Candy-Coated Toxic Waste: A Presidential Look at Snacking

Reggie Love, assistant to then-Senator Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, made a mistake on the campaign trail he would never forget, an error so specific and so embarrassing that he recounted it for posterity in his 2015 book Power Forward: My Presidential Education. Yes, it’s precisely what you’re thinking: he offered a classic trail mix to the candidate as a mid-flight snack.

As Love described: “‘The senator opened the bag of trail mix I’d bought and proceeded to pick out every M&M, holding them all in his palm like pieces of candy-coated toxic waste.'” Love learned a lesson the hard way that day: no M&M’s, ever (he would also learn about Senator Obama’s no-mayonnaise policy during an unfortunate soggy sandwich fiasco). There were triumphs too, of course: Mr. Love learned of Obama’s passion for guacamole-smothered nachos, undoubtedly. (More on his food preferences available here.)

Mr. Obama wasn’t the only president with particular food quirks. President Ronald Reagan, for example, requested a 3.5 ton stock of Jelly Belly jelly beans in the White House when he entered office, and 720 bags of the sugary beans were ordered each and every month. In fact, this article suggests that Reagan was responsible for the skyrocketing popularity of Jelly Belly brand beans, as he moved up on the political stage from the role of governor to president. (If you’d like to read a bit more about the history of M&M’s and jelly beans in the White House, I recommend this article.)

There is something to be said for the fascination and humor we find in learning about these qualities that make presidents feel more human than politician. We find them funny, or relatable, or curious; the mundane interests us when it provides a lens into those with historical power. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, provides a unique case study into how public memory engages with even the small tendencies of prominent historical figures.

Thomas Jefferson was another president with a (relatable) sweet tooth: though known as a Declaration of Independence writer and the third president of the United States of America, he was also quite the ice cream devotee. According to internet sources, Thomas Jefferson wrote the first ice cream recipe in the United States. I encourage you to give his original recipe a read, available here. (Perhaps, like me, you’ll find some of the terminology humorous in our modern context).

Ice cream was not accessible then—in a pre-refrigerator and freezer world—as it is now, but Jefferson’s appreciation for the dessert during his time in the White House increased its popularity in the young nation (much like Reagan with Jelly Belly Jelly Beans). Some, in fact, (wrongly) credit Jefferson with bringing ice cream to the United States more generally. Though this is an incorrect assumption, it perhaps speaks to the weight Americans place on the power of their president’s influence, particularly when we think about the Founding Fathers, who are generally particularly romanticized in public memory.

Notably, popular cooking websites still share and celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe. Sites like Taste of Home and The Daily Meal and Kitchn (and other quirkily named culinary speciality internet spaces) tout the way they eagerly tried out Jefferson’s own special recipe, sometimes altering and updating the language to suit modern audiences. (The Daily Meal informs us that the final product sets you back 1079 calories—but perhaps you’ll consider it worth it). 

It is fascinating that many wish to try old and perhaps more cumbersome methods of ice cream preparation as a means of feeling more connected to President Jefferson and/or the time period in which he lived. Why are we interested in forging these sorts of connections? And what do we gain from trying out the old recipes of famous presidents? Perhaps, in our quests to view presidents holistically and carefully, we can consider unconventional aspects of their lives along the way—how they ate their ice cream and M&M’s, for example, and the reasons why that fascinates modern audiences so much.

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