Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: White House Diary

I don't think any White House housekeeper has gotten more media attention than Henrietta Nesbitt, who kept house through FDR's four terms.

Henrietta Nesbitt

By all accounts, housekeeping during the Roosevelt years was GRIM.  Nesbitt was not responsible for the cooking, but she planned the menus, which were approved by Eleanor Roosevelt, and she did do the Christmas baking herself.

Here's what was served in the White House for a Chief Justice Dinner in 1936:

Clear Tomato Soup
Mushroom and Parsley Garnish
Curled Celery     Ripe and Stuffed Olives
Boiled Rolled Flounder
Sauce Alemande
Potato Balls and Parsley
Roast Turkey
Jelly Celestial
Lima Beans   Howard Beets
Scalloped Sweet Potatoes with Apples
Pineapple and Cream Cheese Salad
Macaroon Ice Cream
White Pound Cake

It's like the entire Gallery of Regrettable Food in one menu.  Apparently, the menus for all the meals ever served during the Roosevelt administration are stored in the Library of Congress.  I would love to peruse them someday.  Nesbitt gives us just a few samples in her White House Diary.

Who wants a doughnut?

Nesbitt was aware that the White House had developed a reputation for terrible food.  From her perspective, she was supposed to model thrift in the midst of the depression, and once the war started, she had to contend with rationing.  She saw it as her responsibility to make the president eat his vegetables, and insists that the Roosevelts wanted "plain" food.

Henrietta Nesbitt was not a writer.  She resorts to vague descriptions to compensate for what her writing skills were not equal to, so the years "flew by" and she did "all sorts" of things.  That said, she is a voice for the sort of person who often doesn't get a voice.

She does provide some interesting details.  For example, when the King and Queen of England came to stay, she waited until she heard the twenty-one gun salute to put the new slipcovers on the couches, so that no one would have a chance to get them dirty.  She says that Eleanor Roosevelt was beautiful and that press for unfriendly papers deliberately made her look awful in photographs. (She admits that Eleanor in general was extraordinarily unphotogenic).

The White House Kitchen was completely overhauled, which seems to have taken most of FDR's second term.  Nesbitt says she divides her time in the White House according to whether it was before or after they got "AC" which is not air conditioning, (you knew that of course) but alternating current.  When electricity was new, you could choose direct current or alternating current.  I guess it was like VHS versus beta, and direct current, like beta, turned out to be the turkey.  Too bad it's what was installed in the White House, until they had it all ripped out and rewired and took the opportunity to bring the kitchen up to Nesbitt's standards of cleanliness, although apparently they never did conquer the cockroaches.
White House kitchen in 1933, before the renovation

In addition to her diary, Nesbitt published this cookbook and I am dying to get my hands on a copy.

I want that "Jelly Celestial" recipe. 
How does one "curl" celery?


  1. "To make celery curls: Cut celery into three- to four-inch pieces. Cut each piece into narrow strips, leaving about an inch at the end uncut to hold the piece together, then put them in ice water until they curl, about half an hour."

  2. There's a copy of that cookbook on eBay:

  3. No mock apple pie with Ritz crackers? I wonder if Jelly Celestial involves vegetables in Jello.

  4. Saltines? Hell, I could serve those. Although I suppose after a delicious scoop of Jelly Celestial, I might wish to cleanse my palate with a Saltine. Or perhaps they were there so Mr Picky President could have some "plain food".

    I must Google a recipe (or description) of Jelly Celestial!