First Ladies Cookbook
White House

Today in History: Let’s All Go to the White House!

For much of our nation’s history, the first family flung the doors open wide on New Year’s Day.

Until 1933, there was a New Year’s Day open house reception at the White House, and everyone was invited. The definition of “everyone” varied with each president, generally involving some combination of D.C. dignitaries and tourists. By 1930, the event had become a regular overnight campout, with nearly 6,500 potential guests lining the gates in the wee hours for the chance to step inside and hang with the Hoovers.

A few thousand handshakes later, Herbert and Lou Henry abolished the tradition John and Abigail Adams started in 1801 (George and Martha Washington were great hosts, too, just more selective on New Year's Day). Entertaining the public required more security than social skills as the nation grew.

But we were inspired by the idea of eating and drinking with the First Couple, and we happen to have a cookbook of presidential favorites in our library: the 1969 revised edition of The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of The United States. First published in 1965, the book “seeks to portray the stately hospitality of the Executive Mansion of the eighteenth century and to show how the backgrounds of President George Washington and his wife influenced them in establishing the protocol for the first administration, which set the pattern for those to follow.”

Outside interest in presidential life has been constant since 1789. The chronicling of mealtime minutiae is a more recent phenomenon. 

Perhaps that’s in sync with decreased access. George and Martha—“raised in the social world of eighteenth-century Virginia where hospitality was a fine art”—hosted regular dinners and drop-in occasions. John and Abigail Adams and other first couples did, too—weekly and more. Had Instagram existed, it might have been employed. That said, as evidenced by The First Ladies Cook Book, food photography evolved pretty slowly for the better part of two centuries. Since there’s no time like year’s end to look back, we chose 10 of the most entertaining images from the book, and imagined White House New Year’s receptions past. It’s as close as most of us will get to a meal within. 

  1. Trifle
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    110

    Trifle

    Children of 18th century Virginia plantation owners, George and Martha Washington knew how to throw a party. They didn't start the public White House New Year's Day Reception tradition (because they didn't live there), but, according to The First Ladies Cook Book, “To Washington official hospitality of the Executive Mansion was an important part if his position as Chief Executive.” His account books show that claret and Champagne were ordered 26 dozen bottles at a time. And if this Washington favorite—sponge cake soaked with sherry and custard (aka trifle)—is any sign, the hospitality continued happily through dessert.
  2. Baked Salmon with Oyster Stuffing
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    210

    Baked Salmon with Oyster Stuffing

    At the inaugural 1801 White House New Year’s Day reception, The First Ladies Cook Book reports, guests enjoyed Beggar's Pudding (aka bread pudding), Baked Salmon, Oyster Rolls, and a Pompetone (aka mincemeat pie). John Adams welcomed guests in attire befitting such a spread: black velvet suit, silk stockings, silver knee and shoe buckles, and white waistcoat and gloves, with hair powdered and pulled back.
  3. Wyeth's English Plum Pudding
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    310

    Wyeth's English Plum Pudding

    The first foodie in the White House (and maybe in the country), Thomas Jefferson is also the guy who decided two annual public White House events were plenty: New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July. Here’s what you missed the other 363 days: Wyeth’s English Plum Pudding, Hard Sauce (aka extra sugar for the pudding; it melts over anything hot), Boeuf a la Mode, and Wine Jelly (aka the all-purpose condiment of the era).
  4. Salade à la Volaille
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    410

    Salade à la Volaille

    We’re pretty sure this Salade à la Volaille is actually supposed to be a chicken liver salad, but it’s not hard to imagine bachelor Martin Van Buren (his wife died 18 years before he entered the White House) enjoying the one-two punch of mayo (covering the chicken) and whipped cream (garnish) for the holidays. The First Ladies Cook Book tells us he is the guy who banished “ices, wines and refreshments” from the New Year's bash, and shut down all public receptions in favor of intimate gatherings with friends. “It is remarkable that although head of the Democratic party, Mr. Van Buren has taken a step striking at the very roots of their boasted equality ... [and] prevented the mobocracy from intruding themselves at his levees,” said “an English novelist,” per the cookbook.
  5. Tennessee Ham
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    510

    Tennessee Ham

    At the New Year’s Day reception in 1847, James K. Polk shook hands from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. No refreshments were served, but here are two favorite recipes of the guy who essentially created our entire Southwest: Tennessee Ham (that’s sliced ham filled with fruit preserve at the front of the plate), and Hickory Nut Cake with Vanilla Frosting. Pecans (a reasonable substitute) are a species in the same genus (Carya). Looks like pecans sit atop this truly appealing cake.
  6. Roast Beef with Potato Puffs and Parsnips
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    610

    Roast Beef with Potato Puffs and Parsnips

    On New Year’s Eve 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy—the first couple to use the White House crest on formal invitations—celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a public reception, and kept the party going with the traditional New Year's Day welcoming of guests. Given both events were all about the receiving line, it’s unlikely that this particular spread—Scalloped Oysters, Roast Beef, and Corned Beef—was enjoyed by anyone at the time, but these dishes were among the couple's favorites.
  7. Roast Suckling Pig
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    710

    Roast Suckling Pig

    President Theodore and First Lady Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt had a busy entertaining calendar, so surely this cranberry-garland-wearing Roast Suckling Pig surrounded by spiced crabapples, Indian Pudding (corn meal), and Clove Cake made an appearance at some point. The First Ladies Cook Book says to “Drape a garland of cranberries around the neck” and “Garnish platter or board with bed of watercress and/or parsley and red cinnamon apples or spiced crabapples.” But everything here looks suspiciously like maraschino cherries.
  8. Pineapple Salad
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    810

    Pineapple Salad

    On New Year's Day 1924—the second public reception since the start of World War I—Calvin and Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge received more than 3,500 guests. By the looks of this spread of their favorites—Custard Pie, Corn Muffins, and Pineapple Salad—their new year also included a trip to the dentist.
  9. Poulet à l'Estragon
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    910

    Poulet à l'Estragon

    First Lady Jackie and JFK hosted numerous state dinners and receptions, but did not revitalize the New Year's Day public event. Here’s a spread we hope famed White House Executive Chef René Verdon never saw, at least not in this particular presentation: Poulet à l'Estragon (tarragon chicken), Beef Stroganoff, and Soufflé Froid Au Chocolat.
  10. Presidential Corn Beef Hash
    The First Ladies Cook Book
    1010

    Presidential Corn Beef Hash

    It’s hard to fault a guy whose list of favorites includes hash—that’s Presidential Corn Beef Hash, as well as Maryland Caramel Tomatoes, Apricot Mousse, and Asparagus Souffle—for wanting to go fishing in Florida on New Year's Day 1933, as Herbert Hoover did, instead of risking injury to his hand from all the shaking. (Did you know that the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation—on New Year’s Day 1863—was delayed until Lincoln’s hand had mostly recovered from swelling?) Undoubtedly, all the presidents who followed Hoover toast him (from, say, Hawaii) every Jan. 1.