For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with encyclopedias. What can I say? I love information. We had a set (a few sets, actually) when I was younger, and one of my favorite things to do (I’m showing my nerd here) was to think of something I wanted to know and head to those spectacularly weighty books to locate the answer to my question.
I still do that, only now, it’s via Google or Wikipedia. I ask questions of it in the way that a certain soon-to-be 5-year-old asks me things. What do birds eat besides worms? How much does Canada weigh? Why don’t I see wooly bear caterpillars and fireflies as much as I used to? Things like that: the internet has answers for everything. And I’m on a never-ending quest to know everything.
The other day, I realized it was almost John F. Kennedy’s birthday; today, May 29th. So I googled, naturally. Who celebrates his birthday? The JFK presidential library, but do any states celebrate him? Missouri doesn’t (although we do seem to have holidays devoted to Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, the latter of which is a Missouri native), no surprise there, but how about Massachusetts? Great big nope, people: not even a state holiday devoted to JFK. I got momentarily angry reading their state holidays list, as it included “Patriots Day” and I thought “WOW; that’s pretty insulting to celebrate a dang football team and NOT one of the best presidents EVER,” but as it turns out, Patriots’ Day is actually held to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. Thanks again, Wikipedia; you saved Massachusetts a nasty letter addressing the commonwealth’s questionable priorities.
So I thought I’d celebrate it: Thankfully I have this cookbook in my possession; pick it up if you ever see it hanging out in a thrift store, as I did.
Published in 1972 (my edition), it’s a detailed account of what presidents and first ladies liked to eat – from Washington to Nixon – including tons of recipes based on particular preferences. Sometimes the book pits similar recipes against each other, like Coolidge’s Corn Muffins versus JFK’s hot cheese corn bread versus Lucy Hayes’ corn bread, and so on; such drama! It gives you a little insider information you wouldn’t normally read about, like how Mamie Eisenhower was borderline obsessed with serving a pineapple-mint-gelatin concoction called “Mamie’s Frosted Mint Delight” at every opportunity, or why Winston Churchill was afraid to drink water, opting mostly for Scotch and soda, or sometimes brandy (he had traveled to India as a child and was afraid to drink water; that fear carried into adulthood. How convenient, Winston.) Additionally, there are tons of menus from formal dinners and luncheons to wander through. Ever wonder what President Nixon served to at the Informal Lunch to Honor Nicolae Ceausescu, President the Council of State of the Republic of Romania, and Mrs. Ceausescu? I know the answer to that, and it’s in this book.
Needless to say, it’s an addictive read, with fascinating recipes along the way. There’s a chapter in it on the Kennedy family which notes that although JFK loved very New England-ish, simple fare, Jackie preferred French. Although Jackie seemed to win out at dinner parties and events, John’s tastes prevailed during family dinners. I imagine any Kennedy knows what’s up in terms of classic northeastern food, and one of his favorites was fish chowder. I’m particularly fond of fish chowder, especially in the summer; something about that sea smell makes me happy, and let’s be honest, I spend mostly the entire summer pretending on some level that I’m in Nantucket. It’s true.
To honor the great President John F. Kennedy, gone too soon, I offer up his favorite fish chowder, straight from the source. It’s everything a fish chowder should be: delicate fish that get all fragrant on you when simmering, cubed potatoes, a little onion and celery, some bacon fat, all of it. I’ve added one thing which I really think every fish chowder should have: a little snap of fresh sweet corn, which I can’t resist in summer. The smell of this simmering on your stove is phenomenal, and it’ll take you right to the beach, if only in your mind. And because JFK liked to keep it simple, it’s basically a one-pot situation: sure, you have to poach the fish in a separate thing, but that’s nothing: you can do the entire chowder in a deep 12-inch skillet.
Happy Birthday, JFK.
Adapted, ever so slightly, from A Treasury of White House Cooking by François Rysavy, as told to Frances Spats Leighton.
President Kennedy’s New England Fish Chowder
Serves 6 to 8
- 1 lb sturdy white fish (I used cod, but you could use haddock or flounder also)
- 2 cups water
- 2 strips thick-cut bacon, diced, plus more for garnish (1 strip per person is a nice amount to have on-hand)*
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 2 Russet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup celery, small dice
- 2 ears sweet yellow corn, kernels stripped from cobs, cobs discarded
- 1 fresh bay leaf
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups whole milk
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- salt and pepper, to taste
If you’re making extra bacon, don’t crisp it all at once; it’s going to make a lot more bacon fat than you need. Rather, crisp your garnish bacon beforehand and warm it to serve over the chowder. Also: if you don’t have a 12-inch deep skillet, throw the whole thing into a stock pot at the point where you add the liquids.
In a large saucepan, simmer fish 12 to 15 minutes over medium-low heat until tender but cooked through. Drain; reserve broth.
Heat a deep 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add 2 strips bacon; cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside, reserving fat in the pan. Add onions to pan and cook on medium until golden brown and lightly caramelized around edges. Add potatoes, celery, and corn; stir together. Add fish, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and reserved broth (approximately 2 cups), adding more water as needed to cover ingredients (approximately 1 additional cup water, or fish stock, if you have it.) Bring to a light boil and reduce heat; simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Add milk and butter, stirring to incorporate. Increase heat and bring to a boil once again, then simmer for 5 to 10 more minutes. Season to taste and garnish with crisped bacon; serve immediately.