Soup and American Politics.
Part I: The U.S. Presidency
(e-SoupSong 11: March 1, 2001)
ONCE UPON A TIME, Thomas Jefferson sat down and thought about soup. As he noted to himself in his essay Observations on Soup (circa 1800),
"Always observe to lay your meat in the bottom of the pan with a lump of butter. Cut the herbs and vegetables very fine and lay over the meat. Cover it close and set over a slow fire. This will draw the virtue out of the herbs and roots and give the soup a different flavour from what it would have from putting the water in at first...."
Now here was the author of America's Declaration of Independence, a member of its first Congress, its minister to France, its Secretary of State, its 2nd Vice President, and 3rd President of the United States totally focused on you-know-what.
"...When you make white soups, never put in the cream until you take it off the fire. Soup is better the second day in cool weather."
Jefferson liked good food a lot and deliberately apprenticed his mulatto slave James Hemings (Sally's brother) to a Parisian chef so he could bring French cooking back to Monticello. It was in Paris at the Hôtel de Langeac that Jefferson started his lifetime habit of copying out recipes in his own hand--there that he grasped the essential principles of fine soupes from both haute and bourgeoise cuisines. Henceforth, soup accompanied every supper, at home or on state occasions. In fact, you may remember James Earl Jones (as Madison Hemings, son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings) in the film Jefferson in Paris recalling how a "French gentleman gave a mighty jump seeing the spitting image of Thomas Jefferson serving him soup." It was, of course, the slave Beverly, Madison's brother and Jefferson's natural son, leaning over that French gentleman and looking so Presidential.
But Jefferson was not the first President--nor certainly the last--to have a thing about soup. Funny thing about it--how soup has operated on so many different levels through the 212 years of the U.S. Presidency, providing insight into our history, our values, and our national character.
FOR ONE, SOUP HAS BEEN THERE AT TIMES OF DESPERATION AND STRUGGLE.
George Washington actually rang in the tradition before the country or the presidency had been born--back in 1777 at Valley Forge when hunger soared and hope quailed in the stomachs and hearts of America's bedraggled Continental Army. When General Washington ordered his cook to feed the army at any cost, cook thought "soup." With only scraps of tripe from a local butcher and a handful of peppercorns, America's traditional Pepper Pot soup was born. When Woodrow Wilson enacted Meatless Days and Wheatless Days during World War I, he promoted vegetable soup. When Eleanor Roosevelt put her mind to the war effort in World War II, she sent a memo to hubby FDR recommending that peanut soup be put on Navy and War Department menus-and it was FDR himself who established Tuesday Soup Nights at the White House to set an example of how to stretch food budgets. Roosevelt's famous "alphabet soup" wasn't edible, of course--but that welter of federal programs did turn out to stimulate America's appetite for recovery and get her back on her economic feet.
FOR TWO, SOUP HAS SERVED AS THE ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD FOR PRESIDENTS CAUGHT IN THE CRUCIBLE OF NATIONAL CRISES.
George Washington served peanut soup as a customary first course, but loved vegetable soup with fried vegetable squares and positively doted on Martha's cream of crab soup. Thomas Jefferson liked that beef soup of his, but also copied out recipes for soups with Mexican beans, oysters, okra, catfish, and pigeons. James Madison was fond of Dolly's favorite: wine soup. John Quincy Adams, shellfish and cod soup. Zachary Taylor, gumbo--from his military days in Louisiana. Abraham Lincoln? Hands down mock turtle soup: he personally ordered that it be served for his 1861 inauguration at the Willard Hotel. (And it was Lincoln who described his opponent's arguments as "thin as the soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that has been starved to death.") Rutherford B. Hayes adored his Lucy's corn soup, "with a lump of butter the size of a small egg". James Garfield: squirrel soup. Teddy Roosevelt, black bean soup--from his roughriding days in Cuba. William Howard Taft, that 300-pound behemoth, loved turtle soup so much he brought a special chef to the White House to prepare it and it alone. Woodrow Wilson was reported to speak in "edit talk" at lunch with his first wife Ellen, who proofread all his writings: "The soup comma my dear comma is delicious semi colon Maggie is an excellent cook period No wonder exclamation you taught her period". Herbert Hoover, forever associated with the soup lines and soup kitchens of the Depression era, liked cream of corn and cream of mushroom soups. He and "Mother" ate it as part of their 7-course meals, which they consumed night after night, even when it was just the two of them at table. Franklin Roosevelt liked Martha Washington's original crab soup, but with a splash of Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry in it. What did Ike do to relax? He made his favorite vegetable soup with the stems of springtime nasturtiums--even installing a kitchen in the 3rd floor family quarters of the White House to give himself free rein. (His favorite dessert was prune whip, but that's another story.) John F. Kennedy liked fish chowder when he was in Hyannisport, but cream of chicken and onion soup at the White House for lunch. History records that he ate bird's nest soup at his last dinner at Houston's Rice Hotel. Richard Nixon? NOT a fan. He ended the soup course at White House dinners after spilling soup on his vest. (Other embarrassing soup moments include George H. W. Bush losing his cookies at the 1992 Japanese state dinner with Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa right after the clear soup with mushrooms course was served...and Bill Clinton being grilled during his 1998 Grand Jury testimony about his "chicken soup conversation" with fondled Kathleen Willey.) Gerald Ford, bean soup--left over from his days in Congress. Jimmy Carter? No, NOT peanut soup--he liked chicken noodle or lentil and hotdog soup, and ate soup every day for lunch in the oval office or back patio, mostly by himself. Ronald Reagan said he liked hamburger soup with hominy above all others, with maybe split pea coming in second. George Herbert Walker Bush preferred New England clam chowder. Bill Clinton, that omnivore, claimed vegetable beef soup. George W. Bush? His chef in Texas' governor's mansion claims tortilla soup, but no other president has been so heavily reported eating soup everywhere, all the time, and so many different ones.
THIRD, U.S. PRESIDENTS HAVE USED SOUP SYMBOLICALLY--TO SPIN AND SEND POLITICAL "MESSAGES."
»Consider, for example, the soups they have served at state dinners.
In the early days of the republic, Presidents served sophisticated and usually French soups from the finest tureens into the finest china bowls, lest visiting dignitaries think for a minute they were dealing with maladroit rawboned colonial boobs. Thomas Jefferson staffed his White House with a French chef. James Monroe, who replaced furnishings that were lost when the British burned the White House to the ground in 1814, ordered a sterling silver soup tureen from London so exquisite and so pricey that Congress opened an investigation into it. Martin Van Buren hired a chef from London and dined only on the finest china, using gold spoons. Chester Arthur had a French chef and hosted dinners that lasted 3 hours. And don't forget Taft and his turtle soup chef.
But then America got its confidence up, got comfortable with its leadership in world affairs, and began to enjoy its down home democratic image. From Franklin Roosevelt on, Presidents have largely directed White House chefs to showcase America's melting-pot cuisine. FDR shocked the world when he served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England at his Hyde Park home. Jackie and John Kennedy served a canned soup creation that was all the rage and christened it "boula" after the silly college song "Boula Boula" (canned pea soup and turtle soup laced with sherry and topped with whipped cream and cheese). The Johnsons made Texas barbeque on the roof of the White House and served it with chili soups. (Earthy LBJ loved to counsel his opponents, "Don't spit in the soup. We all have to eat it.") The Carters, longtime peanut farmers, served southern peanut soup.
»Then, too, consider how presidents have manipulated the image of soup itself--serving, as it does, to symbolize both poverty (the soup kitchen) and the common man
Back in 1897, William McKinley cried out at a news conference, "What this country needs is a good 10-ounce can of condensed soup!" And the then-Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company of Camden, New Jersey, was happy to oblige at 10 cents a can.
Herbert Hoover was, to his sorrow, forever linked to the image of soup lines, symbol of depression America, but FDR turned those tables into a triumph of solidarity when he instituted Tuesday Soup Nights in the White House.
John F. Kennedy declared in the 1960s, "There is not enough money in all America to relieve the misery of the underdeveloped world in a giant and endless soup kitchen. But there is enough know-how and enough knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves"...which Jimmy Carter echoed 30 years later: "A Santa Claus or charity approach will simply not work. Nor is it enough for outsiders to fund soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food stamps and housing assistance. Rather, our goal must be to develop lasting improvements in the lives of our disadvantaged neighbors...."
Richard and Pat Nixon announced in 1982 that they were going to send a check to a Detroit soup kitchen run by the Capuchin Brothers instead of giving each other Christmas presents.
When Ronald Reagan, that great spinmeister, was faulted as an elitist snob for praising his wife's favorite onion-wine soup, his publicity machine went into overdrive to establish that Reagan's favorite food was the humble hamburger soup. (Of course his common man persona could never quite shake the glamour of wife Nancy-best shown in 1983 when an unemployment protest rally at the White House showed John and Jane Q. Public, fed up with soup kitchens, deciding to fire Reagan. "Oh Ronnie, what will we do? Will I have to sell the china?" asked the Nancy character. "Golly gee, Mommy, I don't know. I've never been in this situation. There must be help for us somewhere," replied the Reagan character.)
First Lady Barbara Bush was happy to help volunteers prepare food for the homeless at Martha's Table soup kitchen-and she took the shy Naina Yeltsin along in 1992 to help.
Bill and Hillary Clinton, though, take the prize with soup kitchen appearances-almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas, even through his impeachment proceedings. Clinton loved to press the flesh there, but he also used the occasions as a bully pulpit to urge Americans to "stop the appalling habit of throwing out 96 billion pounds of food each year, more than enough to feed all of the nation's hungry people." It was Clinton too who routinely made well publicized gifts of soup to ailing friends, politicians, and party contributors. Ironic, then, that a fairly bizarre survey in 1998, sponsored by DiMassimo Brand Advertising, found that a full 84 percent of loyal Campbell's soup customers thought President Clinton should be impeached.
THE FUTURE OF SOUP AND THE PRESIDENCY?
For 212 years, soup has served American Presidents well, at both the highest levels of national policy and at the most human levels of comfort and sustenance. But how will soup define the tenure of fledgling President George W. Bush? Aye, that's the question.
So far, there have been many sightings.
George Dubya dined on soup throughout his campaign--at Derry to "gather strength" before the New Hampshire primary; in Texas when Governor Pataki paid back a bet in matzo ball soup (those San Antonio Spurs just drubbed the Knicks); and at the end in Boston (much good it did him). It was July-ish when he started stuffing reporters full of chicken soup "on the principle that hungry reporters are cranky and aggressive; bloated reporters docile and content."
What was his first act on the day after the contested election? To sit down with Dick Cheney over a bowl of chilled squash soup.
What was his first act as President-elect after Al Gore conceded the election? To eat curried squash soup with Clinton in the White House.
His first agenda item? Assisting faith-based organizations feed the hungry through their soup kitchens.
So it should come as no surprise that he embraced Mexican President Vicente Fox over tortilla soup during his first international trip; billed and cooed with British PM Tony Blair at Camp David over corn chowder; and politicked with U. S. governors over Maine lobster and carrot soup at his first formal dinner at the White House.
Soup as sustenance. Soup as media soporific. Soup for strategizing, smoking the peace pipe, conducting foreign policy, and entertaining.... Gosh, after only 40+ days on the job, the jury is still out on George Dubya: either a souper four years...or four years in the soup?
You be the judge.
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