When Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady of the United States in the winter of 1933 the Great Depression was at its height. A true believer in the government leading by example, Eleanor introduced economy cooking into the White House. Mrs Roosevelt even worked with the Home Economics department at Cornell University to devise a menu (main course and dessert) that came in at just seven cents per diner! Mrs Roosevelt hired her frugal friend, Henrietta Nesbitt, as housekeeper to spearhead the economy drive.
|Henrietta Nesbitt in 1939|
I have decided to celebrate Mrs Nesbitt, who inspired my novel The President’s Lunch and who plays a small but vital role within that book. To do this I will serve her recipes to my family for the month leading up to the release of the novel. As I have pointed out in a past post, Mrs Nesbitt’s meals were famously terrible. But they were also incredibly cheap, and I’ve been keen to discover whether any of them were any good.
I began with something that felt fairly safe (serving my husband and sons sweetbread and mushroom patties first up might just be taking this celebration a little too far). Here is the recipe:
Henrietta Nesbitt’s Macaroni and Cheese
(The Presidential Cookbook, by Henrietta Nesbitt Doubleday & Company, 1951)
½ pound sharp cheese, cut in small pieces
1 9-ounce package macaroni, broken in pieces
2 cups thick white sauce (see below)
½ teaspoon salt
Gently stir the cheese into the sauce. After it has melted, pour the sauce over the macaroni which has been boiled and placed in a casserole dish and stir lightly but well. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons grated cheese and 2 tablespoons cracker crumbs over top and bake in 350 degree oven 40 minutes. Serves 6.
Thick White Sauce
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk or other liquid
¼ teaspoon salt
Prepare in a double boiler. Melt butter, add flour; blend well; gradually add liquid and salt. Beat constantly until thick. Cook another 10 minutes.
Pasta – 50c
Milk – 25c
Butter – 40c
Flour – 40c
Cheese – $2
Crackers - I used Jatz - 10c
TOTAL COST : $3.65 for six people, or 61c per person!
THE VERDICT: The dish was consumed with gusto. Everybody loved the substitution of cracker crumbs (I used Jatz) for regular bread crumbs - they added saltiness and texture to what would otherwise be a fairly insipid and bland dish. My husband asked for seconds. My fussy-eating eight-year-old licked his plate clean for the first time in living memory. And my eat-anything two-year-old put two of his favourite words together to say, ‘Nice cheese!’.