At 5’10” and around 200 lbs, Teddy Roosevelt was certainly a man who liked to eat. However, we tend to think of him today as a Ron Swanson-esque character surviving entirely on animal flesh and whiskey, and while he did enjoy the wild game he hunted, his regular diet was surprisingly…boring.
Don’t get us wrong, there were certainly special occasions where Roosevelt enjoyed all manner of beast for multiple courses. Hell, look no further than this menu celebrating the President;s tour through the Northwest, featuring two kinds of tongue for lunch:
And no doubt, it was such extravagant meals enjoyed on special occasions that led to the American public forming an image of the Roosevelt’s feasting in the White House on grand, gluttonous meals every day of the week. In June 1906, a column in the Washington Post condemned the Roosevelts for such imagined fantastic dining. The following day, the following response from a White House representative was published:
When anyone endeavors to create a widespread impression that the President and his family sit down to a four or five course breakfast, a six or seven course luncheon, and a ten-course dinner, the President feels that a denial is not inappropriate. Instead of a breakfast consisting of oranges, cantaloupes, cereals, eggs, bacon, lamb chops, hot cakes, and waffles, President Roosevelt insists that the regular White House breakfast consists of hard boiled eggs, rolls, and coffee.
Instead of a luncheon of such delicious viands as Little Neck clams, stuffed olives, celery, consommé of chicken, fish sauté, eggs a la turque, Spring lamb, new string beans, asparagus, mashed potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and ice cream, President Roosevelt declares that when alone he always contents himself with a bowl of bread and milk.
When Mrs. Roosevelt or the children are present, the luncheon consists of cold meat, tea, cantaloupe in season, and bread. Instead of a ten-course dinner, the President declares that nine times out of ten a three-course dinner is served, and the other time a two-course dinner.
As much as we like to think it was all bacon and whiskey for the president, hard boiled eggs, bread, milk and coffee seem to be the staples according to most accounts. The Presidents’ Cookbook includes the following:
The Roosevelts were a comfortably affluent family who could eat what thy liked. What they liked happened to be simple–not Spartan, as some reports have suggested–but good simplicity in hearty helpings. For breakfast, the President had hard-boiled eggs with rolls and coffee. He varied this occasionally by having a big bowl of hominy with salt and butter.
Teddy had set ideas, within the limitations of his food preferences, of just how his food should be prepared. The eggs must be hard boiled, not medium or soft. Rolls must be homemade and served in great quantities. Coffee, too, was consumed in volume. Ted, Jr., recalled that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.”
If the president lunched alone, he had a bowl of milk, sometimes with crackers, sometimes not. But he was capable of eating quantities of food if the occasion arose. One observer, O.K. Davis, said, “I have seen him eat a whole chicken and drink four large glasses [of milk] at one meal, and chicken and milk were by no means the only things served.”
Lunch with the family usually consisted of cold meat (often leftovers), freshly baked bread, cantaloupe in season, and tea.
Family dinners were often three-course affairs, but sometimes only two. The food was generously served but unpretentious. The White House received many gifts of game, an unending delight to Teddy. He was also very fond of chicken, as has been implied, and had pronounced ideas on service it, saying once: “The only way to serve fried chicken is with white gravy soaked into the meat.”
Steak was a popular food with the President…He had a great sweet tooth and usually used as many as seven lumps of sugar in his coffee…Hominy was a staple at the Roosevelt table. In addition to being part of breakfast, it was often served as a starch at lunch and dinner, with meat gravy over it…T.R.’s one great gourmet interest was exotic teas…Ku-Kwa was a favorite…Teddy Roosevelt also expressed admiration for the famous Caravan tea…The President was far less fond of alcohol. At informal dinners with friends, only one wine was served, a far cry from the previous adminstrations’ six and seven glasses. It is possible that alcohol did not agree with T.R.”
That’s right, although Teddy enjoyed steak and game meat, his usual protein was…chicken. But not just any chicken would do, as historian Edmund Morris wrote in Theodore Rex, it had to be smothered in gravy:
His mother had always said it was the only way to serve fried chicken; that it gave the gravy time to soak into the meat, and that if the gravy was served separately he never took it.
While we can’t be sure of the exact recipe for fried chicken and gravy that Teddy enjoyed, we figure you can;t go wrong with Paula Deen. However, some of the recipes of Edith Roosevelt, Teddy’s second wife, have survived, including those for “Fat Rascals,” a type of hot biscuit, and “Sagamore Hill Sand Tarts.” The following can be found, along with many others, in The PResidents’ Cookbook:
- Baking powder
Sift 4 cups flour with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup sugar, and 4 teaspoons baking powder. Mix well. Cut in 1 1/2 cups butter. Then stir in 1 pound dried currants. Mix well again and add 1 cup milk, little by little. With each addition, mix with a fork until a soft dough forms. Roll the dough approximately 1/2 inch thick on a lightly floured board. use a 2-inch round cutter to shape the biscuits. Bake biscuits on an ungreased cooky sheet until nicely browned. Bake in a hot (450 degrees F.) oven about 12 minutes. When done, remove from oven, split and butter each biscuit, and serve piping hot. Makes approximately 2 dozen.
Sagamore Hill Sand Tarts
Cream 1 cup butter until it is as smooth as mayonnaise. Then add 2 cups sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs, one by one, beating after each addition. Beat in one additional egg yolk and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Stir in 4 cups sifted flour. Mix again well. Roll the dough on a lightly floured board until quite thin. Cut with a 2 1/2-inch cooky cutter. The beat remaining egg white just enough to stir it up a bit. Brush the egg white on top of the cookies. Sprinkle with a cinnamon-sugar mixture and bake on a greased cooky sheet in a moderate (350 degrees F.) oven for about 8 minutes. Makes 6 dozen.
Okay, so we have the food covered, but what about drinks? Legend has it, Teddy was prescribed whiskey as a child to combat his asthma because the 19th century was wacky like that. To nobody’s surprise, it didn’t work and supposedly it turned Teddy off to alcohol — for the most part.
By all accounts, he regularly indulged in bathtub-sized amounts of coffee and also drank tea — especially Caravan and Hu-Kwa — but he was no teetotaler. Barry H. Landau, in The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy, writes:
While Roosevelt loved to eat, the dinner table to him was less an occasion for fine dining than a springboard for conversation in which he played the prime role. (p. 115)…”With the exception of the President’s love for Caravan and Hu-Kwa tea, he had little use for exotic food or drink, or even for alcohol. Although many unknowing observers clucked that the President used his huge golden goblet to slurp whiskey, in fact he usually drank from it a mixture of white wine and sparkling water.
…[V]isitors were taken aback at the simplicity and relative absence of alcoholic refreshment at Sagamore Hill; others reveled in the same simplicity, like the Englishman who exclaimed over his luncheon of ‘bouillon, some lamb chops and new peas and potatoes, and watermelon for dessert.’
No whiskey, but, like the women who inhabit Long Island today, at least he enjoyed his white wine spritzers! Thankfully, that wasn’t his only alcoholic indulgence. In Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking, journalist Mark Will-Weber weaves presidential stories together with the common thread of alcohol. His research led to his finding the favorite drink of the presidents, including Teddy’s Mint Julep recipe using mint he grew in the White House garden:
- 10 to 12 fresh mint leaves “muddled” with a splash of water and a sugar cube
- 2 or 3 oz. of rye whiskey
- ¼ oz. of brandy
- Sprig or two of fresh mint as a garnish
So sorry to burst your testosterone-filled bubble, but Teddy Roosevelt was not the caricature we think of today, subsisting entirely on wild game and whiskey. Fried chicken, rolls, milk, coffee and tea — with the occasional white wine spritzer or mint julep — were the norm in Teddy’s Roosevelt. However, if you really want the full Teddy Roosevelt dining experience, the food and drink aren’t what’s important; it’s all about conversation. So gather your friends and loved ones, eat and drink whatever the hell you want, put your damn phones away, and talk to each other. Share exciting life stories, recite favorite poems, discuss great literature — that’s the way to truly pay tribute to Teddy Roosevelt.