In the opening scene of the musical Oliver!, the orphan boys are served a meal of gruel, then watch hungrily as the well-fed gentlemen who administer the workhouse tuck into a luxurious repast of Food, Glorious Food. I love that movie, and all the songs in it, as much as I love a good meal – possibly more, given that good movies, unlike good meals, have no calories.
I haven’t watched Oliver! in years, but I thought of it recently, when I made Richard Nixon’s Chicken Casserole. Good food was not unknown in 1968, the year in which Nixon was elected, and though I can’t attest to this fact from personal knowledge – I was born in 1968, and not yet able to eat even my mother’s notoriously terrible food – I submit the Food Glorious Food movie sequence as evidence. Good food existed, and was being paraded in front of movie orphans that year.
Why, then, was Nixon eating that casserole?
What is the point of being leader of the free world if you’re stuck eating bad food?
As leader of the free world, wouldn’t Nixon have had both knowledge of what might be considered good food, as well as the ability to arrange some for himself?
It occurred to me that perhaps there was some correlation between the quality of leadership, and the quality of the food they ate – you know, garbage in, garbage out. With this in mind, I sought out a recipe from another notoriously bad president, and U.S. history being what it is, had no difficulty finding one.
Herbert Hoover, to the best of my recollection, was the president who promised voters a chicken in every pot if elected, and delivered instead the Great Depression (oops). The Depression was hardly his fault – he was elected in 1928 and the stock market collapse occurred the following year – but it occurred on his watch, and to describe his handling of the crisis as poor is to be generous. He rejected the idea that government intervention could help, and some of the steps he did take, such as signing the Smoot-Hawley Act, only served to make matters worse.
I thought I knew it all about Hoover, but after a bit more research, I uncovered a far more complex picture. Hoover’s World War One record was probably the most interesting and unexpected reading: As chairman of the Commission for Relief of Belgium, he obtained and distributed millions of tons of food, negotiating with the Germans to allow food shipments. When the United States entered the war, he became head of the U.S. Food Administration, securing the nation’s food supply, and when the war ended, the USFA became the American Relief Administration, which Hoover continued to head, and which provided food to millions in central and eastern Europe. He headed a similar program after the second World War, providing food to school children in post-war Germany.
It is no small irony that the man who is today remembered for failing to put a chicken in every pot was, in his day, widely known for securing a food supply for millions of people.
My book of historical and presidential recipes – Eating with Uncle Sam – contains a number of chicken recipes, but rather disappointingly, there isn’t a Herbert Hoover chicken recipe among them. Instead, the book contains a cookie recipe from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library – for the rather unusual-sounding Sour Cream Cookies. So, I gave them a try.
The recipe is a bit oddly written, in that it doesn’t actually tell the cook when the key ingredient, sour cream, should be added. I resolved that by simply adding it in the order listed in the ingredients, which worked out fine. I expected a slight sourness to the cookies, but there was none at all. The cookies turned out soft and moist, almost like little cakes, with a delicate flavor of vanilla and brown sugar. They could be frosted, as the recipe suggests, with a bit of vanilla frosting, or anything, really – but they are lovely on their own, simple and the perfect complement to any beverage they are served with.
It’s a nice recipe, easy to make on a moment’s notice, requiring no unusual ingredients, no significant effort, and no pre-planning from the cook. In that sense, it’s similar to the Nixon recipe, which also relies on ingredients the average cook would have on hand. But the Hoover recipe stands apart, in using fresh ingredients – and the resulting cookie is one that I liked enough to make several times, for different occasions, and for just having around the house when someone wants a cookie.
- ½ lb unsalted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 cup sour cream
- 3 cups flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp baking powder
- Preheat over to 375° F.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugars until light, then add the eggs and beat another two minutes on medium speed. Add vanilla and sour cream, and mix until thoroughly incorporated.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. Add to the other ingredients in the mixing bowl, beating another minute or two, until incorporated.
- Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes, or until cookies are lightly golden on the top and spring back when touched.