Desserts and sweets served in the White House reflect the culinary history of the United States. The patterns of cooking, eating, and serving food in the White House originally relied heavily on the British heritage of the Thirteen Colonies, a pattern that generally continues until the present day. Although wars and economic depressions plagued the nation from time to time, the fare served in the White House, particularly for formal and official events, remained rooted in traditions that dated back to the first days of the colonies. Other influences on White House desserts included the family heritage of the president and his wife, the geographical location from which the president came, food trends of the times, available ingredients, and protocols of the day. Many of the cooks who worked in the White House were African Americans, and many were slaves in the earliest days of the Republic.
In November 1800, John Adams became the first American president to live in the White House. Like him, a few of the first presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, spent significant amounts of time in France as diplomats, exposed to French culinary practices. Furthermore, the British aristocracy, during the 18th century, developed a taste for French cuisine which influenced the tastes of the American colonists. Ingredients, and their availability, also affected dessert choices. Fresh lemons and oranges, available in Britain for some time due to commerce with Spain, emerged in American desserts through trade originating in the West Indies. Later, during the administration of Benjamin Harrison, the menu for Christmas 1890 included “Florida Oranges.”
At the very first reception held in the White House, on New Year’s Day, 1801, John Adams’s table sagged with cakes and pies, and any number of puddings, trifles, and other sweets. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson hired a French chef, Honoré Julien, and treated his guests to ice cream at many of his official functions, as Congressman Manasseh Cutler of Massachusetts related about a dinner served on February 6, 1802: “Ice cream very good … .” And James Monroe’s family featured Jumbals/Jumbles, small cookie-like cakes rich with molasses and ginger with a long history in English cooking. Ulysses S. Grant’s wife Julia took on an Italian chef named Melah, who doctored up Grant’s favorite rice pudding and gingerbread. Other, homier desserts such as bread pudding appeared on First Family tables after informal suppers.
Menus consistently appeared written in French over the years, as in the case of the desserts served at a White House ball on February 5, 1862, during the administration of Abraham Lincoln: Chocolate Bavarian, Charlotte Russe à la Parisienne, Fancy Cakes, Meringues, Orange Glacé, and Biscuit Glacé. Cookbooks of the time, specifically devoted to sweets and available to cooks – Eliza Leslie’s Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1832) and Eleanor Parkinson’s The Complete Confectioner (1864) – detailed the steps for creating a number of French-influenced desserts, but these cookbooks also included desserts peculiar to American cuisine, such as Indian pudding and fruit or cream pies, among others, especially pumpkin pie, a favorite of Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.
Between 1850 and 1900, tremendous changes occurred in the way Americans procured, stored, and cooked their food. Some of these changes included the rise of rapid rail and sea transportation; refrigeration; expansion of different types of canned foods; commercial production of butter (which began in the United States in 1861); and commercial baking powder. The invention of the wood-burning stove also impacted cooking and allowed cooks to bake cakes and bread in a way never before possible. Refrigeration (or ice boxes) increased in urban America – prior to that, people relied on ice houses, as at Jefferson’s Monticello. And perhaps most revolutionary of all, the switch from loaf sugar to granulated sugar, which became more widely available in 1871.
Many of the recipes, even up to the 21st century, reflect the preferences of the original occupants of the White House: fresh fruit in the form of pies, mousses and puddings, Petits Fours, ice cream and sorbets, Floating Island, and trifles. President U. S. Grant served Petits Fours at a birthday, with the entire menu written in French. Jack and Jackie Kennedy served Petits Fours at many luncheons and dinners, as did Barack and Michelle Obama for a state dinner on November 24, 2009 honoring Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India. White House cooks, many of them African American, strove to serve desserts that reflected the cultural and historical origins of distinguished guests.
President and Mrs. Obama, in keeping with the food fashions of 21st America, served fresh Meyer lemon steamed pudding, sauced with huckleberries at a state dinner on March 14, 2012 for David Cameron, the British prime minister, a dessert choice harkening back to the early days of the American colonies. In spite of the early French influences, desserts tended to gravitate toward American tastes and habits more often than not.
Since the beginning of the United States as an independent nation, 44 men have served as president, with Grover Cleveland serving 2 non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th presidencies. Each president left his political legacy. And each left a culinary patrimony confirming the archetypal American sweet tooth, to which Florida sugar barons still cater.
Cannon, Poppy and Patricia Brooks, The Presidents’ Cookbook (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968).
Klapthor, Margaret Brown, The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States (New York: Parents Magazine Press, 1969).
Landau, Barry H., The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
Miller, Adrian, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
Smith, Marie, Entertaining in the White House (Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books, 1967).
State Dinner Desserts, The White House Historical Association