef, which he declined.
Fred Decre, an alumnus of the kitchen at Le Pavillon, served as chef for all in-flight meals on Kennedy’s campaign plane. A typical Decre menu would start with vichyssoise (a thick soup made of puréed leeks, onions, potatoes, cream, and chicken stock), a main course of chicken breasts with a Champagne-and-cream sauce, and finally a chocolate mousse or a caramel custard for dessert.
Kennedy was so passionate for food that he transformed the old kitchen in the White House into a professional facility including commercial ranges and a restaurant-grade refrigerator. He even informed the press corps that he was giving as much thought to the selection of a new White House chef as to his Cabinet appointments.
That chef turned out to be René Verdon, a prominent Manhattan French chef. His appointment made headlines and opened the doors to an influx of French restaurants in Washington.
This monumental shift in the local food culture was so prominent that, according to Robert Shoffner of Washingtonian.com, “His tastes changed Washington dining–and some of 1965’s best restaurants are still going strong”
A sampling of a White House menu under the Kennedy administration appears as following:
President and Mrs. John Kennedy’s Menu
for a Luncheon with Princess Grace, May 24, 1961
Soft-Shell Crab Amadine
Spring Lamb Á La Broche Aux Primeurs
Château Croton Grancey 1955
Dom Pérignon 1952
Petits Fours Secs
You can view a few of Verdon’s recipes at http://www.ourwhitehouse.org/tasteofpast.html including his Strawberries Romanoff, included at the end of this article.
Kennedy also influenced another aspect of Washington dining by launching the “age of the upscale saloon”. Believe it or not, until 1962 bars could serve beer or wines only to patrons seated on stools; to be served liquor, one had to be seated at a table in the restaurant’s dining room or cocktail lounge. If a patron wanted to socialize with friends at another table, his drink had to be carried there by a waiter. In May of that year, May President Kennedy signed a bill that legalized serving liquor at stand-up bars.
Kennedy was known to frequent Martin’s Tavern, his favorite restaurant and watering hole in Georgetown, DC. Each week he would occupy a small booth there, called a “rumble seat”. He liked the tavern so much that he asked Jacqueline Bouvier to marry him in the same place; the very same booth today bears a plaque identifying it as”the proposal booth.”
The Kennedy Clan also patronized the Union Oyster House for years. The Boston restaurant is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the United States. J.F.K. loved to eat in privacy in the upstairs dining room, where he frequently enjoyed his clam chowder. His favorite booth, known as “Booth 18” or “The Kennedy Booth”, has since been dedicated in his memory.
Through all of these facts, however, it would perhaps be a bit misleading to brand Kennedy as a true “foodie”. According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, “President Kennedy was a small eater; he often had to be reminded that it was dinner time… politics always took preference over food.” They described his eating habits at follows:
“We can not verify that this was President John F. Kennedy’s favorite breakfast, but he did prefer orange juice, poached eggs on toast, crisp broiled bacon, marmalade, milk and coffee. For lunch, President Kennedy was particularly fond of soup–New England Fish Chowder was a favorite. He has been described as a “soup, sandwich and fruit” man for lunch–always soup though. For dinner there were no particular favorites, although he did like lamb chops, steak, baked chicken and turkey (white meat) and don’t forget mashed potatoes. He also was fond of seafood and baked beans. According to chefs who worked in the White House, President Kennedy liked corn muffins too—so did Calvin Coolidge. For dessert, if he had it, it would likely be chocolate.”
So, while he may not have been the most avid food enthusiast, his refined tastes and preferences garnered a lot of attention with the public- to the extent of shaping the restaurant culture of our nation’s capital. And in my book, that’s pretty cool.
Strawberries Romanoff: from the Kennedy’s White House Luncheon with Princess Grace
1 cup vanilla ice cream
4 cups halved small strawberries
2 tbsp each curacao and Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
Candied violets or mint leaves
Place ice cream in refrigerator for 30 minutes or until soft enough to smooth easily with the back of a spoon.
Meanwhile, place the strawberries in large bowl. Pour curacao and Grand Marnier over berries; stir gently to combine. Let stand for 30 minutes.
In large chilled bowl and using electric mixer, beat whipping cream at low speed for 45 seconds or until slightly thickened. Add sugar and vanilla; increase speed to medium-high and beat for 3 minutes, or until thick.
In large bowl, stir softened ice cream with wooden spoon until soft. Using rubber spatula, fold dollop of whipped cream into ice cream. Add remaining whipped cream and fold gently until well combined.
Into each of chilled glass dessert bowls, spoon enough strawberries to just cover bottom; top with large dollop of cream mixture, then divide remaining berries, and any juices, among bowls. Distribute remaining cream equally. Garnish each dish with candied violets or mint leaves. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
Tips: If strawberries are large, cut into quarters. Candied violets can be purchases at most upscale grocers or cake decorating shops.