Main image: President Jimmy Carter fishing along a trout stream on 4 Lazy F Ranch near Jackson, Wyoming, August 1978. Credit: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum / NARA
The art of diplomacy, it’s often been said, resides in emphasizing commonalities over differences. And if it were possible to gather all the U.S. presidents for a debate, that point could be proved instantly by introducing talk of fishing and the comforts of a good seafood soup.
Nearly all presidents, from Washington to Biden, have enjoyed the sport and its many succulent spoils. Such enthusiasm has, of course, influenced presidential tables for daily meals and small affairs alike — but especially at those glorious state dinners where sophisticated seafood dishes are elevated to center stage.
Taking a break from grueling politics to “cast a line” is only one of the many presidential traditions that can be traced to George Washington. Our nation’s first president fell in love with fishing during his boyhood, and for a time before his presidency, he was even a successful commercial fisherman. His Mount Vernon home is situated near the Potomac River, and he took full advantage of its waters that teemed with shad, char, herring, gar, bass, catfish, perch, and even 6-foot sturgeon and 14-inch oysters.
Herbert Hoover has been dubbed “The Fishing President,” and for good reason. In fact, the master angler, who famously said, “All men are equal before fish,” sparked major public backlash during the Great Depression for spending too much time indulging his passion. Nevertheless, Hoover wrote a well-received book on the topic, “Fishing For Fun: and to Wash Your Soul,” established numerous fisheries, and even donated to the National Park Service a fishing camp he built on Virginia’s Rapidan River, where he fished for brown and rainbow trout. He also loved chasing after speedy bonefish and permit fish.
Hoover’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, couldn’t get enough of deep-sea fishing, and even managed to do so in a wheelchair by using a specially built rig. His favorite spots were the Bahamas and Costa Rica; the latter of which is where he caught a 235-pound shark after a 90-minute battle. History also recounts his great tussle with a huge Texas tarpon, and of an especially productive fishing trip at Camp David with Winston Churchill.
Ike loved fly casting. He learned to fish as a boy with his brothers, catching sunfish, bullheads, and carp from Mud Creek in Kansas. Later, he fished with his equally enthusiastic angler wife, Mamie, whose favorite spots in her home state of Colorado, Bal Swan Ranch and Byers Peak Reach, quickly became his too. In fact, he was such an enthusiastic fisherman that he was once called out publicly for going over the state’s trout limit.
Despite the fact that Jimmy Carter took only 79 vacation days during his one term (the fewest for a president in recent decades), he found plenty of time to fish, and even taught himself to become an expert fly caster. Thanks to his father, Earl, Carter learned to fish at a very young age, pulling up bluegill, redbreast sunfish, and crappies from the Satilla River near his home in Plains, Georgia. Later, he graduated to Appalachian trout and bass. He also fished the waters of Idaho, Wyoming, Virginia, the Gulf Coast, and even Mongolia. The 39th president is also likely the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame’s most renowned inductee.
The presidential salmon club
No species of fish is more associated with the presidency than salmon — not merely because it has graced so many White House tables, but because of a long-standing annual tradition among Maine anglers. As author Catherine Schmitt details in How The Presidents Ate Their Salmon, the tradition, which eventually became known as the “Annual Gift of The Presidential Salmon,” began in 1912 when a Norwegian immigrant housepainter decided to send his prized opening day catch to President William Howard Taft.
On that chilly April 1 day, the proud fly fisherman was the only angler to wrestle an Atlantic salmon out of the icy waters of the Penobscot River, known nationally as far back as the 1880s, and forever among Native Americas, as the best spot for the tastiest Atlantic salmon. He actually caught two that day, selling one and dispatching the other for next-day delivery to Taft. Another angler followed suit the next year, and the gesture was repeated for 80 years thereafter, as countless annual newspaper accounts have detailed, complete with photographs featuring presidents holding their Penobscot salmon.
Although Maine cooks in 1912 recommended serving their famed salmon with hollandaise sauce, history does not record how Taft prepared his gift. It probably wound up as one half of a surf-and-turf pairing, since the rotund Taft notably requested a 12-ounce steak with every meal.
In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed his seventh presidential salmon, which he called the “king of fish,” as part of Easter dinner at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. In 1947, Harry Truman received his, accompanied for the first time by a public offer from a Maine fishing guide to cook it for him with peas, potatoes, hot johnnycakes, hot ginger bread with whipped cream, and coffee. In 1954, newsreels showed a smiling Eisenhower accepting his salmon and saying, “By golly, this is a nice-sized one.” In 1992, George W. Bush became the last president to receive an official Penobscot salmon due to the famed river’s decline from damning and overfishing.
Other White House seafood stars
Salmon — specifically Columbia River Salmon — made presidential headlines again in 1979 when Jimmy Carter paired it with an American cabernet sauvignon as part of a historic kosher state dinner honoring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
But seafood of all kinds has been a part of many glamorous presidential state dinners, perhaps none more noteworthy than the pan-roasted halibut in ginger-carrot butter sauce that was the centerpiece of the first pescatarian presidential state dinner. The event, hosted in 2005 by George W. Bush, was held in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Mrs. Gursharan Kaur. The historic menus also called for asparagus soup paired with a chardonnay, basmati rice with pistachios and currants, herbed summer vegetables (celery hearts, leaves, and roots), and a salad of Bibb lettuces in citrus vinaigrette. These were paired with a pinot noir, and the dessert was lotus blossom mango chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice cream.
Ronald Reagan greatly impressed UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by serving baby lobster belle vue paired with a California chardonnay. And Bill Clinton notably featured grilled arctic char, lobster sausage, and wild mushroom risotto paired with an Oregon pinot noir.
Most recently, Joe Biden made major headlines for a state dinner honoring French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. The menu boasted a main course of 200 butter-poached Maine lobsters. Other standouts included American Osetra caviar and Oregon artisanal cheeses paired with a Napa Valley chardonnay.
Presidential “comfort” seafood
Not surprisingly for our nation’s “anglers-in-chiefs,” so many of the meals they’ve requested from their White House chefs have involved comfort foods starring their favorite seafood.
John Adams loved his seafood prepared simply, especially his codfish cakes and poached salmon. William McKinley shared that preference and was extremely satisfied with baked salmon. Thomas Jefferson, whose sophisticated palate was accustomed to French cuisine, couldn’t get enough of Creole staples like gumbo and jambalaya, which were also Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson’s seafood favorites.
When he wasn’t requesting plates of his beloved German sauerkraut, James Buchanan enjoyed platters of Chesapeake Bay oysters and clams paired with Madeira wine. Martin van Buren echoed that love of oysters, while Franklin Pierce favored fried clams.
Grover Cleveland loathed fancy dinners, and said he would gladly turn away from French cuisine in favor of the Scandinavian pickled herring he frequently ate right out of the jar.
Although Reagan is famously associated with jellybeans, his definition of fine cuisine included swordfish steaks paired with West Coast white wines. Richard Nixon truly loved seafood and is credited in America with popularizing Chinese sweet-and-sour fish, a dish typically made from “white fish,” such as cod, haddock, sea bass, or monkfish.
More than a few presidents who love fish have preferred their seafood in the form of soups. Sure, FDR loved kippered herring and salt mackerel for breakfast, but he was especially fond of fish soups. Creamy New England clam chowder was a staple during Boston native John F. Kennedy’s administration, but JFK sometimes opted for the Manhattan-style variety. Ford enjoyed dipping pieces of freshly baked bread into his fish soup, and Barack Obama famously honored Abraham Lincoln shortly after taking the oath of office by requesting a bowl of the Great Emancipator’s favorite seafood stew.
Chester A. Arthur is likely our nation’s least remembered president, but he made a lasting impression among White House staff for his obsession with Rhode Island eel.
And while James and Dolley Madison are credited with popularizing ice cream, there were few takers when it came to Dolley’s custom Potomac oyster-flavored creation.