It's Christmas, which means it's time for the traditional meal of ... no clear tradition at all. Even if you live in the White House.
"While Thanksgiving's traditional foods are spot-welded onto our cortices, Christmas' menu seems to get a "You Do You" pass every year," Rebecca Orchant of the Huffington Post wrote last year.
Wikipedia's struggle to succinctly summarize American Christmas cuisine drives home the flexible nature of this holiday meal:
The centerpiece of a sit-down meal varies on the tastes of the host but can be ham, roast beef, or goose, particularly since turkey is the mainstay at dinner for the American holiday of Thanksgiving ... Virginia has oysters, ham pie, and fluffy biscuits ... The Upper Midwest includes dishes from predominantly Scandinavian backgrounds such as lutefisk and mashed rutabaga or turnip. In some rural areas, game meats like elk, opossum or quail may grace the table ..."
Nice try, but that sounds about as predictable as any other dinner.
There's no blueprint for a traditional American Christmas dinner — except that it often looks a lot like Thanksgiving dinner with a twist. This is probably why Mental Floss' Adrienne Crezo, when she sifted through the White House Cookbook and digital archives to dig up Christmas dinner menus, came up with a list that included, in addition to turkey, just about every kind of protein (including a lot of oysters), and several dishes that simply defied categorization. Here's how a handful of presidents throughout history have done the holiday meal.
One year, the Obamas went for steak — definitely not on anyone's list of traditional Christmas fare. They've also gone somewhat more predictable, with a meal of turkey, string beans and dressing, with a heavy focus on macaroni and cheese. In 2012, the first lady told Today correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, "This is the time when I throw ‘Let's Move' out the window for a moment, and get that mac and cheese. Everybody deserves their mac and cheese."
George W. Bush
In 2007, the Bushes met up at Camp David and ate a pretty simple meal: turkey, dressing, green beans, sweet potatoes, fruit salad, rolls, and pumpkin and pecan pies. But they put a twist on dessert: red velvet cake.
In 1993, the Clintons ate both turkey and ham, two kinds of stuffing, and a few other predicable sides. But there was also sort of a gelatinous/fruity theme: they had a cranberry mold and ambrosia.
Oh, and don't forget the olives.
As a bonus, there was a not-exactly classic Christmas presentation of a relish tray with green onions and watermelon pickles.
In 1973, the Nixons gathered with just a few family and friends, some turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce — basically, Thanksgiving dinner, again — but they're excused. After all, the president had a lot going on at the time.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
In 1960, the first family's dinner included a 42-pound turkey ... and an entire gallon of oysters.
Harry S. Truman
The Trumans apparently skipped the rolls in keeping with the national food conservation program in 1947. But, they made up for the absence of bread with some unique additions. Like tomato consommé. And curled celery.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
For the first Christmas since combatants had been sent to fight in World War II, the first family — along with guest of honor Winston Churchill — had a slightly pared-down menu that included turkey and dressing, potatoes, but also some apparently Great Depression-themed sides: "clear soup" and "thin toast. Festive.
In 1907, in addition to whatever else the Roosevelts were planning for their Christmas feast, they reportedly received a shipment from Helen Longstreet, a postmistress in Gainesville, Georgia. After hand-feeding a pair of possums for months — "mostly persimmons" — Longstreet delivered them to the White House in a box inscribed with "These o'possums surrendered near the Wren's Nest, Atlanta, both contending smilingly for the honor of furnishing the Christmas dinner for the American Prince and his family."
In 1887, Grover Cleveland and his family ate a very hearty and eclectic meal that included:
- Oysters on the half shell
- Game soup
- Boiled fish
- Roast goose
- Lobster salad
- Plum pudding
- Vanilla ice cream
- Mince pie
- Salted almonds
The first president went with the "eat everything" concept, too. In 1790, his family was served turkey, ham, stuffing, beef, Yorkshire pudding, and variety of vegetables. This probably would have been sufficient, but then they also had all this:
- Onion soup
- Oysters (again!)
- Broiled herring
- Roast suckling pig
- Jellied plums
No word on what exactly "snowballs" are. They may have never been seen at the White House before or again, for all we know. Bottom line: If you want to have Christmas dinner like a president, eat whatever the hell you want.