Hot Dogs for a King

In 1937, author Ernest Hemingway ate the worst meal of his life. It consisted of “rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad, and a cake” provided by “an enthusiastic, but unskilled admirer.” The man did have a way with words. This delectable meal was served to him at the White House, historically known as a center for culinary excellence, but just then developing a reputation for the opposite.

Lots of visitors had voiced similar complaints and it was becoming commonplace to go ahead and order a pizza before heading to dinner with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I don’t know how the Roosevelts felt about that, but when it happens at my house, I admit to some hurt feelings.

Ernest Hemingway enjoying what was probably not the worst meal of his life. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I hope I do better than rubber squab and rainwater soup, but my picky children might say otherwise and it’s not uncommon for them to try to grab something else with their friends on casserole night, making me wonder why I bother.

I suppose it’s for more or less the same reason Eleanor Roosevelt did. Her partner in the crime of assaulting the tastebuds in the White House was her dear friend Henrietta Nesbitt who, much like the rest of Depression Era America had fallen on hard times. To help out, the first lady hired her friend as head housekeeper for the first family. As the formerly wealthy wife of a formerly wealthy husband, Nesbitt knew a thing or two about managing a household. She was, however, a terrible cook.

Henrietta Nesbitt, who once served hot dogs and beer to the king of England, making her kind of a hero. Harris & Ewing, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nesbitt’s first order of business was to overhaul the White House kitchen, which she did admirably, bringing its equipment into the modern era and creating more space and better workflow. Then she set about designing the kind of meals that would be an example to the households of America on how to eat healthfully and frugally in the midst of the kind of economic turmoil that causes long breadlines and literal starvation.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt herself, Nesbitt’s careful management allowed for the average two-course meal at the White house to cost less than ten cents, no matter who was dining. King George VI was allegedly served hot dogs and beer when he visited, and though his poor wife didn’t quite know what to make of the curious meal, the king seemed to enjoy it.

The White House food, though terrible by comparison to previous administrations and all those since, really probably wasn’t that different than what was being scraped together and served in most American households. Many were even looking to the White House for ideas on how to stretch their dwindling food budgets, which is exactly what Eleanor Roosevelt had hoped would happen.

Fortunately, we’re not living through a Great Depression, at least in this moment. Still, food costs are rising quickly and I do feel a responsibility to teach my children, now teenagers not so far from the day when they will stretch their wings and try to make it out in the world on their own, that one can eat simply and healthfully and frugally when the pizza money runs out.

Maybe the message is getting through. Or maybe they’re complaining behind my back about wilted salad.

Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Just a note: Though my creativity is still shining in the kitchen, on the written page I am dealing with a little bit of burnout. Because of that, I’m going to take a short break from posting in this space. I’ll still be around, visiting blogs and responding to comments and hopefully will be up and writing again soon.

12 thoughts on “Hot Dogs for a King

  1. What a brilliant post! If you listen to my own —now grown—children, they were brought up on Spam and baked beans out of tin, although I absolutely deny this. I like to cook, and the proof is that, during lockdown, both my 14year old grandsons took to the stove and can now produce delicious family dinners. So there 🙂

    1. That’s wonderful! My 15-year-old took that on during COVID as well and can do a reasonably good job. My older son has less interest and a narrower palate still. He has a couple things he will make, but I fear he may live hungry in an apartment someday with a bare refrigerator because he doesn’t know where to start. I suppose he’ll learn, then.

  2. I guess it was very good to set an example and show the White House was “in step” with what was happening in America at the time, but I gotta think we could have done just a little better than hot dogs and beer for distinguished guests lol. Enjoy your break and will look forward to your return.🙂

    1. Actually, looking at some of the food that was often on offer, I think the king and queen got pretty special treatment. I’d take hot dogs and beer over boiled kidneys, gelatin salad, and prune pudding any day.

  3. Last night we had left over ground meat and rice and no beer. Watching the television news while eating it didn’t improve things either. Have a creative break! I took a month or so off from blog posting in July/August this year and it was a most necessary thing!

  4. Well, your posts are always interesting but I understand about burnout. I hope it doesn’t last too long.

    I’m sure his majesty thought it was great to get to eat what everybody else ate but his wife probably expected to be treated like…well…We don’t have royalty.

  5. Kenneth Lee

    I’m sorry to hear about your burnout! These posts really lighten my mood each week and also challenge me to get back to my own writing. I hit a financial barrier and I hate writing something I can’t do anything with right away, so my output has slowed. But then again I am getting out and trying to be more social so maybe the delay is a good thing. I have long wondered how you keep finding these little pieces of historic “trivia” and how you find connections to current news in such witty repartee. Okay that sentence needs real editing! Taking time off is good I’m sure but I’ll be praying it’s a shorter break than you expect it to be! Your friend and artistic admirer Ken ________________________________

  6. I dunno…hot dogs and beer sounds good to me.

    And I completely understand the blog burnout (some weeks, I absolutely dread facing mine). Have a good break and don’t feel guilty about it. Just, you know, stay away from any rubber squabs.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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