Dinner is served, Mr. President. Former White House chef reminisces about his tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
`STATE dinners do not prompt people to ask for the recipes,'' says Henry Haller, who recently retired after 21 years as White House chef. ``It's the family meals people ask about,'' he says, reminiscing about the variety of dishes from each of the five first families who have lived at the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address during his tenure - dishes like Homemade Meat Loaf, Roast Beef Hash, Tunafish Casserole, Hamburger Soup, Clam Chowder, Hot Biscuits, Grits, and Country Ham With Red Eye Gravy.
``Over the last 20 years, the White House has received hundreds of letters from America's home cooks for dishes served at the President's table - dishes that can be made in an ordinary home kitchen,'' Mr. Haller says.
In his new cookbook, ``The White House Family Cookbook'' (Random House, $19.95), Haller has collected many of these recipes - for dishes such as Mrs. Nixon's Walnut Chicken, a favorite after the China trip; President Ford's German Apple Pancake, Miss Lillian's Cheddar Cheese Souffl'e, Nancy Reagan's Angel Hair Pasta With Seafood, and President Johnson's hearty breakfasts, often served with deer sausage and always with hot biscuits.
If not always the pacesetters for social customs, the first families offer a changing picture of United States life styles. Chef Haller's book tells which children came to the kitchen for snacks and which wives or husbands wanted to do some cooking of their own.
``Although they all came from different areas, there were no drastic changes in menus,'' he explains. For example, Texas cooking was not overemphasized during the Johnson administration, ``but President Johnson liked his Texas-style spicy beef dishes and casseroles. Mrs. Johnson preferred a plain steak, and so the Johnson family often dined separately on different menus.''
One Johnson specialty, a sweet potato casserole, was such a favorite that it has been served in the White House to all the families that followed. And jars of homemade Dilled Okra were stocked in the storeroom for the Johnson family.
The Carters were the first family from the Deep South to come to the White House since President Zachary Taylor. Many of their Southern customs were new to the White House staff and to Swiss-born Haller, who was interested in their cooking as well as their customs.
``I learned that the Southern people have large family gatherings on a regular basis,'' Haller says. ``These affairs are typically informal, with outdoor entertaining, picnics, and outdoor buffets. Generous amounts of home-style food are served.''
Even before the Carters had settled in, there were rumors that New Englanders and Midwesterners were afraid the White House would soon be serving grits.
``Southerners just smiled,'' Haller recalls. ``They had full confidence that grits would be accepted as part of our culinary heritage, even when served at the White House - and of course they were.
``I was in full agreement. We are all proud of our regional American cooking and it was time for the rest of America to experience the fine cooking and gracious dining customary in the South. I looked forward to learning new Southern-style dishes myself,'' Haller admits.
One of the Carters' favorite breakfast menus included Country-Style Ham With Red Eye Gravy, Scrambled Eggs, Baked Grits, and freshly baked Corn Bread and hot Fried Apples. ``Mrs. Carter was an inspiration to the staff for mastering the art of Southern cooking,'' Haller says. ``She made special trips to the kitchens to share her menu ideas and family recipes.''
Most everyone in the country knew that Amy's lunch was prepared each morning in the White House kitchen and that Amy carried it to school in a paper bag, in keeping with the Carters' belief that life in the White House should not be too different from life in Plains, Ga.
For partygoers and givers, the Reagan administration signaled a rebirth of high style and fine taste, which made some slight changes in the kitchen service.
``During the inauguration there was a steady stream of visitors, and the White House kitchen staff was busy with meals and snacks for the family as well as more elaborate menus for ceremonial receptions,'' Haller says.
The White House kitchen is not like a large restaurant or hotel kitchen. The staff is relatively small: three chefs and a pastry chef. Although there are times when there isn't much to do, other times the chefs may be working on three large functions in one day.
``From their very first day as White House residents, Mrs. Reagan made clear her concern about the President's diet,'' Haller says, explaining that Mrs. Reagan likes to serve light meals designed around seasonal produce and artfully arranged to accentuate the natural beauty of fresh foods.
``Mrs. Reagan likes homemade pita bread served with soup as a first course or with a salad, and one of their favorite cheeses such as goat cheese, Brie, or Gruy`ere. The Reagans like a variety of California salad plates using avocados, oranges, grapefruits, and fresh greens.
``Of course, the food at the White House has always been first class,'' Haller says. ``We had excellent food when I first came here - and the quality has always been tops.''
If a specific dish strikes Mrs. Reagan's fancy, she will compliment the kitchen staff and ask that the recipe be kept on file for use for family meals.
``She is a sophisticated diner,'' Haller says. ``She has an artist's eye for visual appeal. She prefers light entrees of chicken, veal, or fish, but several of the President's favorites include beef - such as Beef and Kidney Pie, California-style Steak With Chili, and old-fashioned Roast Beef Hash.''
When it comes to sweets, there were always fine desserts at state dinners, but individual families differed, according to the menus in the new White House cookbook.
``The Ford family were avid outdoorsmen,'' Haller says, ``but the family was moderate with rich dishes and second helpings, limiting them to infrequent occasions. The rare dessert for family meals was typically very light, although once in a while Mr. Ford liked to serve an airy angel food cake, an American creation.
``Unlike the other four families I have served,'' says Haller, ``the Reagans do not restrict sweets to special occasions but enjoy some sort of light dessert, usually fruit, after most every meal. The President is fond of Honey-Baked Apples, and Mrs. Reagan's favorite is old-fashioned Apple Brown Betty.''
Nancy Reagan began a system of trial dinners at which she and the President presided and were served the menu planned for the next important dinner. Instant pictures are taken of the dishes Mrs. Reagan approves, so that the complete staff knows how she wants the food to look.
Haller retired in October and is now busily spending his time talking to the news media about his cookbook, making personal appearances around the country, and giving lectures on various aspects of his career.
Here are some recipes from his new book:
Miss Lillian's Cheddar Cheese Souffl'e 4 tablespoons butter 6 tablespoons flour 1 cup hot milk 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg 4 egg yolks 6 egg whites, room temperature 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar 4 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
Use pastry brush to generously coat the inside of a 1-quart souffl'e dish with soft butter; generously coat with flour.
Melt butter in 1-quart saucepan, add flour, and stir to make a roux. Cook a minute or two, stirring constantly. Add milk, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and bring to boil, stirring vigorously. Cook over low heat about 1 minute, or until thick and smooth. Remove from heat.
Add yolks one at a time, stirring after each.
In large, dry bowl slowly beat egg whites with cream of tartar; increase speed gradually until egg whites are stiff. Fold about 1/4 of stiff whites into egg yolk mixture. Transfer egg yolk mixture to mixing bowl and fold in cheese. Blend gently until smooth and fluffy. Do not overmix. Pour into prepared dish to within 1 inches of top. Smooth top lightly with spatula. Bake on lower shelf of oven preheated to 350 degrees F. for 30 minutes, or until golden brown and puffed to about 2 inches above rim. Serve immediately with crisp green salad.
President Ford's German Apple Pancake 3 eggs 1/4 cup milk Pinch of salt 1/4 cup flour 1 large McIntosh apple, peeled, cored, thinly sliced 1 teaspoon cinnamon 4 tablespoons sugar 4 tablespoons butter
In small mixing bowl, beat eggs with milk. Whisk in salt. Measure flour into large bowl. Add egg mixture and whisk until smooth. Combine cinnamon and sugar and in small bowl; sprinkle half the mixture over thinly sliced apples.
Melt butter in 12-inch iron skillet, add apple slices and saut'e 1 minute, then pour in batter and cook over medium heat 1 minute, until bottom is lightly browned.
Transfer skillet to middle shelf of oven preheated to 375 degrees F. Bake 5 minutes or until pancake is puffed. Return to top of stove and cook over medium heat 2 minutes or until bottom of pancake is golden brown.
Use two metal spatulas to fold pancake in half and transfer to ovenproof serving platter. Sprinkle with remaining cinnamon sugar. Place under broiler 1 minute to glaze. Serve at once. Serves 2.
Julie Nixon's Native Corn Pudding 1 16-ounce can whole kernel corn 1 16-ounce can cream-style corn 2 tablespoons sugar Pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons melted butter 4 eggs 1 cup warm milk
In mixing bowl combine both corns with sugar, salt, pepper, and melted butter. In separate bowl beat eggs, add milk, and beat well. Combine two mixtures and beat well. Pour into generously buttered 1-quart baking dish. Bake 35 minutes or until firm and brown on middle shelf of oven preheated to 350 degrees F. Do not overcook. Serve warm with chops, baked ham, or barbecued spareribs.
Mrs. Reagan's Apple Brown Betty 4 cups dry bread crumbs, lightly toasted 6 tablespoons butter, melted 4 medium-size tart green apples, peeled, cored 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon light brown sugar Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon 2/3 cup hot water
Mix bread with melted butter. Spread 1/3 of mixture in 8-inch-square casserole. Coarsely dice apples; dredge with cinnamon. Spread half of diced apples on bread layer in casserole. Add 1/4 cup brown sugar, then a layer of bread cubes.
Add remaining apples, sprinkle with 1/4 cup brown sugar then sprinkle with lemon juice and rind. Top with even layer bread crumbs. Spoon hot water over and sprinkle remaining brown sugar.
Bake on lower shelf of oven preheated to 375 degrees F. for 35 to 40 minutes, or until top is golden brown and crusty.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.