07/29/2011 12:43 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2011

Hail to the Chef: The Hamburger of Michelle Obama and the Politics and Pop Culture of Presidential Food

On July 11, the Washington Post reported that First Lady Michelle Obama slipped the security-confined 18th century mansion she calls home to enjoy a heartily caloric (1,700) meal at a new restaurant, "Shake Shack," consisting of a "ShackBurger," milk shake, and soda, accessorized by a specialty she's admitted to be among her favorite palate pleaser, french fries. She got bit back for it, so to speak, from the food police, that is, mostly right-wing critics like Glenn Beck and Matt Drudge who thought it hypocritical that the president's wife whose public interest project, "Let's Move!" intends to teach the nation's children how to eat healthily and exercise regularly would dare to so indulge.

It's not the first time Mrs. Obama's personal choices and public project has been called out by those who failed to either read or listen to what she's said from her first day in the White House vegetable garden: the intention is not to deny all delicious and caloric content to the stomach, but to let sparing doses of such foods on occasion within an overall daily diet of healthy foods and always moving the body to keep the fat burning. None of the critics, for example, demanded their taxpayer's right to know whether she hit the tennis court or running track the next day. Nor is it surprising that partisan politics has peppered that plate. Earlier this year, in February, her carnivorousness for ribs during a vacation in Vail, Colorado, was vociferously chewed up by a leading anti-administration mouth Rush Limbaugh, himself a fellow with not a little avoirdupois, "Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice."

Since the dawn of the television age, what a president put in his mouth is seasoned more by politics than what comes out of it. Jack Kennedy's hiring a French chef while still preferring New England clam chowder managed to keep his highbrow tastes low enough while flavoring American culture with a pinch of sophistication.

Inheriting the chef, Texan President Lyndon Baines Johnson sent back filet with foie gras as "rotten," and from then it was a matter of, as a popular ad years ago ran, "beef, it's what for dinner." His constant barbeques for masses of journalists, civil rights leaders, congressional colleagues, and advisory boards gave a better taste of his inclusive "Great Society" policies than merely reading them could.

A majority of Americans silently tightening the belt in check related to Nixon's low-cal love of cottage cheese but hearing he put ketchup on it flared nostrils and left a conflicted aftertaste.
Soon enough, Presidents took on their own official "favorite snack." Jerry Ford invited the press to watch him toast his own beloved English muffins in the White House kitchen as proof of a more accessible post-Watergate presidency.

In the 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter beat Ford on the humble factor by using the lowly peanut, grown by him in the red clay of Georgia, as his unofficial campaign logo. Even those who eschewed the empty calories of Reagan's sugary soft spot for jelly beans couldn't deny the man had a sweet touch. There were even official "Reagan Jelly Bean Jars," given out by the White House as gifts to special guests.

In more recent years, however, pundits so savored a good food metaphor that they began to fold the tastes of chief executives into verbal food fights.

The press skewered George H. Bush as churlish after he refused to eat his broccoli, and blanched him for claiming the southwest twang of fried pork rinds with hot sauce was seriously this native New Englander's snack of choice.

In his early presidency, Bill Clinton put fast food on such a fast track that installing a running track around the White House lawn seemed to be a media-induced penance. After launching two controversial, expensive, high-tech wars, even filmmaker Oliver Stone used the fact that George W. Bush choked and passed out all alone, on a tiny bit of pretzel as the primal moment in his film biography of the president.

Nor is it presidential food alone that makes news. At his July 30, 2009, "Beer Summit," intended to raise racial understanding by bringing together a white Boston Police Sergeant James Crowley and the black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who the former mistakenly arrested for breaking into his own home, Barack Obama avoided creating any further controversy by choosing Bud Light, a cheaper and more Joe-Sixpack rather than an import. Meanwhile the professor showed his Boston loyalty with a Sam Adams light, Vice President Biden went non-alcoholic by grabbing a Buckler's and the Sergeant went for an artisan brew, a Blue Moon.

From the very beginning, however, what got cooked down in the presidential kitchens boiled furiously in the national kettle pot. Worldly Thomas Jefferson, a genuine connoisseur of cuisine credited with importing Italian pasta to America and sneaking in seeds of sensitive French vegetables to be cultivated at his Monticello estate, was attacked for "abjuring native vittles."

Martin Van Buren was assailed during the depression of 1837 in a legendary Congressional rant known as the "Gold Spoon Speech," by Pennsylvania Congressman Charles Ogle for serving fancy foods on regal place settings.

When he ran for re-election in 1840, Whig candidate and victor William Henry Harrison ran on a platform of "hard cider and hominy," to illustrate how he shared the tastes of the common man -- who also got free mugs of hard cider at campaign headquarters. William Henry Harrison campaign booklet shows him with his barrel of hard cider.

The initial public reaction to obese William Howard Taft's love of all things edible was a sign of prosperity but quickly soured into a perception of inertia. Beginning each morning with his traditional fare of country corn muffins and warm rye and wheat cereal fostered the depiction of Calvin Coolidge as following a steady, reliable course, in contrast to the dizzy days of the Roaring Twenties he oversaw.

The food and drink of many other presidents assumed mythic proportions that became part of the national folklore. The most obvious example of this is the association between the first president, George Washington, and the tale of his childhood honesty in admitting he had chopped down one of his father's cherry trees, forever leading to everything edibly cherry being linked to him. Believed for generations, then dismissed for generations, some recent evidence suggests that he did indeed love cherries, that they grew at his childhood home and that his family had a close association with the tart fruit.

More than myth may have been involved in the cherry story associated with one of the eight presidents to have died in office. In 1850, Zachary Taylor returned to the White House from an intensely hot Independence Day ceremony at the base of what would become the Washington Monument. Exhausted, thirsty and famished, he began consuming vast quantities of cherries and iced water and iced milk. By that night, he was suffering severe stomach cramps. Within five days, he was laying in the East Room in his coffin, the victim of an intestinal attack, likely dysentery, which began with the cherries.

To see more photographs and images and read the rest of the story about how First Ladies and food have been politicized and popularized, from Dolley Madison to Eleanor Roosevelt to Nancy Reagan, go to