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Executive Dish

Noshing at the White House, last month and through the years

Joan Nathan
June 24, 2010

When I visited the White House a few weeks ago, for a celebration to mark the first Jewish American Heritage Month, I was reminded that the excitement of being in the stately building can overpower any appetite a person might bring there. The platters of Moroccan-Israeli eggplant salad, slices of rare beef, very fresh and ripe tomatoes, a Moroccan sweet-potato dish, and almost molten chocolate rounds topped with macadamia nuts, prepared by Dahan, a local kosher caterer, remained virtually untouched. People were too busy schmoozing to eat.

So it goes. The first time I visited the White House was as a tourist in 1977 when I had just moved to Washington. Years later, I attended a reception there during the Reagan Administration with my husband, who was a political appointee in the Justice Department. While I sadly have no recollection of the food, I do remember two things vividly. First, my sense that the size of the White House was a populist reaction to the end of the French monarchy. This people’s house—“President’s House,” as the executive mansion was first called—had none of the regal proportions of the palaces of the Louvre or Versailles. The other thing I recall is meeting President Ronald Reagan.

I had recently read an article in which Reagan’s brother had described a peculiar and endearing habit the president had as a child—a habit he shared with my then-4-year-old daughter, Daniela. Reagan rubbed earlobes, both his own and those of other people. This was something my little Daniela did whenever there were grown-ups visiting our home. I mentioned this shared habit to him just before it was our turn to shake the president’s hand for the requisite photo. His reaction of absolute surprise, and that of his wife, Nancy, was immortalized in a photo now in my study.

Awareness of dietary restrictions has been around for some time in this country. When Franklin Roosevelt was governor of New York, he had two regular guests, Jewish men, to lunch at the executive mansion in Albany. When it came to the attention of the governor and his wife, Eleanor, that these men abstained from everything offered them except for fruit, dessert, and coffee, Mrs. Roosevelt realized she should serve dairy and vegetables in a new set of dishes especially reserved for these occasions.

Some decades later, in the 1960s and ‘70s, as Jewish pride grew and people in general became less afraid to indicate their dietary preferences, the White House began ordering special kosher meals for kashrut-observing guests. Kosher state dinners got underway at the end of that period, during the Carter Administration. Henry Haller was the White House chef in 1978, when 1,300 guests were invited for the Camp David Peace Treaty dinner. Of those meals, 50 were kosher, ordered from a local caterer.

Two years later, in 1980, the White House held its first entirely kosher state dinner; it was in honor of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with 180 guests. The menu included cold Columbia River salmon with sauce verte and golden twists, roast duckling with glazed peaches, wild rice, fresh asparagus, and mixed green salad. The wines came from California and were kosher—Kedem, Seyval Blanc, Chaumac, and sparkling white. In those days, White House pastry chefs usually served butter-rich petit fours; at Begin’s dinner, they prepared a non-dairy frozen orange sherbet cake with Grand Marnier sauce along with pareve pastries.

Ann Amernick, the assistant pastry chef under Haller and later the first female pastry chef at the White House, remembers how the White House kitchen was made kosher. “The mashgiachs came with blowtorches as big as they were,” says Amernick, who’s the author of The Art of the Dessert. “They spent all day burning and covering surfaces with aluminum foil. The kitchen was unbearably hot. I felt it was a historical moment and at the same time it was comical. Roland Mesnier, the pastry chef, was desperately trying to get the sorbets made and one of the mashgiachs was following him around with the blowtorch. Every time Roland turned around the mashgiach was there. While some of the cooks had a partial understanding of kashrut from past experience in hotels and lessons in cooking school, the reality in the White House was another story.”

Awareness of religious and ethnic diversity is part of life today in the White House. During the administration of George W. Bush, the first couple hosted a Hanukkah party with 400 kosher latkes. The Obamas, whose personal chef, Sam Kass, is Jewish, have now held two Passover seders; kitchen staff have prepared recipes culled from the mothers of Jewish White House employees.

In addition to thinking about ethnic cuisine, the White House is now concentrating more on fresh foods and foods from the garden, a practice initiated by the earliest presidents. Not only was there a White House garden during the time of the founding fathers, but Thomas Jefferson, while president, marketed with his French chef in Georgetown, selecting foods suited to his mostly French, English, Dutch, and Italian menus. When time permitted, he also helped prepare the dishes and select the wines.

My favorite visit to the White House was with a group of visiting chefs for a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen and the garden. It was organized in September by Bill Yosses, the current pastry chef and a dear friend. In the vegetable garden, eggplant bushes grew as tall as I am. Kale was everywhere. And the ripe tomatoes showed no signs of the blight that had hit the rest of the Middle Atlantic crop. Nearby we saw the honeybee combs, tended by a White House employee who is also a bee keeper. White House honey, in tiny jars, is given away to guests at state dinners.

Later, over coffee, I tasted Bill’s freshly made lemon pound cake. It used nine lemons fresh from the White House garden, and it was delicious.

Adapted from The Perfect Finish by Bill Yosses and Melissa Clark

11 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus additional for the bottom and sides of the pan and the parchment paper
9 lemons
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1½ cups superfine sugar
1½ teaspoons baking powder
Dash of salt
3/4 cup crème fraiche or heavy cream
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup confectioners’ sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, putting a rack in the center. Use butter to grease the bottom and sides of a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment paper or waxed paper, then grease the paper.

2. Set 2 of the lemons aside. Grate the zest of 4 lemons, and set those lemons and their zest aside also. Slice off the tops and bottoms of 3 unzested lemons. Stand each lemon on end on a cutting board and use a small knife to slice away the skin and white pith, leaving the flesh exposed. Working over a bowl, cut the segments away from the membranes and let the fruit and juice fall into the bowl (remove any seeds). Using a fork, break the segments into 1-inch pieces.

3. Sift the flour, superfine sugar, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer. Begin mixing on low speed, then add the crème fraiche or cream. Increase the speed to medium and beat in the eggs one at a time, the butter, and 3 tablespoons of the lemon zest. Gently fold the lemon segments and juices into the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake on the center rack for 15 minutes. Use a sharp knife to cut an incision lengthwise down the middle of the cake. This will prevent the cake from splitting on the side. Bake for 30 minutes longer. Lower the oven to 325 degrees, and bake for 40 to 45 minutes longer, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

4. Meanwhile, juice the 6 lemons you set aside in step 1 and strain the juice. Put the granulated sugar and the confectioners’ sugar in a pot over high heat and add 1½ cups water. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the lemon juice and remaining zest and let cool.

5. When the cake is done, transfer it to a wire rack to cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Slide a thin knife or offset spatula around the sides of the pan and turn it over to unmold the cake onto a sheet pan, and carefully peel the parchment or waxed paper from the bottom of the cake. Pour the lemon syrup over the cake and very gently squeeze the cake to help it absorb the syrup. Carefully turn the cake over and squeeze a bit more until all the syrup is absorbed. It makes for messy hands, but it is worth the effort. Transfer the cake to a clean cookie sheet and return it to the oven for 10 minutes to set the glaze. Cool on a rack.

Yield: 1 (9-inch) loaf to serve 8

Adapted from Dahan Catering

½ cup olive oil
2 eggplants, cut into ½-inch dice (about 2 pounds)
8 plum tomatoes, seeded and skinned, fresh or canned
4 shallots, finely diced
½ bunch of Italian flat leaf parsley (1 cup)
The grated zest of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Heat the oil in a large nonstick frying pan over high. Sauté the diced eggplant until browned and soft, but not mushy, stirring occasionally. It should take about 5–7 minutes. Remove the eggplant from the pan with a slotted spoon so that any remaining oil will stay in the pan and drain the eggplant on a paper towel.
2. If using fresh tomatoes, score the bottoms. In a large pot bring to boil 5 cups of water. Once the water has come to a strong boil, put tomatoes in for 15 seconds. Remove the tomatoes and put immediately into an ice bath. Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, gently peel back the skin, trying not remove too much flesh. Then, slice tomatoes in half to remove the seeds and cut into ¼-inch dice.
3. Reheat the sauté pan on medium heat, and sauté the shallots until translucent. Then add the tomatoes and half the parsley and cook on medium heat until most of the excess liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated. Sprinkle on the lemon zest and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool and refrigerate for later use or serve immediately, sprinkled with the remaining parsley.

Yield: About 6 servings

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.