Much has been said about how our current President eats ketchup with steak—but let’s take today to reflect on the culinary preferences of a past president, one who apparently ate ketchup with cottage cheese for breakfast (I’m not sure which of those is more messed up). With America’s current state of political turmoil leaving our brains more and more warped by each day’s horrors, we often don’t take time to reflect on the fact that plenty of other presidents were, in fact, Not Great either—and Trump certainly isn’t the first commander-in-chief with a questionable diet.
Consider that the fairly innocuous James Garfield apparently loved squirrel soup, while enthusiast of racist policy Andrew Jackson liked a dish called “leather britches” (that actually sounds better than its name suggests). But for now we’ll consider Richard Nixon, who was born on this day in 1913.
Before 45, Nixon was 37, eater of the ketchup curds. While Watergate remains Nixon’s ultimate legacy, let the former President also be remembered for his food habits—some of which are weird, others intriguing, and all of them a distinct look at an era of cottage cheese, meatloaf, and California dreaming.
A typical day in the Nixon White House, according to the Nixon Library, started with fresh fruit, wheat germ, coffee, and yes, cottage cheese topped with ketchup or black pepper. Wheat germ has fallen out of favor compared to more contemporary “healthy” grains like hemp and flaxseeds, but in previous decades, its high fiber content made it the OG buzzy breakfast topping.
Horrors of ketchup aside, cottage cheese was considered an absolute staple in the 1970s. While Henry Haller, former White House executive chef and author of The White House Family Cookbook, personally doubted the ketchup topping, he wrote that the “‘recipe’ became rather popular with the dieting American Public.” For the past many years, cottage cheese’s place in the dairy aisle has been overshadowed by yogurt and sour cream, but its popularity is on the up and up again, so you can imitate those confusing, pseudo-savory Nixon breakfasts to your heart’s content.
The Nixons are said to have loved cottage cheese so much that, on the night of Nixon’s inauguration, a member of the White House kitchen crew had to drive around in search of cottage cheese to satisfy the president’s requested dinner of four steaks and a bowl of cottage cheese.
For lunch, according to The White House Family Cookbook, Nixon opted for cold foods like cucumber mousse, cold poached salmon, and gazpacho. That habit of chilled, meaty foods was very au courant, as the 1970s were a time when gelatin-encased meats called aspics and jiggly fish mousse really got their shine. There was also, apparently, a creation called “spicy pepperoni salad.” Sadly, there aren’t any Nixon-specific recipes for pepperoni salad floating around the internet, but that may be a dish best left to the imagination.
Dinner, for the Nixons, cycled between options like the ever-popular lasagna and spaghetti; boiled corned beef and cabbage; and, once a month, Mrs. Nixon’s meatloaf. Haller says the President’s love of meatloaf was overblown in the media, but once his meatloaf habit was public knowledge, the White House received so many requests for the recipe that it was eventually circulated. The recipe looks… pretty standard, but if there’s anything we can conclude about the 1970s, it’s that people loved cottage cheese and meats shaped in molds.
Dinner is said to have ended with fruits flown in from California and Florida. The Nixon family favorite of “baked grapefruit” seems sort of like a waste of those far-flung fruits, but alas, a different era, one when any and all fruits were cooked to death. The Nixons were from California, so their continued affection for citrus was only natural. Plus, this was right around the time that California cuisine was really finding its footing—Nixon was President from 1969 until his resignation in 1974, and the pioneering restaurant of the genre, Chez Panisse, opened in 1971.
Sometimes food history makes you want to eat the foods of the past; other times, it makes you glad that cooled, gelled meats and cottage cheese are no longer menu staples. That said, if you want a remembrance worthy of the first American President to ever resign, go ahead—glug out a little ketchup on your curds.