U.S. presidents have a larger-than-life quality. But one way presidents get elected is by presenting himself or herself as a common man or woman. And one of the most important ways of doing that is through food. That means, for instance, that Bill Clinton famously hammed it up at McDonald’s, where he chowed on cheeseburgers. George W. Bush ate grilled cheese sandwiches made with Kraft cheese singles and white bread. A lot of presidents favored “down home” fare; Jimmy Carter loved his grits, James Garfield ate squirrel soup, and George H.W. Bush gnawed heartily on Texas barbecue. Donald Trump has already become known as the fast food president. But some presidents made much better choices. For President’s Day, we narrowed down the definitive list of top presidential foodies.
6) Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885)
Arthur served less than a full term—he took over after James Garfield died from complications related to an assassination attempt and he lost his re-election bid—but he has a reputation for having one of the most refined presidential palates. His White House chef remarked, “If gourmetship were the chief ingredient in Presidential greatness, our twenty-first president would score near the top,” wrote Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks in The Presidents’ Cookbook, published in 1968. President Arthur’s favorite foods included macaroni pie with oysters, Rhode Island eels, and turtle steak.
5) Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909)
Teddy Roosevelt may have fostered a cowboy persona, but he was also a champion of consumers. Along with Harvey Washington Wiley, chief chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture, Roosevelt passed the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, which essentially turned the Food and Drug Administration into the regulatory agency it is today. But Roosevelt was also a notorious eater. In 1906, The Washington Post attacked the Roosevelts for dining lavishly at the White House, prompting the administration to correct the paper and tout the president’s simple tastes. However, that’s not the whole story. For the then-Vice President Roosevelt’s 42nd birthday (just before President McKinley was assassinated and Roosevelt became the youngest president to serve in the office), he ate a six-course meal consisting of bluepoint oysters; green turtle soup; timbale of peanut ham; crab flake a la newberg; fillet of beef with dickinson green peas and fresh mushrooms sous cloche; quail and bread sauce salad with roman punch and dessert cakes; and lots and lots of coffee.
4) Richard Nixon (1969–1974)
This one comes as a shock, considering Nixon is probably best known for commandeering the White House limo to go on a search for his favorite snack, cottage cheese, which he ate almost obsessively. But Nixon actually had a really solid diet and he would balance out eating large meals at state dinners by having light meals served subsequently. Henry Haller, who served as the White House Chef from 1966 to 1987, recounted that Nixon enjoyed rich foods like beef wellington, duckling a l’orange, homard à l’américaine (lobster sautéed in oil and tomatoes), and macadamia nuts.
3) Herbert Hoover (1929–1933)
Hoover and his dog, King Tut
“The best of everything was served—sometimes out of season, often imported,” wrote Cannon and Brooks in The Presidents’ Cookbook. Hoover’s predecessor Calvin Coolidge ate simple meals, but Hoover was determined to elevate the presidential menu. He enjoyed lobster, egg timbales, Virginia ham, black cherries, and gumbo from a small restaurant in Opelousas, Louisiana. And rumor had it that he always went back for seconds.
2) Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)*
*Much of the credit for Jefferson’s addition here goes to James Hemings, older brother of Sally Hemings
Jefferson’s reputation as the “founding foodie” should actually be credited to James Hemings. In 1874, Jefferson went to Paris to take a governmental post. Jefferson was traveling with Hemings, one of the nearly 200 slaves Jefferson owned. France had abolished slavery over 500 years earlier, and Hemings could have easily gone to court and won his freedom, but Jefferson struck a deal with Hemings in which he would offer Hemings his freedom if Hemings trained in French cooking and teach it to a successor in America. Hemings studied in Paris under a caterer, pastry chef, and chef for five years, and he was eventually freed in 1796. In 2012, author Thomas J. Craughwell recounted this story in the book Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America. Hemings’ recipe for snow eggs, a difficult-to-make custard, remains one of the most famous presidential desserts.
1) Barack Obama (2009–2017)
In the White House, Obama was ever the everyman—his faves included guacamole, chili, pizza, and burgers—but he could be just as much a foodie as any of the presidents before him. He enjoyed eating out at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo, a cocina-style Mexican restaurant in Chicago, where he would enjoy chilaquiles and Yucatecan roast pork. When in New York, Obama dined at Estela, one of Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants in America in 2014, and Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster. In D.C., the Obamas would eat at Wolfgang Puck’s The Source and Rose’s Luxury, the latter being another of Bon Appétit’s top restaurants. And he’s definitely the only president to ever eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, made famous by the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And for that, Obama earns the nod as most refined presidential palate.