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.
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.
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.
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.