Being the president is hard work. Not only do you have to, you know, protect the free world and stuff, but you also have to deal with the public at large scrutinizing everything you touch, wear, consume, attend, listen to, read, or stand in close proximity to. After Bill Clinton invited Maya Angelou to speak at his inauguration, she was instantly a household name. After it was revealed that George W. Bush was reading The Stranger by Albert Camus, the book instantly enjoyed new popularity. Especially during campaign season, anything that comes to be associated with the president—be it a book, clothing designer, or even a recording artist—gets a noticeable bump in exposure.
One of Americans’ favorite presidential details to obsess over is food—what the president likes, what he doesn’t like, where he eats, what the White House chef likes to prepare, what is served at state dinners, and what food habits he tries to hide from his wife. We’ve learned that Harry S Truman’s military background made him an unpicky eater, while Herbert Hoover demanded the finest and most expensive food, imported and prepared to exacting specifications. Recently, the upscale but obscure New Delhi restaurant Bukhara inexplicably made headlines after Bill Clinton simply enjoyed a meal there. Some presidents’ relationships with certain foods have even become the stuff of legends.
No president has elevated the humble hamburger as much as our current commander-in-chief, President Obama. Perhaps in an effort to burnish his man-of-the-people credentials, he put burger chain Five Guys and Washington D.C. eatery Ray’s Hell Burger on the map by very publicly enjoying their greasy goodness. He even takes visiting dignitaries, like Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, out for the classic American meal and has made a point of enjoying burgers even when he travels around the country, mostly supporting local eateries and cult favorites. TMZ reported that upon one trip to Five Guys, the POTUS requested a cheeseburger with mustard, tomatoes, lettuce, and jalapeno peppers. The folks who run Good Stuff Eatery in Washington D.C., however, have a specialty item called the Prez Obama Burger on the menu, which includes blue cheese, bacon, onion marmalade, and horseradish mayonnaise.
The Gipper’s Goodies
Back when Ronald Reagan was just the governor of California, he picked up a habit that would prove hard to break: jelly beans. According to the Ronald Reagan Museum and Library, he started popping the candies in order to help himself quit smoking. His favorite beans were Jelly Bellies, and they were well stocked in both the Oval Office and on Air Force One. For his 1981 inauguration, the company that manufactures Jelly Belly beans developed a brand-new flavor—blueberry—specifically for the celebration, just so that there would be red, white, and blue beans served. Reagan’s favorite flavor was licorice, and he even sent them into space on a 1983 Challenger space shuttle mission, to surprise the astronauts with a sweet gift from home.
Read My Lips: No Broccoli
George H.W. Bush was far more famous for the one food he professed to dislike above all others: broccoli. He quipped, “I’m president of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli,” much to the delight of a million schoolchildren (myself included) who then attempted to skip their own vegetables on patriotic grounds. No word on whether broccoli sales plummeted during his term.
Slick Willie Gives Up the Junk
When Bill Clinton was in office, he was known for his appreciation of fattening food, including burgers, barbecue, Mexican cuisine, and all manner of cakes, pies, and sweets (except chocolate, which Clinton is allergic to). Saturday Night Live even did a sketch lampooning his fondness for McDonald’s. But after his well-publicized heart surgeries in 2004 and 2010, the former president revealed a newfound healthy lifestyle that included a very unexpected cornerstone—vegetarianism. In advance of daughter Chelsea’s 2010 wedding celebration, Clinton lost about thirty pounds on a plant-based diet, which he vociferously claimed made him feel healthier and helped stabilize his cholesterol levels. In September 2010, he even admitted that he’d taken things one step further by following an almost completely vegan diet plan. He touted his diet in interviews with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Huffington Post, and other media outlets, confiding that he wanted to make sure he was around to get to know his future grandchildren.
Great Soda Society
Some presidents drank fine wine, some were teetotalers. Lyndon B. Johnson, peculiarly, was fanatically devoted to Fresca. He was well known for drinking copious quantities of the grapefruit-flavored calorie-free soda. In fact, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, writes that President Johnson went so far as to have special buttons installed at his desk in the Oval Office; the buttons were labeled “coffee” and “Fresca,” and whenever he pushed one, an aide would immediately fetch the beverage and bring it to him.
Presidents—they’re just like us! They have food likes and dislikes, favorite hangouts, and regular haunts. Except when they vote with their taste buds, people around the country and around the world pay attention.