The hidden importance of the president's dining habits

Photo by Michael Vadon/Wikimedia

The hidden importance of the president's dining habits

History + Culture

The hidden importance of the president's dining habits

World leaders often get the credit (and probably more often the blame) for the way things are going in the collective lives of our country’s population. Presidents and prime ministers take responsibility for healthcare, tax codes and foreign policy – and more often than we think, our eating habits. 

There is a tendency to associate culinary trends with our heads of state – whether or not the facts are there to support the claims. Catherine de Medici allegedly invented cream puffs (she didn’t). Marie Antoinette famously uttered the quote “Let them eat cake!” (Also false). Thomas Jefferson has been credited as the inventor of mac and cheese (nope).

In some cases, of course, the tastes of the president does affect what the public eats. One very current example is Donald Trump’s penchant for fast food and his obstinate refusal to govern with health and nutrition in mind.

“Trump’s personal disregard for his own health and his own diet is reflected in a similar neglect for the nation’s health,” says Margo Wootan, Vice President for Nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She cites a veritable panoply of policies, including rolling back school nutrition standards, delaying menu labeling in restaurants and proposing the elimination of the CDC’s nutritional and physical activity program. Most recently, the Trump Administration annihilated proposed humane animal regulations for the USDA organic certification.

Wootan notes that the correlation between a president’s own eating habits and his policy priorities is not uncommon in Washington.

“I regularly find that when I go into a congressional office or the office of the state legislator or government official to talk to them about a healthy food policy, if they are personally interested in nutrition, that makes my job so much easier,” she says.

Past examples are easy to find: George W. Bush’s personal interest in fitness and exercise may have contributed to his administration’s focus on the growing obesity problem. The Bush administration started the school lunch policy changes that were completed under Obama.

“The Obama Administration was unique in that not only did they model healthy eating and promote it through speeches and TV appearances, but they actually made changes that make it easier for people to eat well every day,” says Wootan.

But Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific and founder of the Food Studies MA program in San Francisco, warns against drawing too close a link between the president’s personal preferences and his policies.

“Obviously, the Food Bill and growing vegetables on the White House lawn, certainly, that affected people,” says Albala. “But that’s not the choice of individual foods that he ate.”

Whether it’s Ronald Reagan’s penchant for jelly beans, George Bush Sr.’s infamous dislike of broccoli, or Bill Clinton’s love of fast food (before he went vegan, that is), the head of state’s tastes tantalize the media. And while a president’s eating habits may make a fun story, data related to Americans’ year-over-year food-purchasing habits proves that people don’t ultimately seem to care.

That said, while what the president eats may not directly affect our buying habits, we do remain interested – almost obsessively so – as proven by the consistent reporting on everything from the White House Thanksgiving menu to Donald Trump’s questionable cutlery choices.

The President’s dining habits make him less of a trendsetter, however, and more of an aspirational symbol, according to Gilles Bragard, President of the Chefs des Chefs d’État, a group devoted to the chefs of various heads of state around the world.

“It’s more about exemplariness,” he says. “The President, by virtue of what he puts on his plate, can set an example.”

He cites Prince Albert of Monaco, who, in accordance with his respect for the environment, refuses to allow his personal chef to serve tuna or wild caviar. During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt became a role model by pledging to always pay ration points in full.

“In sympathy with the American public’s dismay over coffee rationing, Eleanor also cut the demitasse of coffee from the White House after-dinner ritual,” according to The Huffington Post.

These preferences vary depending on the values of the nation in question. The French president, for example, must remain sensitive to the cultural importance of terroir, the idea that a product’s essence comes from where it is made.

The distinction between the French public’s view of Jacques Chirac, a famous bon vivant who ate everything (and whose love of calf’s head was so heavily publicized that he was served the dish in pretty much every village he visited), and Nicolas Sarkozy – who didn’t drink wine and disposed of the traditional lunch and dinner cheese board to save time – was enormous.

Even Bernard Vaussion, official French presidential chef, told Europe 1 that his favorite president was Chirac “for his respectful, convivial, bon vivant side.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, Albala notes that Bill Clinton’s penchant for “lowbrow” foods, like hamburgers, increased his likability, whereas the French influence of White House cuisine under Jackie O was “a mark of sophistication and worldliness.”

“It was an openness to foreign things,” he says. “And when you see the country turn towards itself, like now… I think Trump would probably be really uncomfortable eating anything foreign.”

This came to a head this summer, when Trump was invited to France for a lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron. When Michelin-starred Chef Alain Ducasse asked the White House for Trump’s culinary preferences, he was told the president likes sole meunière, well-done filet mignon, and well-done vegetables.

While the president’s culinary choices may not affect how we eat as a nation, they may makes us feel a little bit closer to knowing who he is. So even if what a president eats doesn’t change what’s on our table, it changes our opinion of him as a person.

“It reveals character,” says Albala. “I think there are very few things that we pin so closely to defining a person.”

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