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Leah Coakley

Leah Coakley likes writing about food almost as much as she likes eating it. She first acquired a taste for food lit after reading Salt: A World History and is always seeking new additions to her gastronomic vocabulary. She was born and raised in South Carolina and is politely suspicious of all PNW “Southern fare.” Having landed in Tacoma, the City of Destiny, five years ago, she is a proud Grit City gal who has navigated a good deal of the Northwest by following her nose and her tastebuds. She maintains a keen appreciation for the quality and variety of foodstuffs, co-ops and markets, restaurants, professional and amateur cooks, and dedicated food bloggers around the Sound, especially when it comes to supporting her vegan lifestyle, and looks forward to sharing some favorites with herbivores and omnivores alike.

Posts by Leah Coakley


Jun-28-2011

BBQ 2.0

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food, Food Trends, Tips

These peaches don't come from a can

Tired of offering up the same old burgers and hot dogs?  This summer, thrill your grill with these unusual barbecued treats.

Broccolini The delicate stalks marinate and grill more quickly and evenly than broccoli, and the florets crisp nicely.   A plate decorated with crushed red pepper and dill makes a pretty accompaniment to protein.

Peaches Like pineapple, sliced peaches caramelize when grilled.  Peaches grilled along with red onions, and tossed with cilantro, jalapeno, and lime juice make a delicious warm salsa for burgers or topped with cinnamon and chocolate make a sweet finish to an outdoor meal.

Eggplant The rich purple skin of eggplant makes a stunning visual contrast to green zucchini, orange butternut, and yellow squash, and adds a complementary mellow flavor. The white flesh of eggplant sliced longwise is easy to line with perfect grill marks.

Garlic Roasted garlic is a healthy and flavorful condiment.  Grillers can peel a few cloves, wrap in foil with a few drops of olive oil, and grill alongside other dishes.

Pizza Grilled pizza has been growing in popularity over the last few years for its potential as a composed and complex barbecue dish.  Thin crust and a few rich toppings can make a complete summer meal.

Figs For a truly decadent barbecue, grill up fresh figs and serve stuffed with pine nuts and brown sugar.  A simple grilled fig half makes for a truly beautiful plate.

Banana S’mores are a must-have for kids and kids at heart, but for a sophisticated version of the summer classic, try substituting toasted marshmallow with warm grilled banana.

Which food will you barbecue this summer?

Broccolini
Peaches
Eggplant
Garlic
Pizza
Figs
Banana

CC image courtesy of mccun934 on flickr

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May-24-2011

Picnic Your Way Into Summer

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food
Picnic

Let's hope the ants are having their own picnic.

Eating outside was likely the first kind of eating that happened, when we’re thinking of the beginning of humanity as we know it. However, the formal art of “picknicking” is said to have truly begun in the 19th century, when pop culture icons embraced it as a fun and pleasant way to spend time with food and friends. Today picnics range in size and splendor from a couple spontaneously deciding to grab take-out and dine at a table with a view to a large company or family celebration with elaborate fare and carefully organized entertainment.

Typically when you visualize the word “picnic,” the result is somewhere in between. Perhaps six or so friends gathering on a sunny day in a local park to share sandwiches, potato salad, brownies, and lemonade. But picnic customs and menus have varied dramatically over the years. A picnic guide, written as part of a cookbook published in 1877, described fare like cow tongue, jellied chicken, and hot coffee alongside blocks of ice cream, a far cry from today’s standard picnic victuals.

If gelatinous meat doesn’t strike your fancy, you might want to plan ahead. Fabulous Foods offers a picnic preparedness guide to guarantee you will always be ready. Once you’ve learned the basics, up the ante of your travel itinerary by including a “picnic of a lifetime” in Marrakesh, Bali, or the Indian Himalayas. Or head to the UK to support the National Trust’s quest for a “Great British Picnic Revival.” Even if you feel like staying closer to home, the BBC offers a fantastic collection of recipes that make short work of England’s reputation for bland foods (and a good excuse to host a British picnic of your own) with creative offerings like elderflower cordial, plum-raspberry-pistachio cake, and broad bean frittata.

Ready for the ultimate picnic experience? June is on its way: how about a picnic wedding? If the ceremony is outdoors, why not the reception too? A warm, sunny location filled with dancing and music is nicely complemented by cold, refreshing canapés like hand-rolled sushi, Thai-inspired cucumber salad, and candied fruit. Does the thought of a picnic wedding leave you a little cold? What are your ideas for the world’s greatest picnic?

CC image courtesy of Rubber Slippers in Italy on Flickr

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May-9-2011

Automats: Before They Were Cool

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food, News, Restaurants
Automat

Dinner from a Machine. Yummy.

Way back in June 1902, the first American automat, created by Horn & Hardart Company, opened in Philadelphia. The automat was the gastronomic thought-child of the Industrial Revolution: buttons and windows replaced human waiters and service was lightning fast. A diner would approach a wall of small windows, peek through until they found a dish or beverage they found appetizing, insert a nickel, and lift the door to take their food.

These primitive vending machine style diners, which served everything from apple pie to tuna sandwiches, soon grew in popularity and spread to other cities, most notably New York – soon even Amtrak café cars sometimes featured small automats. Slowly, however, automats were replaced by fast food restaurants and drive-ins. And today, many nostalgic foodies pine for an automat revival.

A few short years ago, three vintage-savvy entrepreneurs opened the first American automat of the 21st century in the East Village. Named BAMN! the eatery offered sophisticated takes on comfort food with fun and healthy options like green tea soft serve and green salad with mango dressing. And in March of 2011, NBC set up a pop-up automat in Grand Central Station as a marketing ploy for one of their programs.

Although BAMN! has closed its doors, manufacturers of traditional vending machines have made some moves toward automated dining by expanding their typical offerings of chips, candy, and soda to also include hot sandwiches, fruit, hot pizza, smoothies, and microwaveable hamburgers. But automatic food doesn’t have to be vacuum-sealed or mass-produced. A journey to the market near Potokar Farms of Slovenia will reveal the Milk-O-Matic, where patrons can fill jugs with farm fresh dairy, a consumer-friendly blend of global technology and local fare.

Yes, although the automat has not been successfully reborn in the States, they still have a strong presence internationally. Machines offer up fresh cut French fries in Australia, krokets (croquettes) in Amsterdam, and hot dogs and other “nosh” in Israel. ALDI supermarkets in Germany feature Backofens, baking machines that produce hot rolls and pastries at the drop of a coin. German technology has even taken the automat one step further – there, one can visit restaurants with touch-screen menus that are serviced by actual robots. I suppose that would be called Restaurants 2.0?

Although Berlin’s robotic restaurants might be the most technically advanced eating experience, Japan gets the prize for the most market saturation: they can boast one vending machine per twenty-three people! Their machines offer wildly diverse items such as liquor and beer, rice and ramen noodles, meat and eggs, and even live potted plants.

In the event of an automated food resurgence, what foods and beverages would your ideal automat serve up?

CC image courtesy of misocrazy on Flickr

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Apr-24-2011

Crown Cuisine: The Wedding of Kate and Wills

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food, News
Royal Wedding China

Would you register for this china?

Every aspect of the upcoming wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William has been obsessed over by media and royal gossip hounds alike and it’s agreed that one of the most fabulous elements of the occasion will be the food. Royal British weddings in the recent past are lavish with good food and drink. Guests are served canapés as they arrive, a spectacular feast makes up the reception dinner, and finally the couple and a smaller group of guests enjoy a not-so-shabby post-wedding breakfast.

We can only speculate what delightful dishes will be served at the royal wedding dinner. Experts are confident that foods will be chosen to highlight the very best of British cuisine. The food, whatever it is, will certainly be abundant, considering the long guest list and the prestigious venue. Rumor has it that a total of 10,000 bite sized canapés, most of them savory, will be served. Guests will have 19 rooms of Buckingham Palace to explore as they nibble their dainty morsels, some of which will have been cooked in copper pots used by George IV.

Another important culinary event will be the traditional wedding breakfast. Typically ten courses with a menu written in French, the breakfast will likely be rich and extravagant. The wedding breakfast of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1923 was prepared by Swiss-born Master Chef Gabriel Tschumi and included Consommé à la Windsor, Suprèmes de Saumon Reine Mary, Côtelettes d’Agneau Prince Albert, Chapons à la Strathmore and Fraises Duchesse Elizabeth. These regally named items can be roughly translated as mushroom soup with chicken or beef stock, salmon filets, lamb steaks, roasted hens, and strawberries with cream, a dessert also enjoyed by Diana and Charles at their wedding breakfast.

While the reception and breakfast menus remain top-secret, the cake is out of the bag. Kate chose top cake designer Fiona Cairns to create a cake that looks familiar to Americans – several tiers covered in cream and white fondant – but with a foundation unusual for most weddings in the States: fruitcake. Yes, that’s right, Wills and Kate will be enjoying what is often the butt of Christmas humor in the US: dense, brandy-soaked spice cake studded with fruits and walnuts. While the groom’s “biscuit cake” is also an unusual choice, it has a traditional chocolate flavor base and was a childhood favorite of William’s. Before you judge them for having two cakes, remember – Di and Charles served twenty-seven!

The food served at the royal reception is sure to be super swank, but a number of foods inspired by the occasion are remarkably less posh. American followers should be sure to stop by Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up a special heart-shaped pastry or Baskin Robbins for a limited edition ice cream cake on the big day. A somewhat healthier, but equally silly, offering comes from UK restaurant chain Crown Carveries: a portrait of the royal couple made exclusively from popular British foodstuffs.

With Kate and Willaim being a young and fashionable couple, we can be sure there will be a few surprises and royal firsts on the wedding menu. One might hope there would be a focus on fresh and seasonal ingredients, environmentally conscious and small-scale producers, and the best of what’s British. Balancing tradition with the trends and mores of today’s Britain will certainly keep the couple’s plate full. What do you hope to see on the menu?

CC image courtesy of  americanistadechiapas on Flickr

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Apr-19-2011

Food as Art

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food, Food Trends

Food Porn: That's one sexy dish!

Food makes an excellent medium for visual art and design. Whether it is molded like clay, as in ice sculptures and butter carving, or used as building blocks, as in gingerbread houses and sugar cube forts.

Food art even plays a major role in holiday tradition – what would Halloween be without a pumpkin carving, Christmas without cutting sugar cookie dough into fanciful shapes and decorating it with frosting and sprinkles, or Easter without brightly painted eggs?

Some foods are just pretty. Sushi is a great example with the contrast of white rice, dark nori, and pink or orange fillings. Bento boxes are just as famous for their tidy, colorful compartments as for the varieties of flavors and textures they provide and kyaraben creations add a whimsical spin.

Similarly creative parents carefully pack boxed lunches that are pleasing to the eye as well as the palate because children, moreso than most adults, particularly appreciate the visual element of food. Baristas learn how to make good coffee but they also often learn to make “cappuccino art,” lovely swirls in espresso foam. Even less attractive foods, like burnt toast, can be scraped to reveal incredible designs.

Food television competitions regularly focus on the design of food – cakes, chocolate, and spun sugar. The chefs – or should we say food artists – even use tools such as marzipan and food coloring to paint beautiful watercolor images. The wildly creative Japanese company Nendo even created “chocolate pencils” that can be delicately sharpened over a favorite dessert.

Even the humblest ingredients can come together into stunning pieces. Sculptor Liz Hickock constructs entire neighborhoods, including San Francisco’s Mission District, entirely out of Jell-O, carefully molded and arranged on a light table. Photographer Carl Warner creates incredible “foodscapes” from simple foods like potatoes and peas.

Food art can even be food activism. Michel Blazy shares his passion for kombucha, a fermented tea considered by many to be a powerful superfood, by collecting it in colorful ponds. His work is often referred to as “microbial art.”

Banksy, who is best-known for his large and ambitious street art installations, uses food to bring attention to the treatment of animals at corporate pet stores and fast food restaurants in a disturbing piece called “The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill.” Los Angeles art collective Fallen Fruit use complex multimedia, interactive communications and still pieces to build community along the lines of something simple –growing and eating fruit.

We love looking at food. Hey, that’s why food photography as popularized by bloggers and foodie websites is known as “food porn.” There are a variety of ways of appreciating the look of food from food as a medium to plating to colorful kitchenware and aprons.

What’s your favorite kind of food art?

CC image courtesy of williamcho on flickr

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Mar-27-2011

A Bucket List Good Enough to Eat: Part 1

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food, Tips
Hot Air Balloon Ride

Not your average picnic

The idea of creating a “Bucket List,” a collection of experiences one hopes to realize before passing on, can be both sobering and exciting. A food bucket list on the other hand is guaranteed to be playful. As someone who’s passionate about food, it didn’t take me long to come up with the following inventory. Here are some of my sought after food adventures, from health-conscious to indulgent and from simple to ambitious, some I have accomplished and some I have yet to achieve:

1. Try food from every country and region for which you can find a restaurant within 25 miles of your home.

2. Bake all of your Christmas gifts for friends and coworkers. Make your favorite childhood meal, updated as necessary for your grown-up body!

3. Participate in a progressive dinner: appetizers at one restaurant, entrée at another, and so on.

4. Write a restaurant review and submit it to a magazine.

5. Buy and learn to use a crepe pan.

6. Go on extensive urban foraging trip.

7. Visit a restaurant or bar famous for serving artists and writers. Play with your food.

8. Attend a culinary school open house and gorge on free samples.

9. Volunteer for Food Not Bombs, a food bank, or a shelter. (Good idea, VegNews!)

10. Try your hand at solar grilling.

11. Order every item on the menu at your favorite restaurant (not all in one sitting, please!).

12. Go raw for a week.

13. Pie somebody in the face. It need not be a formal deal.

14. Join a CSA.

15. Judge a chili-cook off or pie baking contest.

16. Host a St. Patrick’s Day dinner with traditional Irish fare.

17. Make homemade dog treats.

18. Try Vegemite on toast or another food that has always intimidated you.

19. Publish a vegan cookbook (and test for someone else’s).

20. Invent your own cocktail and teach it to your favorite bartender.

21. Go to a science museum and get yourself some astronaut food from the gift shop. Then eat it.

22. Tour the craft winery or distillery closest to your home.

23. Perfect your Butterbeer recipe.

24. Make ice cream from fresh snow.

25. Eat no white bread/pasta/rice for a month.

26. Participate in a large-scale food fight (preferably out of doors).

27. Host a cooking party that functions like an episode of Chopped.

28. Learn a new food skill: mushroom foraging, window-box gardening, yogurt-making, or canning.

29. Take photos of everything you eat for 3 straight days.

30. Try absinthe.

31. Picnic in a hot air balloon.

32. Eat a deep-fried candy bar (not in public).

33. Make your own hard cider.

34. Attend a major regional festival with authentic local cuisine such as Mardi Gras or Carnival.

Unusual foods and restaurants, travel, giving back to the community? Tell us what’s on your food bucket list and we’ll try to include it in Part 2 of the series.

CC image courtesy of a4gpa on flickr

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Mar-16-2011

Goodbye Green Beer, Hello Delicious

Posted by Leah Coakley under Beverages, Food
Guinness

Can you dye Guinness green?

Ah, St. Patrick’s Day. Originally a Catholic celebration of one of the patron saints of Ireland who, legend has it, used the shamrock to explain the Christian trinity to the pagan Irish in the 5th century, now a public holiday in Ireland as well as an excuse to drink large quantities of green beer in England, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, Argentina, and the US. About that green beer, though– not only is its appearance slightly disconcerting, research shows its content is also distasteful.

The FDA hasn’t approved a natural green pigment for dyeing food. Bright green chlorophyll, that favorite of primary school science class, is approved only in very small quantities and only for coloring medicine and make-up. Common artificial additive Green No. 3 (nicknamed Fast Green) is made from triphenylmethane, a hydrocarbon which is derived from…petroleum. Abiding by the “can’t pronounce it, shouldn’t eat it” rule or the “derived from petroleum, shouldn’t eat it” rule, this one’s a no-no.

Some conscious companies are offering various naturally-sourced food dyes. But, unsurprisingly, they’re pricy and hard to find. While seeking out natural food coloring might be worth it for parents making frosting for a special birthday cake, green beer doesn’t seem to warrant such selective shopping. Instead, how about a green apple hard cider or a hard perry – Washington State in particular is home to a bevy of small, craft cideries with a wide selection of legitimately green beverages. Another festive alternative to a St. Patrick’s Day embellished with pints of Guinness and rowdy rounds of “drowning the shamrock” is cooking with beer.

A typical beer’s primary ingredients (hops, yeast, and malted barley) are all nutritious, and fermentation offers an abundance of health benefits. Plus, it tastes good and it’s often cheaper than wines of equal quality. A double porter makes a nice addition to quick bread or pumpernickel and a stout adds a lovely note to rich chocolate and mocha cakes. Replacing cooking sherry with a dark lager makes for a bolder onion soup and a crispy beer-battered onion ring placed on top of the crouton brings it all together. Imaginative grillers will appreciate the tang of an apricot wheat in barbecue sauce and marinade. Some creative chefs even use beer to cut waste: Chef Tiffany MacIsaac uses the beer left in the lines of kegs for yeasting her restaurant’s breads.

You don’t need green beer to have a revelrous St. Patrick’s Day – hard ciders and perries are tasty and naturally green and an un-dyed beer can play a starring role in your holiday dinner. Seattle’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade makes a stunning centerpiece for West Coast celebrations, Chicago dyes the whole river green (don’t worry, it’s vegetable based), and Boston hosts the original American St. Patty’s party. How will you celebrate this year?

CC image courtesy of [puamelia] on flickr

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Mar-13-2011

Mapping the World of Food

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food, Tips
Map

The road to cheese

The digital age has made information accessible and instantaneous, and has provided a medium for everyday people to publish and to share. As social media becomes inextricably woven into the fabric of our lives, location-based programs make it possible to chart even one’s physical comings and goings through space. Some savvy web citizens are pushing this technology even further by creating “food maps.” These maps can vary in purpose from convenience and foodie-ism to health and lifestyle. Food mapping can even play a part in activism!

Programs like Google Earth and the social justice-oriented, open-source program OpenStreetMap make it possible for users to channel their own knowledge about their neighborhoods to create or embellish maps that highlight restaurants, cafes, and markets. Smartphone apps have also been critical to the food mapping movement. Fast Food Maps hardly seems necessary owing to the fact that McDonald’s is never too far away, but TruxMap, which organizes food trucks by location and also includes information on hours and menus, is a nifty tool for finding a city’s best truck grub. When fully developed, Mapovino will chart vineyards for wine enthusiasts and will certainly make trips down country roads a lot more exciting.

Along with food maps that help users find certain types of eateries and imbiberies more easily, amateur food mappers are also providing guides for those with special diets. Celebrated vegan cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz helped mapper Zoya spread the news about the vegan map of Paris, very helpful for herbivorous tourists who don’t speak much French. Locavores and restaurateurs with a passion for freshness will rejoice at the Seasonal Ingredient Map from popular website Epicurious. Special Gourmets takes the trend even further, mapping hot spots for those who avoid gluten, soy, and other common allergens. You can only imagine how much easier life with a special diet can be with these smart maps!

For those with a diet that includes social justice, fresh produce maps creatively address the problem of food deserts –areas where produce, whole grains, and other healthy ingredients are in short supply. Because these “deserts” often coincide with lower-income families and higher rates of cancer and obesity, professional researchers and members of affected neighborhoods alike are mapping the food resources available in order to highlight the issue and provide resources for those seeking quality foods in cities like Brooklyn and DC. In Portland and Berkeley, residents have built urban foraging maps that direct those looking for cheap, wholesome food to trees which bear more fruit than their owners can eat and to wild edibles across the city.

Whether you’re traveling through an unfamiliar place, searching out some top-notch eats, or looking to improve your neighborhood’s food offerings, don’t overlook varied and ingenious food maps. The fascinating world of culinary cartography is just a click away.

CC image courtesy of  Mukumbura on flickr

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Mar-1-2011

Food and the Divine

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food

Greek Gods Painting

What would Zeus eat?

Heirloom fruits and vegetables are becoming ever more desirable as monoculture threatens our food diversity. However, our culture is not the first to take a look back into its food’s history –the ancient Greeks were fascinated with the origins of their food and used a variety of gods and goddesses to explore them. For example, agriculture was made possible by Agros, the god of produce. Hestia was the goddess of cooking, Aristaeus of beekeeping, Dionysus of wine, Silenus of beer. Although today we use DNA rather than deities to explain where our food comes from, the ancient Greek perspective on the history of food offers up an alternative narrative that is truly divine.

The first apple tree was given by Gaia, or Mother Earth, as a wedding present to Hera and Zeus. Her namesake, the Gaia apple, is crisp and softly heart-shaped. Later, Paris of Troy bestowed a golden apple to Aphrodite in recognition of her greatest beauty, scorning Hera and Athena and marking the very beginning of what would become the Trojan War.

Wheat, barley, and corn were the staple grains of Greece and ruled over by Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Barley was often drunk as well as eaten and may have been mixed into cups of water or wine to add body and nutrition. Demeter is also credited with blessing the mortal Phytalos for his hospitality by giving him the first sapling of sweet fig.

Another fruit, pomegranate, is responsible for the turning of the seasons. Having been abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, Demeter’s daughter Persephone broke her fast when she was tricked into eating a handful of the juicy seeds and was therefore compelled to return each year, her yearly absence scalding the land with the barrenness known as winter.

Eventually growing fond of her deathly husband, Persephone was furious when she discovered him locked in Minthe’s embrace. Before Minthe could escape, Persephone turned her into a spearmint plant, which is known for its invasive habit of creeping into the plots where other plants grow.

Also a favorite of the Romans, who ate them pickled in brine, Lupin beans brought one to a state of connection and openness and were eaten by seers and those seeking guidance from the oracle at the river Acheron which flowed through the Underworld.

Ovid tells the story of lovely Phyllis, who waited patiently for her love Demophon until the gods took pity and transformed her into an almond tree, now considered a sign of hopefulness. Artistic renderings of goddesses and beautiful women often had eyes that are called “almond-shaped.”

The city of Athens takes its name from the wise goddess Athena who sprouted the first olive tree in the center of the Acropolis and thereby provided Greece with one of its most important crops. Even today many olive oil producers make good marketing use of this legend.

Celery has rather a tame reputation now, but was once used to crown victors at the Nemean Games. Likewise a wreath of wild olive was presented to the winner of the Olympics and the Pythian champion was awarded laurel, or bay leaf.

Some plants are blessed based purely on happenstance – Apollo was born under the shade of a date palm and Hermes nursed under a strawberry tree. Not to be confused with the juicy sweet strawberries popular in the US, the fruit of the Mediterranean shrub arbutus unedo are bland and mealy in texture.

Who would have guessed the popular Greek salad comes courtesy of a Cyclops? The giant cave-dwelling monster Polyphemus, made famous by Homer, forgot about the sheep’s milk he had stored in hideskin bags and eventually opened them only to find rich, salty feta cheese.

Next time you are visited by Limus, the god of hunger, and reach for one of these foods, think fondly of the deity who brought it to you. Don’t be overcome by Adephagia, the goddess of gluttony, and do remember to give some credit to Hermes, the god of feasts and banquets…or you might end up as a tree.

CC image courtesy of Nate BMW

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Feb-20-2011

Hail to the Chef

Posted by Leah Coakley under Food
Mount Rushmore

They look hungry

You might not have noticed, but today is President’s Day. To spice up this oft-overlooked holiday, let’s consider some of the food stylings of Presidents, First Ladies, and White House Executive Chefs over the years. While we know that more often than not Presidents end up eating crow, there are some more appetizing morsels on their plates.

The menu planning duties that now belong to the formal, coveted position of White House Executive Chef were handled originally by a combination of stewards (often military-trained) and the First Lady. Martha Washington, our famous first First Lady, is renowned in her own right as a cookbook author. Although it is likely that many of the recipes in her Booke of Cookery and Sweetmeats were passé by the time of its publication, the sheer volume and variety of recipes – from homemade cheese to pickled mussels – makes their collection in one volume an admirable feat. Although First Ladies are not expected to write cookbooks, even today it is traditionally the duty of the First Lady to select an Executive Chef.

The selection of the White House Executive Chef and what foods the chef serves reflects, among other things, the culinary trends of the time. Continental cuisine was considered most suitable for formal events until very recently. Executive Chefs hailed from France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. It wasn’t until 1987 that an American-born chef, Jon Hill, was hired – and he only lasted for a year.

Presidential cuisine also illustrates the health of the economy and the Head of State’s responsiveness to it. FDR drew criticism from many when he chose to serve hot dogs at a function attended by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, but such a simple meal was more appropriate in a Depression-torn country (and in keeping with the confident, practical style of Eleanor) than a lavish feast. Likewise, Jimmy Carter’s family is rumored to have prepared their own dinners from leftovers (perhaps Carter’s favored pan-fried eggplant?) to allow the kitchen staff a night off.

On the other hand, some White House chefs are carefully selected to remedy culinary ineptitude in the current President. While military leaders such as Ulysses S. Grant were successful generals, their menu planning might require some refinement. Valentino Melah, a chef known around Washington as the “Silver-Voiced Italian” was likely hired to add some polish to the military President’s plain style. Melah’s elaborate meals, some with up to 29 courses, did not disappoint. Likewise one can guess that Harrison and Garfield’s penchants for burgoo (squirrel stew) were politely discouraged by their respective meal planners.

Some Presidential families’ tastes are simply incompatible with the fine dining standards of their staff. Celebrated French chef Rene Vernon, who was hired by the impeccable Jacqueline Kennedy, but of course stayed on after JFK’s unexpected death, was appalled by the Johnson family’s tastes including their budget-minded request for frozen rather than fresh vegetables. Vernon allegedly resigned in protest in 1965 after being asked to serve that lowly peasant dish, hummus.

Some chefs, though, do make it through the terms of very politically (and culinarily) different leaders. Current White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford was hired by Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama chose to keep her on. She is both the first female and the first person of ethnic minority background to hold the position, having been born in the Philippines. She is also the first acting Executive Chef to have appeared on, and won the competitive cooking show, Iron Chef America.

As Executive Chefs take more of a public role, so too do the eating habits of the Presidential family. While Bill Clinton was notorious during his presidency for loving fast food, he recently made the headlines by announcing he has chosen to undertake a mostly vegan diet for the sake of his health. The Obama’s began their move to the White House by planting an organic garden, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory vegetable patch in the 1930’s. As digital media continues to expand the citizenry’s access to knowledge and news, it is likely we will learn even more about the favorite restaurants and foods of our Presidents, and they in turn will feel more responsible for modeling healthy and sustainable cuisine. So look sharp, candidates: you are what you eat.

CC image courtesy of Jimbowen0306 on Flickr

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