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Presidential pot pie
Local chef serves up some fun stories from his days at the White House
The Kennedys requested quenelles de brochet (creamed fish). The Johnsons wanted barbecue and chili. The Nixon family preferred meatloaf. The Fords ate all-American. The Carters called for down-home Southern-style suppers. And a health-conscious Nancy regulated the amount of monkey bread Ronald Reagan would consume.
The next three Presidents were treated to Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies thanks to Lancaster chef John Moeller.Moeller rose from the classrooms of Willow Street Vo-Tech to the halls of the White House, where he cooked for both Bush administrations and the Clintons. He introduced the most powerful world leaders to Lancaster County chicken pot pie, and nearly put Dick Cheney in the Oval Office with a pretzel.
“The pretzel that the president choked on back in 2002, I have to be honest with you, that was me, I was behind that one,” said Moeller, who spoke to a packed house at the Lititz Public Library last Saturday. “A pretzel that President Bush choked on, he was watching football at the time, was from Hammond’s Pretzels. It caused quite a stir in the media. I used to bring pretzels and snacks up there, starting with the Clintons. They wanted some snack food on the second floor on a daily basis that weren’t bowls of potato chips. The pretzels started going fast and I couldn’t keep them up there. For all the times I visited my folks up in Lancaster near Hamilton Watch, Elm Street area, I’d always stop by and pick up a bag and take them up to the second floor of the White House. Chelsea especially enjoyed them.”
And then there’s pot pie, a local standard that may have never infiltrated the White House kitchen had it not been for Moeller.
“I made chicken pot pie, like we do here locally, on a cold winter’s night for President Clinton,” said Moeller. “He looked at me above his glasses and he said, ‘John, this is the kind of food I like!’ Mrs. Clinton was standing there and said, ‘Let’s make a few biscuits with this next time.’ When George W. Bush came in, it was the exact same story. ‘John, this is the kind of food I like!’ Comfort food is comfort food for either side.”
These were the stories Moeller shared Saturday while promoting his book, “Dining at the White House.” His visit last weekend was part of the Lititz Historical Foundation’s 2014 Winter Lecture Series.
Moeller graduated from Willow Street and climbed an unlikely ladder to become one of the first American chefs in the White House.
“I started working at age 15 at Franklin & Marshall College, cleaning up and being a dish washer,” he said.
He went on to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island for culinary arts, graduating in 1981. After that he apprenticed as a chef in the Burgundy and Brittany regions of France. In 1992, he moved into the White House as a sous-chef (second in command). He cooked for George H. W. Bush near the end of his administration, through the Clinton years and into the George W. Bush presidency, until his retirement from D.C. in 2005. Now he runs a catering business called State of Affairs on East Frederick Street in Lancaster.
The captivated audience on Saturday wanted to know, more than anything, “What do Presidents eat?”
The 19th century epicure (“foodie” would most likely upset the Parisian), Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
Finding out who the Presidents were by their food choices is not easy. If you’ve gotten married or been to weddings, the menu shows only part of the bride and groom’s personalities. You sit down and the dinner is sometimes a surprise. Similarly, the President’s favorite meal is not always what is served in the White House because it’s a public place. What our Presidents eat on their own is part family heritage, personal preference and health consciousness.
“It’s pulling back the curtain on their lives. They might be the leader of the free world, but they eat like you and me,” said Moeller, whose book reveals an intimate, human view of the First Families from a unique vantage point – the kitchen.
And it’s not just a book for foodies, but also for White House enthusiasts and history buffs. How our American royalty hosts dignitaries at state dinners, celebrities showing up in the kitchen, the day of 9/11 with the sudden cancellation of a Congressional picnic, increased security measures, and more than 100 recipes which Chef Moeller personally created for formal events and family gatherings are all in there.
Some stories will remain secrets with Chef Moeller, but even the tales that are safe for sharing are captivating.
For example, it may come as no surprise that Jackie Kennedy brought an air of continental sophistication to the White House, but the stuffiness has eased since the ‘60s.
“One thing that carried over from her time was what she instituted through her style of service,” said Moeller. “We would start with a fish course, a meat course, and do a salad course with cheese after the entrée, and then dessert. This is a European style of eating. They like eating salad after the entrée because it has liquid content; they feel it helps aid in digestion. Most nice functions were usually four courses like that.”
But elegance wasn’t always a priority.
“President Bush, George W. Bush, especially when he eats by himself, if he starts at 7, he’s done by 7:05.”
Whether these recent First Families knew it or not, their diet was influenced by Lancaster County.
Moeller would often visit home and return to Washington, D.C. with fresh ingredients from local farms, such as peaches. Laura Bush loved them in her cereal, so he would stock up on them during Lancaster’s late summer season. Local sweet corn was another White House favorite, and, of course, Hammond’s Pretzels. And even though the Clintons, and later the Bushes, liked Tex-Mex food, especially chicken enchiladas, Moeller would often work in some Pennsylvania Dutch influences.
When asked which are his favorite local restaurants, wondering if it might be The Log Cabin or Lily’s on Main, Moeller said he hadn’t been to either.
“Being a chef, I don’t get out as much as people think because I’m working on weekends and evenings,” he said.
But his stories give the reader the feeling that this local chef has been out and about, and in one of the greatest kitchens of all time.
In between Downton Abbey seasons, “Dining at the White House” will entertain with bits of presidential lore from his memories of life upstairs and downstairs with our royal family. Featuring a foreword by President and Mrs. Clinton, the 400 page hardcover full-color book costs around $35 and is available in downtown Lititz.
Michele Walter Fry welcomes your questions, comments and suggestions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.