Both of my parents were small children in a ravaged post war Europe; one in Glasgow, one in Munich. They were from average families, not poor but not rich. No one was rich. Oranges were eaten as Christmas treats and they remember the euphoria that accompanied a knob of butter on their toast and the horrors of cabbage for a third night in a row. They didn't go hungry but they didn't throw the scraps away. I think as we cook through the administrations it is important to remember food's main purpose is sustenance. The added spices, unique ingredients, and multiple courses are a privilege; a reflection of peace time, a largely prosperous economy, and good fortune. It has not always been that way.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fifth cousin of Teddy, had the task of trying to find a way to put 13,000,000 back to work during the Depression and raise morale as troops fought alongside the Allies in another European disaster. He did both by harnessing the American spirit and capitalizing on our ability to unify despite our differences, something we have seemed to have forgotten. One of the wisest woman I have met, community activist Miss Mary of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, once told me that “it is so much more economical, it is just cold hard common sense to spend money to help every individual become the best he or she is capable of being”. I found this to be an incredibly wise perspective, one which FDR would have agreed with. It was his programs, though controversial to some and expensive, which renewed the public's faith in itself and gave us everything from parks to electricity in rural regions. FDR did all this while managing his own physical limitations from a bout of polio. The Roosevelt's (Eleanor was equally remarkable) rose to the occasion, with no complaints, even when Mrs. Henrietta Nesbitt's bizarre menus graced the White House table after long days.
Everyone assumes that all White House cooks are amazing... after all; they are in charge of keeping POTUS full, happy, and ready to face the day. Well, during the FDR Presidency, Mrs. Nesbitt, a neighbor friend of the Roosevelt's in Chicago, was an exception, cooking up some of the most unappetizing bizarre meals the Library of Congress has on record. Her culinary attempts were made in hopes of remaining economical in times of little but her lack of imagination and downright depressing combos drove FDR to keep a secret food stash in his office. She even served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England, which they claimed to have enjoyed, and a “gumbo”, made of just herbs and water. Despite Mrs. Nesbitt's truly creative approach to depression cooking, FDR remained a man who loved his meals and was ultimately, a comfort food aficionado.
The family did keep one extravagance on the table, cream. It was used by the ladleful for the scrambled egg dinners which Eleanor cooked at the table in a chafing dish every Sunday night, and in her beloved soups (chicken amandine was her favorite. It was also used in their family Kedgeree recipe, originating from FDR’s beloved mother Sara. Kedgeree originated as an English- Indian fusion fare from colonial times. It is meant to be a celebration of seafood and spices in your mouth. This version evolved, or devolved rather, as depression and wartime ravaged the pantry. Below is the version they gave to guests upon request. I have made two changes, as promised, which add significantly to the flavor and appearance. They are noted in ().
Sara Delano Roosevelt’s Kedgeree
Recipe courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library
- 1 cup cooked flaked fish or crab, lobster, or canned fish (I used crab)
- 1 cup cooked rice
- 1/4 cup cream or fish stock
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 hard cooked eggs
- (1/3 cup green peas)
- (Parsley for garnish)
- Mix the fish with the rice. Moisten with the cream and saute lightly in butter. Do not press down–dish must be light and fluffy. Season with salt and pepper. Add the eggs, cut in quarters, sliced, or chopped. Heat thoroughly. Serve with extra grating of freshly ground pepper or dash of Worcestershire.