reagan repast

~ This is the third in a series of posts about Presidential Food

“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jelly beans.”  ~ Ronald Reagan

Weren’t they a beautiful couple?

The Reagans brought elegance, glamour and a degree of formality to the White House. Over the course of 8 years, they supposedly entertained about 75,500 guests per year, including seven kings, three queens, thirteen princes, and seventy-seven prime ministers. Not to mention all those movie stars.

Private dinner for Prince Charles (1981), President’s Dining Room

With the expertise of White House Executive Chef Henry Haller and Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, Nancy orchestrated many, many finely tuned, exquisite private and official State Dinners, luncheons and teas. 

Tea with Charles and Diana (1985)

The President had a sweet tooth, always taking a large serving of dessert, and then having seconds. He loved honey-baked apples and chocolate. Nancy took great pride in their “dessert dinners,” constantly challenging the Chefs to create new dishes that were light (fruit oriented), sophisticated, and pleasing to the eye. 

But sweets aside, Nancy was very diligent about ensuring that the Great Communicator had a balanced, nutritious, and healthful diet — a natural concern given his age when he was elected (69), and his later bout with colon cancer. She favored fresh, seasonal ingredients, especially salads made with fruits and vegetables native to California, and whenever guests were present, they were usually treated to some of the President’s favorite California wines.

Nancy checks on dessert with Chefs Mesnier and Haller

For both State and private dinners, Nancy was involved in all aspects of planning. She was particular and exacting, requesting a new dessert for each function, approving the presentation of dishes via Polaroid photos, sometimes even stepping into the kitchen to check on a fancy platter or celebratory dessert at the last minute.

Often, she and the President pre-tested menu suggestions for approval, and for especially important gatherings, the kitchen did a dry run with scaled down portions. Everything was carefully orchestrated and perfect. Chef Haller called her a “sophisticated diner with an artist’s eye for visual appeal.” Her refined sense of style helped set the White House stage for the presentation of truly grande cuisine.

State Dinner with PM Nakasone of Japan (1987)

But what did the Reagans like to eat when they kicked back and dined together “above the store,” or relaxed at Camp David or their California ranch?

The Reagans enjoy their TV trays while watching the news (1981)


Thanksgiving with Maureen Reagan at Rancho Del Cielo (1981)

Despite the fact that as President he could request anything he desired, Ronald Reagan actually liked simple, plain, homestyle food. He hailed from the Midwest and never lost his appetite for family favorites such as macaroni and cheese, steak and chili, pizza, meat loaf and hamburger soup. He has been described as easy to please, equally enthusiastic over French cuisine that took hours to prepare as he was with a good helping of lentil soup with sliced frankfurters.

A typical breakfast for him consisted of bran cereal, skim milk, fresh fruit, and decaf coffee. Once a week, a single egg, poached, soft-boiled or scrambled, with whole wheat toast or a bran muffin. For lunch in the Oval office, he loved a bowl of soup, bread, and a fruit dessert.

Lunch in the Oval Office on their 35th wedding anniversary (1987)

So where did those jelly beans come from? He started eating them while trying to quit smoking. They quickly became known as the “First Candy,” and 2.3 million of them were consumed by guests at his first inauguration.

Has all this talk of homestyle food got you salivating? Here’s the recipe for Ronald Reagan’s Favorite Homemade Chili, which I served when my parents were visiting. I added the optional red wine (of course), and noted that it’s a less tomato-y chili than what I usually make. Still, it definitely made me sit up and take notice. Hot stuff!

(serves 16)

1/2 cup bacon drippings
2 cups chopped onions
4 chopped garlic cloves
2 pounds coarsely ground beef
2 T chili powder
2 cups red wine (optional)
1 T salt
1 T beef base
4 cups canned whole tomatoes, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 T granulated sugar
4 cups cooked pinto beans

Using a 1-1/2 gallon heavy pot, melt bacon drippings. When hot, saute onions and garlic cloves. Add ground beef and chili powder. Stir until meat is well browned. Add red wine. Add salt, beef base, tomatoes, bay leaf and sugar. Simmer chili meat, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring often.

Add pinto beans to the meat. Simmer for one hour, covered over low heat, stirring gently from time to time. Test for flavor.

More Reagan favorites:

Hamburger Soup (R&N brought frozen packets of this with them when they first moved into the White House)
Monkey Bread (perfect while watching “Bedtime for Bonzo”)
Macaroni and Cheese (made especially for the President while he was recovering in the hospital)


All photos courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Fabulous anecdotes and recipes can be found in Chef Henry Haller’s excellent book, The White House Family Cookbook (Random House, 1987), which details his culinary experiences through five administrations — Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.

Details about the Reagan sweet tooth from All the President’s Pastries by Chef Roland Mesnier (Flammarion, 2007).

Don’t miss this treasure of a book: Politics and Pot Roast, by Sarah Hood Salomon (Bright Sky Press, 2006) — a delightful collection of quotes, anecdotes and recipes from all our Presidents, from George Washington to George W. Bush.

“What I’d really like to do is go down in history as the President who made Americans believe in themselves again.” ~ Ronald Reagan

6 thoughts on “reagan repast

  1. Ahhh, don’t you just love the elegance, the color, the details … and the food!
    I don’t need to pull out any of my cookbooks, I just need Jama’s Alphabet Soup! The Reagans’ Hamburger Soup recipe will be a new favorite with the guys around our house.


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