Even our most powerful leaders can’t resist a plate of greens and cornbread.
Beyond policy reform, establishing treaties with other foreign nations, and enacting legislation, apparently, our former leaders of the free world knew a thing or two about politics and palates. And we’re not talking just any old food to whet their presidential appetites. No, the daunting task of running an entire country requires food that sticks to your ribs, which is why so many of them openly embraced what has come to be known as the benchmark of Southern cuisine—soul food.
The mere mention of those two words should conjure up images of greens cooked low and slow with pork, expertly fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and wild game, as well its prominent role in the identity of the African-American community and life below the Mason-Dixie. Its history is as storied and varied in tradition like our great nation, with culinary historians tracing the origin of soul food and its primary ingredients all the way back to the 14th century. Although, its popularity actually started to increase during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. As such, many enslaved and free African-American cooks served presidents and their resident staffers foods akin to their culture and region.
Despite hosting fancy galas and diplomatic dinners, and having access to the world’s most talented private chefs during their tenure in the Oval Office, it’s quite endearing to know that sometimes our former commanders in chief have famously noshed on some feel-good, down-home, hearty dishes.
In celebration of National Soul Food Month in June, here are all the presidents’ meals (well, most of them). Because even if they couldn’t agree on policy, we’re sure these soulful and delicious eats would garner bipartisan support across party lines and the dinner table.
Thomas Jefferson — Macaroni and Cheese
- Although the third President of the United States didn’t invent macaroni cheese, he was in possession of a macaroni machine he obtained on a trip to Naples, and he served the warm, cheesy dish to guests at a State dinner in 1802.
William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield — Squirrel Stew
- Back in the day, many Southern cooks lived off the land and incorporated foraging into their meal preparation, which sometimes included wild animals. Perhaps this explains why squirrel stew was a common request by these two.
James Monroe — Spoon Bread
- It should come as no surprise that the Southern-bred Virginian loved this native dish made of cornmeal.
Jimmy Carter — Grits and Fried Chicken
- Georgia's former peanut farmer turned president was always hungry for a bowl of creamy grits baked with cheese during his presidency. So much so, the family's adorable border collie mix was aptly named, "Grits."
- But, his administration also served fried chicken to guests during a gospel music picnic on the South Lawn in 1979. However, it wasn't battered and deep fried in the executive kitchen. Instead, it was ordered from a local D.C. restaurant.
James K. Polk — Corn Pone
- While his impact on the South, particularly Texas, cannot be ignored, neither could his insatiable cravings for corn pone—not to be confused with cornbread, people.
Andrew Johnson — Hoppin' John
- After just barely escaping impeachment, it’s no wonder President Johnson often turned to comfort food. His go-to dish: the ol’ good luck charm of Hoppin’ John.
Gerald Ford — Chitterlings
- Sure, they smell god-awful, but if you can get past the strong odor, the satiating end result is well worth it, especially when served alongside greens. Reportedly, President Ford may have developed an acquired taste for the pork-laden dish, as a USDA representative traveled all the way to South Carolina to procure a gallon of the frozen delicacy for the president.
John Tyler, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Barack Obama — Greens
- One tasty way to get someone to stay? Turnip greens. Just look back at President Tyler, who was rumored to have bribed a friend into staying a little longer at the White House with turnip greens and hog jowl.
- First lady Mamie Eisenhower was also a fan of the root vegetable, particularly when serving her signature "Fluffy Turnips" to President Eisenhower while he was recuperating from a heart attack in 1955.
- And, of course, there were always bunches available in the Obama's White House garden.
George H.W. Bush — Pork Rinds
- Hey, if cracklins drenched with Tabasco sauce are good for 41, then they’re okay by us, too. Proof of presidential power? The sales of pork rinds increased 11 percent during the Bush administration.
Bill Clinton — Fried Chicken and Black-Eyed Peas
- Before he became a vegan, President Clinton engaged in a sit-down dinner with journalist April Ryan, where she observed him devouring garlic fried chicken, chitterlings, and black-eyed peas. Later, he joked with Ryan that gorging on those types of foods could've been the source of his heart attack in 2004.
Lyndon B. Johnson — Chicken Fried Steak and Banana Pudding
- The tall Texan loved his barbecue, but his other Southern-inspired favorites were chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and banana pudding.
Ronald Reagan — Fried Chicken
- Everyone knows The Great Communicator often chomped on jelly beans, but do you know what else he enjoyed eating? Fried chicken. As seen in the photo above, he and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty dined on some good old-fashioned KFC after the Daytona race in 1984.
Abraham Lincoln — Corn Cakes
- This Southern staple was a mainstay during the Lincoln presidency.
WATCH: Southern Pimiento Mac and Cheese
Knowing what our leaders ate offers us a glimpse into their everyday lives and what they loved. And if these soul-food favorites are any indication, it's clear that the way to their hearts was definitely through their stomachs.