Turtle soup, garden veggies, fast food: How presidential meals shaped US

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Michell Eloy

President Donald Trump bought a fast food feast – pizza, hundreds of hamburgers, and boxes of french fries – to celebrate the Clemson football team’s national championship win during the government shutdown in 2019. Credit: Official White House. Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Virginia Congressman James Madison used to pretty much hate each other, so to talk through their political disagreements, the duo met over dinner at then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s house in July 1790. Jefferson served them a feast of vegetables roasted in olive oil, beef braised in red wine and herbs, and vanilla ice cream in a warm, puff-pastry crust. As the wine flowed and the night unfolded, Hamilton and Madison reached some huge agreements. It was a significant moment in American history and helped two of the three men go on to become president. 

The meal also illustrates how the presidential palate has helped shape the country’s politics, policies, trajectory of wars, and even American identity. Alex Prud’homme explores the appetites of more than two dozen U.S. presidents in his new book “Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House.” 

Prud’homme says the 1790 meal was intricately planned and served as a backroom deal lubricated by wine and food.

“These two guys really hated each other. They represented different factions in the U.S. at that time, which was a very young and unsure nation. And Jefferson knew that if their dispute got out of hand, it could rip the country apart,” Prud’homme says. “[Food] has a physiological, psychological effect. … It puts you in a different frame of mind. And I think that Jefferson used that very intentionally to soften their edges, loosen them up, open their minds. And lo and behold, by the end of the evening, it worked.”

A 20th century gourmet in his own right

President Franklin D. Roosevelt loved exotic and aesthetic foods, such as teal duck, white fish, and terrapin (turtle) soup. It was a far cry from his wife Eleanor, who Prud’homme says saw food as fuel. 

Prud’homme says her mission was to set a top-down example of how to use rationed foods in a nutritious way. She also used food as a tool in ‘domestic warfare,’ when she discovered FDR was having an affair.

“It was a real betrayal. And she said, ‘I can forgive but I can never forget.’ And so there are some who believe that she used Henrietta Nesbitt’s horrible menus as a kind of revenge against FDR. … She would do things like leftovers for the president.”

He adds, “She would serve him liver or beans five days in a row. And he couldn't stand this and he would write little notes to Eleanor saying, ‘Would you please remind Mrs. Nesbitt that there are things other than chicken that one could eat?’”

In the leadup to the U.S. joining World War II, FDR invited King George and Queen Elizabeth to a picnic in Hyde Park. He served the royals hot dogs and beer. 

“This was considered by FDR’s mother an insult, but the American public loved it. And this was his agenda. FDR was trying to make the Windsors look like real humans that were relatable, as opposed to this ‘Yorkshire pudding and roast beef-eating royalty’ that Americans assume them to be. And it was this kind of coup de théâtre. It was a moment that was staged, and it worked brilliantly. And it became known as the picnic that won the war.” 

Prud’homme says the picnic may have appeared simple on the surface, but served as a way for the Windsors and FDR to discuss what American involvement in the war would look like before officially committing. 

In the book “Dinner with the President,” author Alex Prud’homme explores the appetites of more than two dozen U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Joe Biden. He shows how their tastes shaped the country’s politics, policy, and the American identity. Credit: Courtesy of Knopf Publishing.

Flexing ‘soft power’ during the Obama administration

While Barack Obama didn’t hold many state dinners in comparison to other presidents, his administration focused on healthy eating.

“Barack Obama takes food very seriously. He loves going out to the latest restaurants. He's up on what chefs are making, [while] Michelle Obama was more about health and exercise and nutrition, and came at it originally as a mother concerned about the health of her children. The two girls were eating a lot of junk food when they were living in Chicago and had gained some weight.”

She hired private chef Sam Kass to make nutritious meals and he followed the Obamas to the White House. 

Meanwhile, President Obama targeted manufacturers of food laden with salt, sugar, and fat. Michelle also planted a garden outside the Oval Office.

“Michelle’s garden was a remarkable success as a political tool, as a public relations move, as a communication strategy. Without even saying it, it was an example of the first lady of the United States rolling up her sleeves, getting outside, getting some exercise, planning a garden, learning to tend it and harvest the vegetables, and then serving them at the White House. And if she could do it, then so could you.”

America’s fast food president

Prud’homme says Donald Trump approached food in a way different than his predecessor — by embracing his love for fast food. An example of his shrewd view of food is a celebratory dinner he held for the Clemson football team in 2019. 

He reportedly bought pizza, hundreds of hamburgers, and other foods: “It was seen by many traditionalists on both sides of the aisle as blasphemy. But to his voter base, they ate it up. They loved it. Without saying it again, the message was, ‘I liked the food you like, therefore vote for me.’”

He adds, “If we see someone else eating the same kind of food that we like, it gets us in a very deep place. It's almost sub-verbal. It goes back to our early tribal history, where the food was life or death. And if you saw someone eating the same food, that meant you were essentially of the same tribe. 

And whether he knew it or not, Trump played on that. The other thing that's interesting is that studies have shown that the American public does pay attention to what the president eats. And so when the president says, ‘eat fast food,’ a lot of people feel like that's giving them license to go eat fast food, even if they know it's unhealthy for them.” 

Excerpt from From Dinner with the President by Alex Prud’homme

  1. In the Dining Room Where It Happened (How the Sausage Gets Made)

“It is hard to remain enemies when you’ve broken bread together.”

—New Testament

On the evening of June 20, 1790, Alexander Hamilton and James Madi-son arrived at a modest house on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan for a secret dinner. As their host, Thomas Jefferson, ushered the rivals into his drawing room, Hamilton, President George Washington’s Treasury secretary, and Madison, a shrewd Virginia congressman, could barely look at each other. Ignoring the tension, Jefferson poured each a glass of Hermitage, a fine white wine the French called doux et liquoreux (sweet and liquory). As they settled in, mouthwatering aromas— of capon and chestnuts simmered in cream, root vegetables roasted in olive oil, beef braised in red wine and herbs— suffused the room. In the kitchen, James Hemings, a slave chef who had trained under some of Paris’s finest cooks, was conjuring a sumptuous meal designed to open the antagonists’ minds and lull them into a state of amenable pliability.

Jefferson was Washington’s secretary of state, a former ambassador to France, and a skilled host who understood how to use food and drink to build political consensus. In most societies the dining table is considered a neutral place where conversations can be had, grievances aired, laugh-ter shared, and alliances built outside the usual conventions. It is a strategy as old as mankind. “Breaking bread” is an ancient phrase that refers to the primal activity of humans eating food with others. Everyone must eat to survive, after all, and social dining helps to define us as human beings; we seem to need to converse over food, even when we disagree with each other.

The stakes could not have been higher that night in New York. Washington’s presidency was just a year old, and American democracy was more hopeful experiment than fully functioning political system. Many special interest groups were vying to shape the structure of government. The quarrel between Hamilton— a Federalist aligned with northern states— and Madison— a Virginia slaveholder who personified south-ern Democratic- Republicans— revolved around “two of the most irritating questions that ever can be raised,” Hamilton said: how to pay off America’s Revolutionary War debts and where to build a new federal city. These arguments seem obscure today but were so divisive in 1790 that the Republic was tipping toward an existential crisis.

Jefferson was quietly aligned with Madison, a fellow Democratic- Republican from Virginia, but he was also a pragmatist who feared the men’s rift could lead to “a dissolution of our union at this incipient stage [which] I should deem . . .  the most unfortunate of all consequences.”

This was not hyperbole. The day before, he had spotted the usually sharp Hamilton lingering in front of Washington’s house on Broadway looking “sombre, haggard, and dejected beyond description.” The Treasury secretary confided that he was about to tender his resignation. Taken aback, Jefferson asked Hamilton to pause and “dine with me” before taking such a rash step. 

“I thought it impossible,” Jefferson wrote, “that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by mutual sacrifice of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the union.” Affecting a carefree air, Jefferson meticulously planned the evening. (The only record of this dinner comes from his notes, which were likely written with an eye to posterity.

This account is based on a reconstruction by the historian Charles A. Cerami.)

As Hamilton and Madison polished off their glasses of Hermitage, Jefferson ushered them into the dining room, where they encountered their first surprise: the offer to sit wherever they pleased rather than at assigned seats, as traditional British etiquette dictated. Further, they were seated at a round rather than rectangular table, to avoid any implied hierarchy. These details were part of Jefferson’s effort to con-struct a more egalitarian, “American” code of conduct. Finally, in place of human waiters the food was served by “dumbwaiters,” a set of squat rectangular shelves next to each diner, which held the meal’s four courses. (As the men finished each plate, they placed their dirty dishes on the dumbwaiter and retrieved the next course.) Imported from France, the dumbwaiters were the latest in gastrotechnology, and a symbol of Jefferson’s worldliness. The devices made “the attendance of servants entirely unnecessary,” explained the pundit Margaret Bayard Smith. “When he . . .  wished to enjoy a free and unrestricted flow of conversation . . .  [Jefferson used dumbwaiters] believing . . .  that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversation . . .  by these mute but not inattentive listeners.”

The dinner likely began with a green salad dressed with wine jelly, an inventive combination of Madeira, milk, lemon juice, sugar, and gelatin. Jefferson was a renowned gardener who ate an unusually vegetable- forward diet for his day. He was also a knowledgeable oenophile with a famous cellar. With the salad, he poured a Carbonnieux, a white Bordeaux. As they ate, the men chatted about many things— farming, architecture, Virginia, France (though not of the Revolution, which they disagreed on)— but left aside the burning questions that had brought them together that evening.

Hemings’s second course was capon stuffed with Virginia ham, chest-nut puree, artichoke bottoms, and truffles simmered in chicken stock, white wine, and cream, napped with a reduction of calvados, the fiery apple brandy of Normandy. Here Jefferson likely poured a Montepulciano, a robust Italian red wine that counterpointed the dish’s rich, layered flavors. The third course was boeuf à la mode, a luxuriant, deeply flavored beef roast braised in wine, brandy, tomatoes, and aromatic herbs. This slow- cooked amalgam of proteins, collagens, vegetables, and alcohol was designed to further ease Hamilton and Madison into an open frame of mind. For insurance, Jefferson poured a bottle of Chambertin, a dark, complex Grand Cru Burgundy known as “the King of Wines.”

After a palate cleanser of meringues and macaroons, the next surprise was dessert: vanilla ice cream encased in a warm puff- pastry crust. Ice cream was a rare delicacy at the time, and this pièce de résistance— akin to a modern baked Alaska— gave the startling impression that the cold confection had just been removed from a hot oven. It was Jefferson’s sig-nature dessert, one he reserved for special occasions. Hemings had mastered the recipe in Paris, and even the reticent Madison beamed when he took a bite. Jefferson paired the dessert with a champagne non-mousseux, an unusual cloudy champagne without bubbles. (A wine Jefferson had introduced to President Washington, which helped solidify their friend-ship despite their differences.)

As dinner concluded it was time to get down to political horse- trading. Hamilton and Madison’s disagreement had become an overheated, emotional public argument, but at heart it was a cold calculus about money and power.

The first question they addressed was the “assumption” of the nation’s debt. Washington needed a sound financial system to borrow from Europe and pay off America’s $25 million in war loans. Without it, his new country risked financial collapse. But Hamilton and Madison dis-agreed on how to structure such a system. Hamilton favored a centralized government that would impose taxes and “assume” (absorb) the costs of war into the national debt, which would make America an attractive investment; the states would then pay into a federal debt repayment plan. Madison favored decentralized governance, with no federal taxation, and feared Hamilton’s approach— “a bitter pill to Virginia and other states that had already paid most of their wartime debt”— would turn America into a monarchy.

Neither man would budge at first. But the longer they steeped in Jefferson’s exquisite food, drink, and cajolery, far from the usual political pressures, the closer the rivals edged toward compromise. Hamilton wondered if adjusting the debt assessment downward might mollify southern states. That would be a step in the right direction, Madison replied. But his constituents would need something more in return—such as a new federal city in a southern state.

This raised the evening’s second trick question: where to site the permanent capital of the United States. While the Constitution mandated the building of a new federal city, it did not specify its location. New York was the temporary seat of government, and some favored keeping it there, but others, hungry for the prestige conferred by hosting the capital, had suggested sixteen other sites dotting the map from Philadelphia to Charlottesville. The debate over this question had escalated to the point of no return.

Over snifters of Jefferson’s brandy, Hamilton and Madison agreed to take a step back. Acknowledging the rhetoric had grown so heated that further public debate was meaningless, they agreed to hammer together a deal in private. By the end of the night, Hamilton had consented to move the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years, while a new federal city was established on a “southern” site. In return, Madison would allow Hamilton to assume $35 million of state debts into the national debt, making the federal government the chief taxation authority and establishing America’s credit in Europe. When Hamilton agreed to revise the debt balance, saving Virginia $13 million (a key fact that Jefferson omitted from his account), Madison promised to deliver the necessary votes. Over the summer congressmen on both sides switched their positions and passed the Funding Act (the assumption of states’ debts) and the Residence Act (the new permanent capital).

Known as the Dinner Table Bargain, the agreement was a coup for all three participants, but especially Jefferson. With toothsome food and wine, and a deft juggling of egos and political calculations, he had helped save the Union and, not incidentally, enhanced his own standing.

When word of “the great compromise” leaked out, it was hailed as a watershed moment in the nation’s evolution. Though Jefferson would gripe the deal was “unjust,” and was “acquiesced in merely from a fear of disunion,” others were more sanguine. “There is no single state paper in the history of the U.S., with the exception of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was of such immense importance and produced such wide and far-reaching results,” noted Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

The Dinner Table Bargain continues to reverberate today. Questions about state’s rights, the role of the federal government, and backroom political machinations have not gone away. But in 2020, the coronavirus revealed there is strength in working together and weakness in disunion. Jefferson’s 1790 dinner and its lessons have gained new cultural cachet thanks to Lin- Manuel Miranda’s 2015 musical, Hamilton, which memorialized Jefferson’s gastro- political feat from the perspective of a jealous Aaron Burr, who was not invited. In the song “The Room Where It Hap-pens,” Burr raps, in part,

Now Madison and Jefferson are merciless

Well, hate the sin love the sinner

. . .

But decisions are happening over dinner

Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room

Diametrically opposed 


They emerge with a compromise, 

Having open doors that were previously closed


The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power

A system he can shape however he wants

The Virginians emerge with the nation’s capital

And here’s the pièce de résistance

No one else was in the room where it happened

The room where it happened

The room where it happened

. . .

No one really knows how the game is played

The art of the trade

How the sausage gets made

We just assume that it happens

But no one else is in the room where it happens

. . .

Click boom! Then it happened.

From Dinner with the President by Alex Prud’homme. Copyright © 2023 by Alex Prud’homme. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



  • Alex Prud’homme - writer and author of “Dinner with the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House”