WASHINGTON -- Traditional. Traditional! TRADITIONAL!!
Oh how many times Cristeta Comerford hears that word around this time of year. So many times that the White House executive chef breaks into song to explain -- ever so briefly, ever so cautiously.
"I feel like belting out, 'Traaaaaaaaa-di-SHUN!' " she trills, tossing an arm into the air, channeling her best Broadway-songstress vibe.
Here in the snug, stainless-steel kitchen of America's most famous home, generations of White House chefs have heard the same request for adherence to tradition that first lady Michelle Obama has delivered to Comerford since 2009. Our presidents and their families are forever asking for a Thanksgiving meal that will feel familiar to them, and, it goes without saying, to the American people.
But tradition is a funny creature. It has a certain elasticity. Look beyond the predictable roasted turkey and the pies, peer around the not-so-stunning stuffing, and you'll find presidential Thanksgiving menus that provide fresh little insights about each first family's tastes and about the way Americans eat.
The Obamas plan to celebrate at the White House on Thursday for the fourth year in a row. Logs will roar in the fireplaces on the first floor of the White House. Family and staff on an undisclosed guest list will gather. The host couple reflect their times, an era of organic-this and local-that. So, this Thanksgiving their menu features a kale and fennel salad, the main ingredients harvested from their history -- and headline-making White House Kitchen Garden, that potent symbol of the first lady's healthful-eating crusade just steps away from the White House stoves.
No creamy, gloppy, fattening dressing, either. Their fresh produce will be dappled with a dressing that would make a dietitian beam, blended from shallots, lemon juice, red wine vinegar and olive oil.
Yet this is also a family not afraid of the occasional indulgence. Remember those presidential burger runs to Five Guys and Ray's Hell Burger? Their Thanksgiving menu takes that tendency into account during the dessert course with not one or two, but six pies. Huckleberry? Okay, not so traditional. But each Thanksgiving, those helpful, anonymous White House sources remind us that the president's favorite is the most traditional of all: pumpkin.
The details of the Obamas' private family gathering are treated with a delicacy approaching the handling of national security secrets. One drizzles out, though. William Yosses, the White House executive pastry chef, confides that the president's favored pie is jazzed up by some acorn squash to give it a dash of color and complexity -- a far cry from the canned pumpkin pie that Yosses' mother made when he was a child. Last year, Yosses used a sugar pumpkin, a variety that is smaller and has a firmer flesh than the bulky varieties most often turned into Halloween jack-o-lanterns.
It's a comforting notion, our president liking best what we like best on a national holiday that officially dates back to the "day of Thanksgiving" declared by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. But it lacks the flair of, say, George W. Bush, who sometimes sat down on Thanksgiving Day to an out-of-context Morelia-style gazpacho, or William Howard Taft, the portly 27th president with the bushy mustache and the adventurous palate.
Taft's Thanksgiving turkeys competed for attention on his holiday tables with chubby Georgia possums, each with a potato stuffed in its mouth. Taft was a Cincinnatian by birth but a Southerner in his tastes, the newspaper accounts of the day noted. His Thanksgiving meal in 1910, thusly, was prepared by three cooks, "all Negro women, the very best of southern culinary artists," the Detroit Free-Press observed. Sadly, the names of these artistes do not appear, this being long before the era of White House chefs appearing on "Iron Chef America" and becoming nationally recognized advocates for healthful cuisine.
In the not-so-calorie-conscious early 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt talked about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's love of oyster stew and browned sausages as Thanksgiving Day mainstays. The Roosevelts' Thanksgiving chestnut stuffing recipe called for roasting the nuts in "fat" (though it doesn't say what kind), sauteing celery and onions in bacon fat, then tossing it all in melted butter: an artery-clogging trifecta.
But by 1946, in the fresh aftermath of World War II, a measure of caloric restraint was restored. Come Thanksgiving, Harry Truman's housekeeper, Mary E. Sharpe, was said to be counting presidential calories, and the White House menu kicked off dutifully with clear bouillon and curled celery.
For Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the dutiful requirements had to do with scheduling. Their Thanksgiving wasn't the extended feasting and football-watching fest of the Obamas, who have celebrated each year at the White House, making them the first presidential family to have their Thanksgiving meal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Gerald Ford's. The Reagans wanted family members to arrive at their Santa Barbara ranch at precisely 5 p.m., their son, Michael Reagan, says. Dinner was served at 6, followed by coffee and dessert, and all but one or two overnight guests would be out by 8 p.m. No lingering.
Joke swapping was a Reagan family Thanksgiving tradition, Michael Reagan says. While his father was running for president, Michael says, he told his father a joke that made fun of Poles and Italians. Reagan liked it so much that he retold it to a group of reporters who did what reporters do -- they reported it -- leading to a brief but intense flash of controversy and a hasty apology.
The Reagans' meal was always prepared by Ann Allman, the family's longtime California housekeeper and cook, rather than the White house chefs or -- certainly not -- the first lady. "Nancy didn't cook," Michael Reagan says. "Nancy? We didn't let her boil water."
Along with the traditional items, Allman almost always served persimmon pudding, using a recipe from Carolyn Deaver, the wife of Reagan's deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver. And there would be a Reagan favorite called monkey bread, a sticky glob of dough segments smushed together in a Bundt pan. Always red wine, too, a logical choice for the former governor of America's biggest winemaking state. "My father got a lot of people drinking red wine," Michael Reagan says.
And even though Reagan once famously sliced his finger with a carving knife, family tradition dictated that the president would carve the turkey with an electric knife, telling stories and Irish blessings all the while, Michael Reagan says. No political chatter allowed.
The president, as ever, got to do and got to eat what the president wanted, a lesson anyone who cooks for or serves the nation's chief executive learns at his or her peril.
Walter Scheib thought he had created a masterpiece when he crafted a sophisticated Thanksgiving menu with dozens of items to show first lady Hillary Clinton. She reviewed it approvingly, but then looked up and asked, "Where's the white-bread stuffing?" Scheib recalls.
He stammered something about all the lovely stuffings he planned: oyster, corn bread.
"All that's fine," Scheib recalls her responding. "But if next year, there's no Pepperidge Farm white-bread stuffing, you're fired." She said it with a smile. But Scheib couldn't help but think she was only half joking.
By then he was getting accustomed to dialing down the fanciness. While working in George W. Bush's kitchen, Scheib showed first lady Laura Bush a 60-year-old balsamic vinegar. "This stuff was like juice from heaven," Scheib says. The first lady, whose husband was known for his simple tastes and who cultivated a guy-you'd-wanna-have-a-beer-with persona during his campaigns, was having none of it. "We can lose the pretense," Scheib recalls her telling him. So much for heaven juice making it onto a Bush holiday table.
One can only assume the unpretentious first lady might have approved of the lack of fussiness expressed by the humble saltine crackers that accompanied some of FDR's Thanksgiving dinners or the Obamas' macaroni and cheese. (Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of President Bill Clinton, was a mac-and-cheese fan as well. But when the Clintons arrived at the White House, she insisted on the boxed, store-bought kind, Scheib says.)
Holiday meals are "very personal," he says. "In most cases they have their roots back in the childhood home." So when the Clintons asked for a black cherry and Coca-Cola Jell-o mold with (egad!) canned black cherries, Scheib complied. He knew it evoked another, simpler time for them. He prepared it, though he considered that particular menu item outdated: "like something out of Sunset magazine or McCall's or Redbook."
The day after the Clintons' first Thanksgiving, Scheib heard from the first lady. "Where is the leftover turkey and cranberry sauce?" she asked.
The first family eating leftovers? No way, he thought. He had already served the leftovers to White House staffers.
"We ended up creating leftovers out of fresh stuff," he says.
Tradition was served.