FDR’s Anti-Epicurean White House

Why Eleanor Roosevelt—one of the most memorable first ladies in American history and an unshakably gracious person—refused to offer dinner guests a decent meal.

Long before the Inauguration, it was clear that Obama and Franklin Roosevelt were destined to shadow each other across presidential history; and now that the first hundred days are underway, every hour that passes is being held up and scrutinized against FDR’s equivalent. I can’t help noticing, however, that nobody seems to expect Michelle Obama to step into position as the next Eleanor Roosevelt. Too bad! The sight of a First Lady unabashedly wading into the most controversial areas of American life and throwing all the prestige of her office behind populist struggles for justice would be splendid to behold. On the other hand, Mrs. Obama has a political temperament quite different from Eleanor’s (not to mention the fact that she would get pounded to dust by today’s hypercritical media if she were to charge headlong into activism the way her iconoclastic predecessor did). More to the point, at least for those of us whose view of the world is always skewed towards the culinary, there are reasons to be grateful that Eleanor won’t be the role model here. The Obama family seems to have smart, contemporary and appealing ideas about food. Eleanor, by contrast, had a palate made of the same steel as her moral constitution. True, she insisted that a victory garden be planted at the White House (the only one of her food ideas with any hope of being revived by the Obamas), but her motive was patriotism, not the dream of a fresh-picked tomato. By all accounts, the great ER was responsible for serving family, friends and official guests the worst meals in the history of the modern presidency.

It’s incongruous and quite mysterious. What could have made this unfailingly gracious woman so resistant to offering people decent meals? Surely she noticed the way dinner guests toyed miserably with their lukewarm slices of mutton and overcooked peas, pushed aside their marshmallow-studded salads, and recoiled after tasting the klutzy American wines. Her own husband—who, let’s remember, was a paraplegic polio survivor trying to end the Great Depression and fight World War II—constantly begged for better menus. His children, his friends, even the press knew how dreary he found the food at his own table. But he had given Eleanor full responsibility for running the domestic side of the White House; and appalled though he was at the results, he refused to pull rank.

At the center of what nobody at the time thought to call Dinnergate was Henrietta Nesbitt, the White House housekeeper, a friend of Eleanor’s from Hyde Park who had worked with ER in local Democratic politics and happened to be a talented baker. When FDR was Governor of New York, Eleanor hired Nesbitt to supply the Governor’s mansion with doughnuts, pies and fruitcakes. Then, after FDR was elected president, Eleanor asked Nesbitt to take on a job for which she had no qualifications whatsoever—housekeeper at the biggest and busiest home in the country. Nesbitt’s high-handed ways made the White House staff loathe her; and it was soon apparent that apart from dessert, the meals she oversaw were going to be dreadful.

But ER wouldn’t hear of firing her. Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of the brilliant, richly detailed biography Eleanor Roosevelt, offers the theory that Eleanor’s stubborn loyalty to Mrs. Nesbitt was a kind of weapon, wielded consciously or not against FDR as she jostled for power in the course of a complicated and often painful marriage. Effective though they were as a public team, the Roosevelts led separate personal lives; and FDR always had other women around him. These friends and relatives, especially his devoted secretary, Missy LeHand, were happy to serve and amuse him—unlike the strait-laced, politically demanding ER. The tension in her role as wife, according to Cook, brought out a passive-aggressive streak in Eleanor. Underscoring this analysis, Cook describes another peculiarity of Eleanor’s that seems antithetical to her usual warm thoughtfulness: her habit of taking along a beloved but vicious dog or two wherever she went. The dogs used to bite friends and strangers alike; nonetheless, ER insisted on keeping them with her, until finally she was forced to give them up.

The culinary historian Barbara Haber takes a very different approach to unraveling this mystery. In a fascinating essay called “Home Cooking in the FDR White House” (included in her beautifully researched collection From Hardtack to Home Fries), she zeroes in on the food—specifically, on the relationship between ER, Nesbitt, and the meals on the table. Eleanor, as people often observed, cared nothing about what she ate. Her goal for White House menus was to keep them strictly within the bounds of culinary propriety for a nation that was suffering first from economic hardship, and later from the restrictions of rationing. It was her social conscience, Haber believes, not her marital resentment, that ruled the table. As for Mrs. Nesbitt, Haber points out that she had an extremely tight budget as well as a mandate to run a plain, sober White House; and she took both demands seriously. She may have been inept, but she was trying to do her job. Moreover, she was deeply loyal to ER, and the First Lady knew it. Nothing was going to make ER dismiss such a trusted ally.

Both these historians’ theories make good sense to me, and I suspect the truth about ER combines them. But it’s so depressing to think of this wonderful woman forever shielding herself from the pleasures of food that I’m going to think instead about the one dish she did seem to enjoy. It was a Roosevelt family tradition to have scrambled eggs on Sunday night, and Eleanor used to make them herself in a chafing dish, right at the table. In a lifetime packed with servants, this was the only meal she regularly cooked. The rest of the menu—“cold meat and salad, a cold dessert and cocoa” as she described it once—was probably assembled by other hands. But Eleanor scrambled the eggs. It’s not so easy to make first-rate scrambled eggs, especially for the numbers that typically assembled for a Roosevelt meal, but nobody seems to have complained about Sunday supper the way they complained about everything else. The eggs were good, supper was always a success, and Eleanor must have experienced on Sundays the contentment of a home cook who knows she’s done something right.

Perhaps that explains what happened on the clamorous night in 1932 when FDR was chosen as the Democratic candidate for president. Everyone was gathered at the governor’s mansion in Albany—friends, family, supporters, press—when word finally came from the convention that FDR had won the nomination. According to his secretary, “bedlam” broke out in the house. The only person quiet was Eleanor, who had dreaded this moment. She hated the idea of giving up her teaching, writing, and activism to become some sort of White House ornament in charge of tea parties. Yet the country desperately needed the kind of leadership FDR would provide, and he himself had worked and hoped for such an opportunity for years. She was swamped in despair and guilt. So while everyone else was still cheering, she went into to the kitchen and began scrambling eggs. Food itself may have held no comfort for her, but cooking this particular dish did—the familiar smells, the well-rehearsed movements, the promise of restoration. On that dark night, even Eleanor knew where to look for help.

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