Jackie Kennedy took her breakfast in bed. Every morning, a White House butler brought a tray of toast with honey, orange juice, and coffee with skim milk. For lunch, the first lady had a cup of broth and a slim sandwich (which, on occasion, was grilled cheese.) Her dinner of choice? Cold poached salmon, followed by lamb with potatoes, string beans, and ice cream.
John also ate toast—but with marmalade, accompanied by boiled or poached eggs. It’s a breakfast habit he continued quite literally until the day he died: It was his final meal on the morning of November 22, 1963, hours before his assassination in Dallas, Texas.
The presidential couple’s dietary habits are described in fascinating detail in the new book by Alex Prud’homme, Dinner With the President: Food, Politics, and a History of Breaking Bread at the White House. Over 482 pages, Prud’homme examines what, exactly, each president and first lady ate—as well as how that reflected the larger ideals of their leadership. As a politician highly aware of optics, Franklin D. Roosevelt regularly ate leftovers to portray himself as an everyman’s epicurean during the Great Depression. (Although he didn’t exactly love doing it: “Do you remember that about a month ago I got sick of chicken because I got it…at least six times a week?” he wrote to his wife in a letter.) Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, meanwhile, maintained his “tough guy” reputation by regularly enjoying hearty meats like grilled steak, wild game, and fried chicken as he established the National Forest Service and established five new national parks. (He also drank his coffee black.)
The Kennedys, Prud’homme found, were some of the greatest gourmands the White House had ever seen. “A Francophile, Mrs. Kennedy modeled her soirees on the court of Louis XIV, where the Sun King used a heady blend of politics, food, and culture to assert himself as Europe’s leading 17th-century monarch,” he writes. “Fine dining was central to her vision, and the Kennedys proved to be the greatest presidential epicures since Thomas Jefferson.”
Key to her vision? Hiring famed French chef René Verdon. He elevated the culinary standards of the White House: At a 1962 dinner for Nobel Prize winners, the Kennedys served a menu that included a seafood mousse appetizer decorated with morel mushrooms and lobster, beef Wellington, and bombe Caribienne (Tahitian vanilla ice cream with pineapple, rum, coconut milk, and cinnamon). For JFK’s 1963 birthday dinner, Jackie planned a meal that included crabmeat ravigote, noodle casserole, asparagus hollandaise, and roast beef fillet, all accompanied with 1955 Dom Pérignon.
That’s not to say John and Jackie Kennedy eschewed American dishes all together: They made sure that, during diplomatic dinners, California wine from Napa or Sonoma was served. The president occasionally indulged in crabmeat from Miami’s Joe’s Stone Crab (usually picked and flown up by his father, Joe). His favorite meal, however? A bowl of classic New England clam chowder. Turns out there was very varied cuisine in Camelot.