The President’s Palate: A Brief History of Favorite Foods

The President of the United States has a lot on his plate. His world is essentially a buffet of meetings, decisions, consultations, travels — too many responsibilities to name. Like anyone else, the President requires fuel to power through all of those activities — and frequently also hosts special dinners for honored guests. 

Presidential tastes, though, vary widely, and some presidents will forever be associated with certain foods. Take, for example, George Washington and his cherries or Donald Trump’s Kentucky Fried Chicken and Diet Coke. The White House kitchen, helmed since 2005 by Filipino-American executive chef Cristeta Comerford, has certainly seen its share of variety. In honor of Inauguration Day 2021, we thought it fitting to recognize a few of the country’s historic “First Meals”, with a nod to local flavors, too.

Macaroni and cheese at Killen's Steakhouse
Macaroni and cheese at Killen’s Steakhouse. Photo by Kimberly Park

Thomas Jefferson would likely have appreciated the gourmet macaroni and cheese trend of the past decade and found plenty to enjoy in Houston. He discovered a fondness for pasta while visiting Italy and is known to have served a variation to guests at Monticello, his home in Virginia. Some sources say he discovered — and was enamoured with — the cheesy version while on a trip to France. 

Oysters at State of Grace
Oysters at State of Grace. Courtesy photo.

If he ever visited the Gulf Coast, there’s little doubt Martin van Buren would have been smitten with our distinctive, plump and juicy oysters. He is remembered for enjoying the coastal snack, among other dishes.

Ronnie Killen's Chili
Ronnie Killen’s chili. Courtesy of Erin Hicks from her Houston Soups & Sips cookbook.

According to The White House Family Cookbook, written by then White House executive chef Henry Haller and published in 1987, Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas native son from the little town of Stonewall, favored plenty of Lone Star fare. Family mainstays during his tenure included peach ice cream and preserves (the family requested only Texas-grown fruit be used in the recipes) and Seafood Creole.

One of his absolute favorites was Pedernales River Chili. The recipe is readily available online and there’s no question about it: former President Johnson was firmly in the no-beans camp and favored a true “Texas red.”

Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing,” he would say. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.”

bowl of pork rinds
One of George H. W. Bush’s favorite snacks was pork rinds, such as the ones shown here from Bayou & Bottle. Photo by Chuck Cook.

Texans may recall George H.W. Bush’s fondness for pork rinds, whose public display of devotion to the salty snack reportedly caused sales to “skyrocket” during his campaign. It’s also worth noting that, earlier in his career, while Bush was director of the CIA and then later, Vice President, he and future First Lady Barbara Bush called The Manor House at The Houstonian home. Since it was converted to a restaurant several years ago, once it reopens to the public, you can literally dine in the beautiful home yourself. 

plate of nachos
Loaded Nachos at Biggio’s feature housemade bison chili, queso and all the traditional fixings. Courtesy photo.

Former President Barack Obama loves nachos, which he can find aplenty in the Bayou City, and a trait he shares with the aforementioned President Johnson. Vietnamese cuisine, too, as chronicled during his iconic meal with food writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi, Vietnam. 

Chili biscuits at Lucille's
Chili biscuits, Lucille’s claim to fame and a starter that’s sized just right. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

More recently, President Joe Biden (at the time still a presidential candidate) dined at Lucille’s in Houston during the George Floyd memorial events. He met with chef/owner Chris Williams, his family, and members of the Floyd family. The families talked and visited over brunch, which no doubt included the restaurant’s signature Lucille’s Chili Biscuits and stone mill grits

What all of these presidents probably knew is that food can heal and build bridges through shared experiences. The accompanying traditions, flavors, recipes and stories bind us together, helping us relate to those who came before us, even if we differ on issues such as tax codes and healthcare. Looking back at these preferences reminds us that Presidents were — and are — people too. We all love food.

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