White House - At The Table And In The Kitchen
( Originally Published 1908 )
NEITHER the food served at the President's table, nor the routine of the kitchen, is different from the viands or the cooking common to the home of any other citizen of wealth and position. And, as is sometimes the case in private homes, when the guests invited number too many for the regular White House kitchen staff to provide for, such meals are cooked and served by a caterer and his corps of assistants.
President Roosevelt believes in plain food and high thinking for himself and the older members of his family, and in still plainer food and merry thinking for his children. Therefore the little ones of the White House of today are seated at table whereon are placed exactly such wholesome cereals and so forth, and milk in just such quantities, as are to be found in less exalted homes.
What the President Eats
It is very doubtful, says Walden Fawcett, a Washington writer, if the repasts served at the White House are really any more delicious than those obtainable at any one of half a hundred hotels in different parts of America, but a great many people who have been fortunate enough to partake of them will solemnly assure you that they are, and of course, presumably they should know. The farmer friends send him a great many edibles as gifts at all times of the year, and these mementoes include everything from pumpkins to turkeys. A very small percentage of the dishes served at a White House dinner are imported especially for the purpose, unless indeed we except the oranges which the White House conservatory has occasionally contributed to the feast. The bread and the cakes, both fancy and plain, are all baked by the experts in the basement of the White House.
The supplies for the White House dinners, according to a Washington correspondent writing in the New York Sun, are obtained in open market. Such is the excellence of the Washington markets that it would scarcely be necessary to arrange for these supplies before ordering the dinner. In former days the White House fowls, meats and fish were obtained direct from farm or shore.' This is no longer the practice. The White House steward merely advises the tradesman before hand of the coming date of the dinner and its probable menu and the choicest products obtainable are gathered for his inspection.
The market opens at six o'clock in the morning and shortly after that hour is overrun with the buyers for the Washington hotels and the providers for the scores of private families who entertain lavishly during the social season. It, therefore, behooves the White House steward to make an early visit. He is invariably among the first. He chooses for his dinner the finest meats to be obtained of the score or more butchers ; he chooses the finest fish and shell fish from the fish stalls, and the choicest vegetables from the farmers. He has his own wagon and driver, and as soon as his shopping list is exhausted the purchases are driven direct to the White House. By eight o'clock that morning the preparation of the dinner has begun.
It is impossible to furnish in detail any estimate of the materials and foods used in the preparation of a State dinner. When it is considered that only the choicest bits are served, the supplies purchased for a dinner of seventy must be something extraordinary. A roast of lamb or filet of beef, for instance, is served but to four or five persons and the choicest morsels only are eaten. Of a fowl the breast alone is carved. The same fastidiousness is observed throughout every course.
The White House Kitchen
The kitchen at the White House, the entire culinary department, as already inferred, is no different from that to be found in any hospitable home of great wealth. The White House kitchen is not even different from the kitchen of ordinary men of wealth even as to size. Its capacity is such that thirty, or even forty, persons can be provided for, no more. That is the reason for the calling in of a caterer when a State dinner is to be given at which eighty or ninety covers are laid.
The kitchen, it is stated, is fitted with all the latest improved equipments for preparing the daintiest viands and keeping them steaming hot until the hour for service has arrived. The kitchen is, of course, in the basement, adjacent to the pantry and china closets. The walls are tiled, and along one side is a range some fifteen feet in length and fitted with extensive warming racks.
It is further set forth, in an article in the New York Sun, that the kitchen, though complete and convenient, is not elaborate. The room is about twenty-five feet square, and well lighted. Along one side runs the great range, fully fifteen feet long, with its warming racks covered by an enormous iron hood. Along the walls are the sinks, shelves and tables. Running down the centre of the room is a long table for the convenience of the cooks. In place of wainscoting the walls are tiled an arrangement by which the kitchen can be kept spotless with least expenditure of time and labor. Near the kitchen are the china closets and supply stores. The usual kitchen force of the White House consists of one cook and a couple of helpers.
For the preparation of the State dinners three French chefs are employed. They require two helpers each, and the kitchen is a scene of sizzling activity for the day. There are meats to be boiled, and baked and roasted; vegetables to be prepared; soups brewed and fancy dishes arranged. The bread used is also baked at the White House. The steward takes little part in this preparation, however, though he superintends all. His task has been the compilation of the menu, the choosing of the china and the setting and decoration of the table. But as he is responsible for all, he superintends each in detail.
An important point today is the new system of tradesmen service instituted during President Roosevelt's term when the White House was remodeled. Under the old conditions, the butchers' and bakers' wagons drove up to the north front of the house on the level of the main floor, and supplies were carried down the area steps and into the building that way. Under the present condition all supplies enter at the east entrance on the ground floor level, the wagons driving through under the north portico and never coming into view.
The Wonderful China Service
In respect to the table service of the White House, here is one feature in which the table of the President of the United States differs from that of other men of wealth. For the silver and china and glassware are more historical than those usually found in private homes, and therefor of greater value because of the associations connected with them.
Each new mistress of the White House provides all or part of a new china service in keeping with her own tastes, and in consequence there are in the closets today no less than parts of half a dozen distinct services, representing the administrations as far as that of President Lincoln. Some of these services include many pieces, and the styles of decoration cover a wide range of color and design. Of almost all the pieces, however, either the coat-of-arms of the nation or the national colors are introduced in some manner.
The special table services, of silver, china and cut glass of today were specially designed for the White House. One set of china, numbering originally fifteen hundred pieces, was selected by Mrs. Hayes and was decorated by Theodore R. Davis, the war artist, with exquisite paintings of American flowers, fruits, game, birds and fish. Each of the five hundred and twenty pieces of cut glass in use today are delicately engraved with the Arms of the United States.
The principal service in the mansion today, and the only complete one, was ordered by Mrs. Roosevelt, who also selected the design for it. It is always used at the State dinners, supplemented by pieces of the sets which still remain in the house. Mrs. Lincoln selected a very beautiful and elaborate set of china, as did also Mrs. Grant, but Mrs. Cleveland and Mrs. McKinley only selected such pieces of china and glass as were necessary to supply the immediate needs of the dining table during their régimes. All the White House services are decorated in the best of taste.
The silver and glass service is, however, extremely modest. There is none of the wealth of silver and cut glass so frequently displayed on the tables of many of our multi-millionaires. The glasses are cut simply with the President's coat-of-arms. The spoons and knives and forks are marked democratically, "President's House."