Today’s post brings a story from the memoirs of Arthur R. McKinstry (St. Paul’s rector from 1927 until 1931), with an amusing anecdote about Eleanor Roosevelt’s preference for simple food during Franklin’s term as New York governor (1929-1932).
Albany society need not have been surprised that the new governor’s wife would have little time for entertaining. Mrs. Roosevelt had announced before Franklin’s inauguration that she would be busy from Tuesday through Friday each week, teaching American history, literature and serving as Vice-Principal at the Todhunter School for Girls in New York City, and overseeing the furniture factory at Val-kill in Westchester County.
Albany society, which had felt particularly cheated during the Smith regime, rejoiced that aristocracy had returned to the Governor’s Mansion. They waited hopefully for the first high tea to be given by Mrs. Roosevelt. But Mrs. Roosevelt, not sensing this, and being interested in a school and a furniture factory in New York City would be absent from Albany virtually the whole week, returning only for the weekends.
Soon Albany society became very discouraged about the prospects of any activity in the Mansion House. A good friend went to Mrs. Roosevelt and explained the situation to her, whereupon the Governor’s wife sent out engraved invitations, with one going to the rector of St. Paul’s Church and his wife. We all gathered expectantly at the Mansion. I remember how Mr. Roosevelt, came in – how gracefully he moved among the guests on his crutches. But what almost ruined relations between the Mansion and the society of Albany was the fact that on that occasion Mrs. Roosevelt served only bouillon cubes and saltine crackers. Albany society felt cheated again.
Albany society’s values were shallow indeed: despite the warmth of the Roosevelts’ greeting, they thought the event “almost ruined” because of the simplicity of the refreshments. No disrespect was intended: the food served was a matter of principle for Eleanor Roosevelt. Starting during the early 1920’s, Eleanor was much influenced by the Cornell University Home Economics program. She had a close relationship with its founders, Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose, and advocated their simple and frugal recipes.
This commitment to simple food extended to Eleanor Roosevelt’s years as First Lady (1933 – 1945). Contemporary accounts of the food served at the White House during the Roosevelt administration are harsh: guests routinely reported dull, unimaginative food. No wonder that many in Washington knew that it was advisable to eat before dining at the White House. It was not only guests that were dissatisfied: Franklin Roosevelt often complained about the quality of the food. The food Eleanor chose was certainly plain, “especially at lunchtime. Broiled kidneys on toast, chipped beef on toast, shrimp wiggle on toast, curried eggs on toast…” The president once complained about being served “liver and beans three days in a row.”
Many of these dishes were influenced by the menus recommended by Cornell’s Home Economics Department. During the Depression, Eleanor wanted White House food to represent the kind of cooking that America’s distressed citizens could afford and cook. The emphasis was on low cost, efficient cooking, and nutrition, not on the pleasures of the table. This view certainly made sense to a person like Eleanor, of whom her son James Roosevelt said “… she has no appreciation of fine food. Victuals to her are something to inject into the body as fuel to keep it going, much as a motorist pours gasoline into an auto tank.”
While commentators agree that the Cornell program influenced Eleanor Roosevelt, there are two related theories about underlying factors, the type and quality of food served during the White House years.
As a practical matter, Henrietta Nesbitt, the head housekeeper that Eleanor employed during the entire time she lived in the White House, was unprepared for her role as supervisor of a staff of thirty-two, both maintaining the mansion and organizing meals from state dinners to family suppers. She seems also to have been willfully incompetent, ignoring advice from professional chefs and restaurants. Roosevelt’s biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, in a chapter titled “ER’s Revenge: Henrietta Nesbitt, Head Housekeeper” argues that Eleanor Roosevelt’s hiring of Nesbitt and her refusal, despite many provocations on Nesbitt’s part, to dismiss her, is an element in the First Lady’s passive-aggressive style in a troubled marriage. In partial defense of Mrs. Nesbitt, Barbara Haber points out that Nesbitt was above all loyal to her employer and benefactor, and was carrying out Mrs. Roosevelt’s instructions.
This psychologizing on party food, however, seems petty and even mean-spirited. Eleanor Roosevelt, as First Lady of New York State, then as First Lady of the nation, and finally (in Harry S. Truman’s phrase) as First Lady of the World, lived a busy and noteworthy life, contributing much to our nation and our world. As a woman with many interests and causes, as her husband’s legs during Franklin’s governorship, as one of the most active and effective First Ladies in our history, Eleanor Roosevelt had far more important things on her mind than canapés.
Returning to St. Paul’s connection to this story, our rector Arthur R. McKinstry wrote that Governor Roosevelt knew him “quite well” when they were both in Albany, and we suspect this was not the only time McKinstry visited the Governor’s Mansion. Roosevelt and McKinstry kept in touch after Roosevelt was elected president, and in 1935 Roosevelt pressed his church, St. Thomas, Du Pont Circle, Washington, D.C. to call McKinstry as rector, a call that he declined. McKinstry went on to be named bishop of Delaware.
 Arthur McKinstry, All I Remember…: The McKinstry Memoirs by the Fifth Bishop of Delaware 1939 – 1954 (Wilmington: Serendipity Press, 1975), 40.
 “Mrs. Roosevelt to Keep on Filling Many Jobs Besides Being the ‘First Lady’ at Albany,” New York Times, 10 Jan 1928.
 H. Roger Segelken, “Affectionately, Eleanor,” New York Archives 15, no. 4 (Spring 2016), 12 – 17.
 Laura Shapiro, “The First Kitchen: Eleanor Roosevelt’s austerity drive,” New Yorker (November 22, 2010).
 Henrietta Nesbitt, White House Diary (Garden City: Country Life Press, 1948), 185.
 Barbara Haber, “Home Cooking in the FDR White House: the Indomitable Mrs. Nesbitt,” in From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals (New York: The Free Press, 2002), 118-119.
 Haber, 123.
 Cook, 55.
 Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 2, 1933 – 1938, (New York: Viking, 1999), 52-59.
 Haber 121-124.
 McKinstry, 49-50.