Thanksgiving at the White House has always been a special meal

The Obamas’ Thanksgiving menu includes this salad, made with kale harvested from the White House garden.
The Obamas’ Thanksgiving menu includes this salad, made with kale harvested from the White House garden. The Washington Post

Thanksgiving ranks among the most all-American of holidays. The reason is simple: Food brings people together.

Regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or political affiliations, families and friends gather on the fourth Thursday of November to feast and give thanks.

The White House is no different. Since George Washington in 1789, presidents have celebrated Thanksgiving with a special dinner, say culinary historians. Although Thanksgiving may be a relatively quiet day spent with family and friends, these leaders realized its symbolism went far beyond pardoning turkeys.

Presidents have always known the power of food, says Ira Brill, the unofficial “Presidential Turkey” historian and a big Thanksgiving buff. That’s why food and entertaining became such an important part of White House festivities.

“Food has always been part of the backdrop of the American presidency,” said Brill, Fosters Farms communications director. “Thomas Jefferson, for example, didn’t like conflict. So, he invited congressmen to the president’s house – this was before they called it the White House – and wined and dined them. One congressman said, with Jefferson, you could, ‘Drink as you please, converse at your ease.’ 

Modesto-based Foster Farms took special pride this holiday in providing the two official “Presidential Turkeys,” to be pardoned Wednesday in a White House Rose Garden ceremony. It’s a relatively new tradition, dating back to President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Was there roast turkey at the first Thanksgiving? Nobody knows for sure. The Pilgrims roasted small birds, but boiled wild turkeys for soup or stews. This was a celebration with Native Americans and they preferred venison, so it’s more likely they ate roast venison as the main course.

Ira Brill, the unofficial “Presidential Turkey” historian

Thanksgiving as we know it today is a mix of tradition and legend. Schoolchildren are taught about the Pilgrims landing in 1620 at Plymouth Rock in what’s now Massachusetts. With help from a native tribe, these colonists survived brutal conditions and gave thanks with a feast shared with their new American Indian friends in autumn 1621.

“Was there roast turkey at the first Thanksgiving? Nobody knows for sure,” Brill said. “The Pilgrims roasted small birds, but boiled wild turkeys for soup or stews. This was a celebration with Native Americans and they preferred venison, so it’s more likely they ate roast venison as the main course.”

By the early 1800s, Thanksgiving had evolved into a New England holiday tied to autumn harvests. State governors made holiday proclamations that varied in date and changed year to year.

“Our modern Thanksgiving really began because of one extraordinary woman – Sarah Josepha Hale,” Brill noted. “She was a combination Oprah and Martha Stewart, and she saw a national Thanksgiving as a way to bring the North and South together.”

Hale, a New Hampshire author and women’s magazine editor, envisioned a national Thanksgiving holiday that could truly unite the nation. Starting in 1846, she lobbied Congress and petitioned five presidents. In 1863 in the midst of Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln saw the value of such a healing holiday and proclaimed that the last Thursday in November would annually be our nation’s Thanksgiving Day.

November occasionally has five Thursdays. Since 1941, Thanksgiving has officially been the fourth (not last) Thursday.

Through her magazine articles, Hale also codified the typical Thanksgiving menu: roast turkey, stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.

“She really established the Thanksgiving menu we eat today,” Brill said.

As for White House Thanksgivings, the menu shifted with the tastes and preferences of the president.

“The Kennedys were surrounded by a great deal of glamour,” Brill noted. “At that time (in the early 1960s), French food was the epitome of style. They hired a French chef for the White House and it showed in their menus. When (Lyndon) Johnson took over, he hated French food. Instead, he liked to emphasize his Westernness. He wanted barbecue. When (Ronald) Reagan took office (in 1981), it was at the beginning of the California cuisine movement. As president, he brought California wine to the White House and emphasized fresh produce.”

Brill compiled menus from White House Thanksgivings, including notes made by first ladies (or their assistants) to the chef.

“I love the note on Jimmy Carter’s 1977 menu,” Brill said. “It reads, ‘Jimmy doesn’t necessarily like green peas’ and suggests ‘fresh green beans, just not the frozen ones.’ 

While turkey remained center plate, the side dishes and desserts tended to subtly change, reflecting their times and regional favorites. For instance, Harry Truman’s 1947 Thanksgiving menu started with mushroom soup and featured a molded (as in Jello) fruit salad. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan preferred marshmallows atop his sweet potatoes, Nancy Reagan’s famous monkey bread and persimmon pudding for dessert. President George W. Bush and Laura Bush preferred to celebrate Thanksgiving back home in Texas and served gazpacho, green beans with anchovy butter, zucchini gratin and cast-iron skillet cornbread dressing along with their turkey.

As for President Barack Obama, he’s a big fan of pie, his favorite dessert. In 2014, the White House Thanksgiving featured six different pies: pumpkin, pecan, apple, cherry, banana cream and coconut cream.

Otherwise, the Obama Thanksgiving menu has been very traditional: thyme-roasted turkey, honey-baked ham, cornbread stuffing, oyster stuffing, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato gratin, mashed white potatoes, green bean casserole, dinner rolls and kale salad.

First lady Michelle Obama gets credit for adding kale, Brill said. “It’s healthy and from the White House garden.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

White House kale salad

Serves 6

This is Michelle Obama’s now-famous salad, made with ingredients harvested from the White House vegetable garden. The dressing can be made up to a week ahead and refrigerated. Recipe adapted by The Washington Post from the White House.

For the dressing:

1 medium shallot, minced

Juice of 2 medium lemons (about 6 tablespoons)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup olive oil


Freshly ground black pepper

For the salad:

2 bunches young kale, washed and dried, cut into thin slices

1 bulb fennel (fronds, stems and outer layer removed or reserved for another use), cored and thinly sliced

4 radishes, thinly sliced

2 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced

1 scallion, white and light-green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced

4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shaved or cut into slivers

4 ounces (1 cup) almonds, thinly sliced

For the dressing: Combine the shallot, lemon juice and vinegar in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the salad: Place the kale in a large serving bowl. About 10 minutes before serving, add the dressing to taste and toss to coat evenly. Add the fennel, radishes, jalapeños, scallion, cheese and almonds, tossing to incorporate.

Serve immediately.

Laura Bush’s green beans with anchovy butter

Serves 8

Instead of green bean casserole, this alternative became a mainstay on the Bush holiday table. Recipe adapted from the Washington Post.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 or 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed, well-drained

2 pounds green beans, trimmed

Chopped almonds for garnish

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the anchovies (to taste) and cook, stirring until the anchovies fall apart and the mixture turns into a smooth paste, about 4 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat.

Have ready a large bowl of ice water. Bring an inch of water to a boil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Set a steamer basket in the pot, add the beans, cover the pot and steam for 7 to 10 minutes or until the beans are just tender. Immediately transfer the beans to the ice water to cool rapidly. At this point, if desired, you can pat the beans dry, wrap them in paper towels, then place them in plastic bags and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve, return the beans to the large pot over low heat. (If they have been refrigerated, let them sit at room temperature for a half-hour or so.) Add the anchovy butter and use tongs to toss the beans for 1 to 2 minutes or until the beans are warmed and evenly coated in the butter. Transfer to a warmed serving dish and serve right away, topped with chopped almonds, if desired.