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The Evolution Of The Presidential Thanksgiving (Feat. Cooked Possum)


Another part of our American Thanksgiving heritage is turkey.

ADRIENNE LAFRANCE: How many presidents eat turkey? That is a good question, and I suspect all of them. Certainly, it's a mainstay.

SHAPIRO: Adrienne LaFrance spent a little time looking at the history of Thanksgiving dinner at the White House and wrote up her findings in The Atlantic. Welcome to the show.

LAFRANCE: Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your opening line of this story is looking back at decades of Thanksgiving menus at the White House is fascinating and frankly, a little gross. Gross is not the word I would've expected there.

LAFRANCE: Right. I mean, and to each his own. But the thing that stood out to me and to a lot of our readers was for President Taft, who, at one point, served a 26-pound possum. They had a turkey, too (laughter).

SHAPIRO: They also had a turkey. So the possum wasn't necessarily stuffed?

LAFRANCE: Right. And they also had a 50-pound mince pie that year, so plenty to eat, evidentially.

SHAPIRO: How did you find all of these menus?

LAFRANCE: Well, I went back to a couple of different sources, mainly through old news clippings. So I relied a lot on The New York Times archive. They have a great online archive. And there's just tons of interesting and sort of, like, strange stuff buried in there.

SHAPIRO: And was turkey the common thread through all these decades?

LAFRANCE: I think so. I didn't find any year where there wasn't turkey so - and there was often the much mention of turkey. There's a lot of pumpkin pie, stuffing of different variety. But there was a lot of different stuff, too. Like, I mentioned in the article that - that many of the dishes really reflect the era in which they're served. So, you know, Lyndon Johnson had molded cranberry, which seems very '60s to me.

SHAPIRO: Let's not confuse this with moldy cranberry. We're talking about a jello mold.

LAFRANCE: (Laughter) Right. Right, exactly. And Nancy Reagan often served monkey bread. That was her famous thing in the '80s.

SHAPIRO: What is monkey bread?

LAFRANCE: So it's - there are actually a lot of different recipes. I learned about this as well in my reporting. Mrs. Reagan's recipe was known for being a sort of more elegant brioche-like variety of monkey bread. But you'll often see it in pastry shops or bakeries. It's - it can be really gooey, very sweet, very delicious.

SHAPIRO: Oh, is it like a tower that you pull apart?

LAFRANCE: Yeah, you, like, pull it apart in little bite-size pieces. I have no idea where the monkeys come in. The - the quote I found from Nancy Reagan was that it's called monkey bread because you have to monkey around with it. So there you go.

SHAPIRO: OK, so turkey, pumpkin pie all across the decades. What were a couple of the more unusual things, besides the aforementioned possum?

LAFRANCE: That's a good question. There was - in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt served terrapin of some kind. So I don't know if it was soup...

SHAPIRO: Like a turtle?

LAFRANCE: Right (laughter) like a turtle, so that was interesting. He, of course, is known for his hunting. So I think that probably factored into the menu, presumably.

SHAPIRO: How does the Obama's White House menu compare to all the others that you look at?

LAFRANCE: I think the thing that has stuck out to me among the menus when you look at the Obama's is the pie selections. So there's this - you know, President Obama has said how much he likes pie. And so I went and looked back. Over the course of his presidency, they've served six - at least six every Thanksgiving. Once - one year they had nine. But if you look at all the pies they've had, it has included huckleberry, pecan, peach, apple, chocolate cream, sweet potato, pumpkin, cherry, coconut and banana cream. So a very (laughter) - quite a spread there. But I'm sure they're delicious. They're known to be really delicious, actually.

SHAPIRO: That's Adrienne LaFrance, who writes for The Atlantic. Thanks for joining us and happy Thankgiving.

LAFRANCE: Happy Thanksgiving to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.