Occasionally, White House fare has been almost inedible. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was a certified gourmet who thrilled at “curious foods,” like buffalo tongue, ptarmigan from Greenland and whitefish “fresh from Duluth,” the food of his White House was legendarily abysmal. This was thanks in part to wartime rationing, but mostly to the housekeeper, Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt, who, under the protection of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, produced a farrago of liver and beans, mystery casseroles, gelatin salads with marshmallows and other “economy menus.” After a 1937 dinner chez Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway described the meal as “the worst I’ve ever eaten … rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.” Hem’s soon-to-be third wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, ate three sandwiches at the airport before they flew to Washington: “She said the food was always uneatable,” he wrote. “She has stayed there a lot. Me, I won’t be staying there any more.”
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I was astonished by the story of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook, James Hemings, which I pieced together from several books. Jefferson brought James to Paris as an 18- or 19-year-old, where he trained in some of the city’s finest kitchens and learned to speak French better than his master. Upon returning to America with a pocketful of recipes and money (slavery was not customary in France, and he was comparatively well-paid there), Hemings followed Jefferson from New York to Philadelphia and the Monticello plantation in Virginia. There, he prepared some of the most significant meals of the day, and in the process helped to define American cuisine as we know it — a fusion of native ingredients cooked with French tools and techniques, English recipes, African herbs and spices, and a soupçon of his own creativity.
James was also one of Sally Hemings’s brothers. Sally was a servant for Jefferson’s white daughters in Paris and, DNA testing has proven, the mother of at least six children by Jefferson. (Those children were three-quarters white but treated as slaves; four survived to adulthood and were not freed until the end of Jefferson’s life.) It’s a lineage that boggles the modern mind, though it was not unheard of at the time.
After James Hemings bought his freedom, he struggled to find his identity: As a former slave who could read and write, had traveled widely and was a culinary artist of the highest caliber, he was neither fully Black or white; he never married or had children, and his sexuality may have been fluid. He simply did not fit into the world as it was. Upon his election, Jefferson offered Hemings the job of White House chef, but the two men could not agree on terms. Instead, James settled in Baltimore, cooked at a tavern and drank heavily until his death at the age of 36. His story is worthy of inclusion in the curriculum — or, at the very least, deserves the Hollywood treatment.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Fresh water, which I believe will be the defining resource of this century. I wrote about the challenges of floods, droughts, pollution and sustainable use in my 2011 book “The Ripple Effect.” The dire predictions my sources made a decade ago are proving accurate sooner than expected, and their message remains stark: We can survive without oil, but not without water.
How do you organize your books?
Out of necessity, I organize the books I’m using for current projects with relative coherence — my office shelf contains sections on food history and recipes, presidents, political and social history, the White House and so on. But the rest of my library is a series of haphazard collections. It doesn’t help that my wife is an artist and avid reader, whose shelves are packed with oversize art and photography books, along with a trove of novels, poetry, health and fitness guides, and random volumes. Most of our books are not on the floor, at least, but on one shelf I see “The Soul of a New Machine” next to “All the King’s Men” topped by “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Why? I have no idea. It’s packrattery, but I can usually lay my hands on the volumes I need.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Marie Kondo — just kidding! I like big, heavy illustrated books about marine biology, such as Ernst Haeckel’s “Art Forms in Nature” or the American Museum of Natural History’s “Opulent Oceans.” I find them beautiful and mysterious, and they tickle my inner Jacques Cousteau. I bet James Cameron likes them, too.