This is what historians wait for: the delicious little stories that take years to come out. Former White House executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier spent 25 years working for five administrations, and -- now departed from 1600 Pennsylvania Av. -- can finally share his insider tales about life in the presidential kitchen.
Mesnier spoke Friday at the annual Washington Winter Show, an antiques showcase, He affectionately dished for an hour about his old bosses, including Barbara Bush, who shouted a lot and insisted on dry, overcooked fish, and Bill Clinton, who in his pre-vegan days would polish off five or six pork chops without batting an eye.
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Rosalynn Carter, who hired the French chef in 1980, had a family recipe she insisted be added to White House buffets: a molded cheese ring.
"That thing was so nasty," Mesnier told the crowd. "It was a mixture of Muenster, cheddar, all the stickiest cheese you could find, mixed with onions, capers, and strawberry jam in the middle. ... It was a secret family recipe that no one tried to steal."
And believe it or not, he claimed, the Carters "did not care for peanuts at all."
Nancy Reagan's arrival in 1981 had the kitchen staff fearing for their jobs -- the incoming first lady, they'd heard, was "hell on wheels." Mesnier said he quickly realized it was "Nancy's way or the highway. And I like that, to be honest with you. ... Forget about compliments -- if she didn't complain, that was a compliment. But I loved her to death. She was a perfectionist."
For one September dinner in the Rose Garden, Nancy directed the staff to wire hundreds of fresh roses onto the bare bushes. She also gave Mesnier strict orders never to give her husband chocolate. But when she was out of town, Ronnie got his favorite meal: steak, mac-and-cheese and a big bowl of chocolate mousse. "That was a very happy man," Mesnier recalled.
All food gifts sent to the first family, even by close friends, are destroyed for security reasons. A couple of weeks after his historic trip to Washington, Mikhail Gorbachev sent a large package to the White House. Mesnier and the executive chef were the only ones on duty when the head usher walked the box into the kitchen and ordered it dumped. The cooks opened the box to find two massive tins of Russian caviar.
"I looked at the other chef and said: 'I don't know about you, buddy, but I'm willing to die for what's inside. So I'm taking one home, and you can have the other one,'" Mesnier recalled.