Most Americans don’t have oysters on their Thanksgiving table, but, for a time, the mollusks were a key ingredient on the White House holiday menu.
“Oyster stuffing and various oyster elements were always included, especially in the later 19th century. Oysters were very popular,” says Lina Mann, a historian with the White House Historical Association. “I think that the location of Washington, D.C., near the Chesapeake Bay, which was a huge oyster hub, made it more of a regional sort of thing, but that has died out over the years.”
In addition to oysters, White House Thanksgiving meals have included other regional foods such as rockfish from the Potomac River, turtles from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and cranberries from Massachusetts.
Because the holiday is often a more private affair, the White House Thanksgiving menu is not set. Presidential families often spend the day away from the White House, either out of town at their own private homes or at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan spent Thanksgiving at his California ranch. The menu included turkey, cranberries, cornbread dressing, salad, mashed potatoes, monkey bread, string beans with almonds, and pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton enjoyed Thanksgiving with family and friends at Camp David, where they ate turkey; dressing with bread stuffing; giblet gravy; mashed potatoes; sweet potatoes; green beans; cranberry mold; a relish tray of pickles, celery, tomatoes, green onions, green and black olives, and carrots; fruit salad; cranberry salad; and pecan and pumpkin pies.
In 2007, also at Camp David, President George W. Bush and family feasted on a meal that included turkey, jellied cranberry molds, whipped sweet potato soufflé and pumpkin mousse trifle.
No matter where the commander in chief spends the holiday, turkey is usually on the menu and has been since the 1870s.
“You have a man named Horace Vose, who is the quote, “poultry king of Rhode Island,” and he starts sending, in 1873, all of these turkeys to the White House,” Mann says. “He does that for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and he does it for 40 years until he dies in 1913. So, there is this kind of precedent of the public sending presidents various birds to their table.”
But people haven’t always sent poultry. In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge received an unusual offering from a supporter in Mississippi.
“They were sent a raccoon that was supposed to be served on his Thanksgiving table,” Mann says. “But the Coolidge family decided they didn’t want to eat the raccoon. So instead, they ended up making her a family pet. They named her Rebecca and then eventually Coolidge, for Christmas that year, got her a collar that said, ‘White House Raccoon’ on it.”
What presidents eat for Thanksgiving can also depend on what is going on in the country. In 1917, during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson remained in Washington and focused on having a more economical Thanksgiving.
“So, they’re eating cream of oyster soup with turkey trimmings and vegetables, pumpkin pie for the very simple menu,” Mann says. “First Lady Edith Wilson wanted to abide by various food conservation programs that were spearheaded at the time.”
There were also more austere Thanksgivings during the Great Depression and World War II. In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his family dined on “clam cocktail, clear soup, roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and cranberry sauce, Spanish corn, small sausages and beans, sweet potato cones, grapefruit salad, pumpkin pie and cheese, coffee, and ice cream.”
This year, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden are spending Thanksgiving on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, a family tradition since 1975. The first lady recently shared Thanksgiving recipes, including her grandmother’s savory stuffing featuring stale Italian bread, with the Food Network.
“Food is love — and gathering together this year for Thanksgiving is healing for our hearts,” Jill Biden said. “The family recipes passed down through the generations, the fun traditions that continue, and the meaningful blessings shared, all keep me filled with gratitude.”