Sunday, June 15, 2014

Death of a kitchen calamity

June 16, 2014, commemorates the fifty-one-year anniversary of the death of the White House's most infamously terrible cook, a wonderfully strong and wilful woman who inspired my second novel, The President's Lunch (releases end of July). Her name was Henrietta Nesbitt.

Henrietta Nesbitt at the White House (photo: Duluth Public Library)

I first read about Henrietta in an article titled 'FDR’s Anti-epicurean White House' (see it here) on the Gourmet magazine website. The feature, written by Laura Shapiro, told the story of the twelve-year war America’s 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt waged with his housekeeper. In the eyes of the foodie President, who navigated the United States through the Great Depression and World War Two, she was almost as formidable as the FΓΌhrer himself, Adolf Hitler.

Dictatorial in her manner and wretched in her cooking know-how, the hapless housekeeper bombarded the President’s dining room with the worst meals the White House has ever seen. So notorious were her skills (or lack of…) as a chef, writer Ernest Hemingway advised dinner guests to grab a sandwich before dining at the White House. I have cooked a few of Mrs Nesbitt’s recipes and I must say that Hemingway’s advice was worth listening to.

The obvious thought that came to me when I read the story was why didn’t FDR simply fire Mrs Nesbitt?

Apparently, Eleanor Roosevelt was an extremely reluctant First Lady. To soften the move into the White House, Franklin offered Eleanor complete control over the housekeeping staff.

Henrietta Nesbitt (left) & Eleanor Roosevelt (photo: Library of Congress)

Mrs Nesbitt, who had no formal training as a housekeeper or a cook, was hired by the First Lady who was an old friend and wanted to help Henrietta and her husband Henry (I know!), who had fallen on hard times during the Depression.

Consequently, if anybody was going to sack Mrs Nesbitt, it would have to be Eleanor. But Eleanor was not a great admirer of the culinary arts and viewed food as fuel rather than something that could also give great pleasure.

I own this cookbook and I can tell you, Henrietta is not exactly Jamie Oliver!

So essentially Henrietta Nesbitt was the woman behind the woman behind the man.

If you have an appetite for more info about Henrietta, click hereIn the meantime, what’s the most disappointing meal you’ve ever cooked or eaten?

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