The Eaters in Chief

The federal holiday Americans observe next Monday was originally designed to honor George Washington. But when the government standardized its celebrations in 1968, they stuck the annual commemoration between Washington and Lincoln's birthdays, figuring they might as well lump in Honest Abe. By the 1970s, a dozen states -- including Texas -- made the holiday more inclusive still, renaming it Presidents' Day and saluting all 43 men who'd ever held the office.

Since it's nearly impossible to meditate on the achievements of more than three dozen presidents, City of Ate here offers a list of the five presidents most deserving of gourmands' gratitude on February 21. These five presidents -- a few of whom have been scorned by policy scholars and mocked by thinking voters -- helped change the way Americans eat, or at least made their personal diets a very high priority (such was the case with Chester Arthur, which may be why his name rarely appears on "best of" lists.)

Tomorrow, we'll follow up with a list of five presidents who'll likely be remembered as culinary dunderheads. But first, our favorites:

1. Thomas Jefferson Culinary historian Karen Hess, who would know, has called Jefferson "our only epicurean president." An inveterate gardener, Jefferson grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 kinds of fruit. While Jefferson pinned his democratic visions on farming, he was equally entranced by delicacies that couldn't be wrought from American soil: After sampling his first waffle in Holland, he bought a waffle iron. He imported olive oil from Italy and mustard from France. "Never before had such dinners been given in the President's House," a White House guest reported.

2. William Henry Harrison William Henry Harrison liked to eat beets, but he treated voters to a far better menu. As the "log cabin and hard cider" candidate, Harrison perfected the practice of plying voters with booze. In an effort to spread the rumor that Martin Van Buren -- a serious man who was trying to orchestrate an issues-centered campaign -- was a perfume-wearing blueblood who ate off fancy plates, Harrison and his team invited "all eligible males" to rallies where free cornbread, cheese and hard cider were served. In Wheeling, West Virginia, 30,000 voters devoured 360 hams; 20 calves; 1,500 pounds of beef; 1,000 pounds of cheese; 8,000 pounds of bread and 4,500 pounds of burgoo.

3. Chester Arthur Considered second only to Jefferson in appreciation of fine food, Arthur was renowned for his dinner parties. As a University of Virginia biographical sketch puts it: "He much preferred feasting with his cronies to family life." Now remembered primarily as Vermont's "other president," Arthur loved turtle steaks, eels and oyster pie, and helped cement the relationship between the White House and fine cuisine.

4. William Howard Taft Taft ate partridges, venison and waffles for breakfast, which is probably how he got so big he couldn't free himself from a White House bathtub. But the 300-pounder's most significant contribution to the history of American food and drink was his bourbon decree. After the 1906 Pure Food and Drink Act failed to define whiskey, counterfeiters flooded the market with cheap caramel-colored liquor. Taft listened to six months of arguments from distillers before ruling whiskey comes in three categories: straight, blended and imitation. Sometimes called the "father of modern bourbon," Taft was recently inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame.

5. Richard Nixon Nixon wasn't known for his grand tastes: A fan of pepperoni salad and wheat germ, most Americans remember his purported fondness for cottage cheese with catsup. But he inadvertently launched a revolution in ethnic food when he went to Beijing and ate with Premeir Zhou Enlai. According to Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, Nixon's picking up chopsticks signaled the chow mein era was over.

"It triggered in them an insatiable desire to eat 'authentic' Chinese food," Coe writes. "They didn't want dishes like creamed chipped beef on toast anymore; their taste buds now demanded something spicy and crunchy: Kung Pao shrimp. From February 21st on, Chinatown restaurants were mobbed."

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