Q-and-A With the Author of Capitol Hill Cooks
Thomas Jefferson’s chicken fricassee paired with George Washington’s beer and topped off with Ronald Reagan’s pumpkin pecan pie.
The meal may sound like a hodgepodge of presidents’ names thrown together, but thanks to “Capitol Hill Cooks,” the latest cookbook from Linda Bauer, it’s an easy meal to put together.
The book, now in its third printing, features the favorite recipes of past presidents and first ladies side by side with recipes for the favorite foods of Members of Congress.
Bauer, a food writer who also wrote “The American Sampler” cookbook in the 1980s as well as other historic recipe cookbooks, sat down with Roll Call to talk about how she spent the past 20 years learning things such as President John F. Kennedy’s favorite soup.
Q: What first inspired you to write this book?
A: I was speaking at my church after “The American Sampler” came out. This lady raises her hand and says, “This is terrific, but I really don’t like the Congress people that much. … I would love to know what did Abraham Lincoln eat. Wouldn’t that be a bit more interesting?”
And I said, “That’s a great idea, but I think it would be an incredible amount of work.”
My mom was in the audience, and she goes, “You know something, would you consider working on that. I’d like to work on that. I’ll start collecting whatever I can find.” She passed away 20 years ago, and I just wish she was here. There were times when she thought this was never going to happen, but it did!
Q: Take me through the research process. This book has been more than 20 years in the making. How do you find recipes from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln?
A: I contacted their homes and lots of the presidential libraries. Over the years, I just collected them. I had this huge box.
When I did the first book, my husband said, “Ask [the Congressmen] why it’s their favorite.” It’s something I continued to do with this book, keeping track of those stories. I asked them all. Now, not everyone contributed, but the ones who did, some of them gave me two pages on why it was their favorite. They have a food passion, too. I think it’s kind of an insight into the person.
Q: So what do the recipes tell us?
A: It’s what they like to eat. It doesn’t mean they cook it. You get them and you’re like, “Wow.” [John F. Kennedy’s] favorite soup is canned split pea with canned tomato soup, a can of milk and a dash of curry powder.
We did chicken fricassee for Thomas Jefferson and his corn pudding, which doesn’t have the biscuits, usually a part of corn pudding. … He was such a gourmet. You can tell from what their writings were about food, which ones really did like to cook.
Q: What part of the older recipes are different from what we eat now?
A: They use lard. Lots of lard. But you can just change it and use butter. Most of the recipes, if you want to cut down on any of those things, you can do it. It’s not really going to change it. And the nice thing is, most of them are whole grains. They ate healthier than we did in a lot of ways.
Q: Do you have any favorite recipes in the book?
A: Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge. You don’t need a double boiler and it makes enough for 10 people. It’s the best gift because everyone likes it. You know, she couldn’t cook at all. When she got married, she couldn’t even boil water, and when she learned how to make this, [her husband] called it “Mamie’s million dollar fudge.” It really is. It’s so simple. You can’t screw it up.
I also love JFK’s soup. We had a famous wine expert stay with us for a week, George Taber. I was testing recipes and every day we would eat three meals out of this book. He said, “That is the best soup.”
I said, “Isn’t that funny? It’s just canned soup.”
And he replied, “That’s what I like about people. Everybody’s tastes are different, and it’s not that you have to be snobby and have escargot. You can be simple.”
Q: Do you have any favorite stories that came out of writing this book?
A: I had this lovely letter from [the late Sen. Edward] Kennedy [about] his clam chowder. When he passed away, I thought, “What am I going to do?”
I still wanted to keep it in, so I called his son [former Rep. Patrick Kennedy]. Eventually, his aide called me back and said, “He would be honored if you used his dad’s recipe. It’s one of his favorites, too.”