President Dwight D. Eisenhower eats a steak dinner at the Skowhegan home of Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in June 1955. Smith is sitting next to Eisenhower, and Gov. Edmund Muskie is seated across from the president. Photo courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Library

On June 27, 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds. Afterward, he joined Sen. Margaret Chase Smith at her home in Skowhegan for a picnic on her lawn.

Smith set up a lobster and clambake for the press. Eisenhower, whose favorite foods included beef stew and prune whip, had been warned by his doctors not to eat lobster, so she arranged a steak barbecue for him. The president, according to the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, seasoned and cooked his own steak before sitting down to eat with Smith and Gov. Edmund Muskie, who would later make his own run for the nation’s top office.

But who can come to Maine and resist succulent lobster meat dipped in warm butter? According to an account of the dinner published two years later in the Washington Post and Times Herald, before the day was out, the president also polished off some clams and a lobster.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower grills his own steak on the lawn of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s Skowhegan home on June 27,1955. Photo courtesy of Margaret Chase Smith Library

On this President’s Day weekend, let’s set aside partisan bickering and take a look at the occupants of the Oval Office through a lighter, more appetizing lens. Learning about the favorite foods of U.S. Presidents makes them seem more like one of us, like those tabloid photos of celebrities buying coffee in their sweatpants and no makeup. Thomas Jefferson was partial to sweet corn and macaroni and cheese. James Garfield ate squirrel soup, and Ulysses S. Grant – who once visited the Blaine House in Augusta – enjoyed rice pudding.

Plenty of the presidents who have visited Maine, officially or unofficially – Eisenhower used to vacation in the Rangeley Lakes region – have sampled the state’s food. In fact, our very first president visited Maine, according to Earle Shettleworth Jr., the Maine state historian. George Washington made a brief, personal visit in 1789, the year he took office, which is recorded in his diary. After stopping in Portsmouth, Washington crossed the Piscataqua River to Kittery, where he was supplied with a boat and boatman to go fishing, Shettleworth said. No hoards of photographers followed politicians around in those days (naturally, as photography hadn’t been invented), but perhaps we can presume that Washington ate some of the fish he caught that day. (Shettleworth, by the way, watched the 1955 Eisenhower dinner from across the street, through binoculars, as a 7-year-old. His family summered in Skowhegan.)

The year before he died, Teddy Roosevelt (who liked to put seven sugars in his coffee) wrote down his memories of visiting friends Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow in Aroostook County, long before he became president. The men went on hunting trips, visited lumber camps and climbed Katahdin – Roosevelt in moccasins because he had lost one of his shoes in a river. He recalled “delicious nights” where they ate “meals of venison, trout, or partridge; and one meal consisting of muskrat and a fish-duck, which, being exceedingly hungry, we heartily appreciated.”

Roosevelt returned to Maine, this time as president, in 1902.

Mr. Salmon goes to Washingon

For years, beginning in 1912, Maine had a direct line to presidential stomachs through the ceremonial presidential salmon. The idea of presenting the U.S. president with the first Atlantic salmon of the season originated with Karl Anderson, a Norwegian immigrant who lived in Bangor and liked to fly fish in the Penobscot River, according to Catherine Schmitt, author of “The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters.” At the time, the Penobscot River had the healthiest salmon run in the Northeast, Schmitt said, and the Penobscot salmon was a brand of its own.

“Catching the first fish was always a really big deal,” she said.

Bangor Republicans bought Anderson’s 11-pound salmon – one of two he caught on opening day – packed it in straw and ice, and put it on an overnight train to Washington, D.C., where it was presented to President William Howard Taft.

But food and politics are inevitably intertwined. Taft, who reportedly ate his Maine salmon poached whole, served with egg sauce and a garnish of curly parsley, was a big advocate of river development, including dams that provided electricity to Maine’s paper mills but were the worst thing to happen to Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot.

“In the case of the U.S. presidents, pretty much every single one of them was doing something policywise that was affecting Atlantic salmon in the Penobscot River, and fish and rivers across the country,” Schmitt said.

Herbert Hoover loved fishing, but believed that industrial pollution of rivers was tolerable as long as there were enough hatcheries to produce more fish, Schmitt elaborated. And the deregulation of electric power under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush led to a flurry of proposals for new dams on the Penobscot.

Not every president had the pleasure of tasting a Penobscot salmon. The Maine Congressional delegation presented Eisenhower with a salmon on a silver platter during his first year in office, but he never got another one because, thanks largely to those dams, salmon populations dropped and state officials closed the recreational salmon fishery. The population briefly improved, allowing the presidential salmon tradition to resume in 1981, Schmitt says, but by the early 1990s, it was again declining.

George H.W. Bush got the last presidential salmon, a nine-pounder, in 1992. Several years later, wild Atlantic salmon was listed as an endangered species in Maine.

President Lyndon Johnson enjoys a chocolate ice cream cone from the Dairy Queen in Topsham on Aug. 20, 1966. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Some like it sweet

Salmon is a healthy choice, but some presidents are known for their sweet tooths. On Aug. 20, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson flew to Maine to give a speech in Lewiston. According to his presidential diary for that day, obtained from the LBJ Presidential Library & Foundation in Austin, at 5:25 p.m. his motorcade made a spontaneous stop in Topsham: “The President stopped at a Dairy Queen stand and asked Secret Service to get him a chocolate Dairy Queen. Crowds mobbed the car.”

On July 16, 2010, then President Barack Obama ordered a coconut ice cream cone from Mount Desert Island Ice Cream in Bar Harbor. Associated Press

Today, that Dairy Queen still has a sign posted on the building that says “L.B.J. Ate here 8-20-66.”

President Obama sent sales of Mount Desert Island Ice Cream’s coconut flavor soaring in July 2010 when he indulged in a cone on a first family vacation in Bar Harbor. The Obamas also ate at Havana, an elegant Latin-inspired restaurant, and had lunch on the shore at the Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor.

Bar Harbor has long been a popular destination for U.S. presidents. Benjamin Harrison visited in 1889 and Taft in 1910. Both men were entertained with lunches and dinners at the cottages of wealthy, prominent summer residents, according to Shettleworth, although Taft canceled some invitations so he could play golf.

Donald Trump visited the state five times when he was campaigning for president in 2016 and 2020. Last October, he made a campaign stop at Treworgy Family Orchards in Levant, near Bangor. Jon Kenerson, CEO of the business, said in an email that Trump – known for his fondness for fast food – didn’t eat anything during his brief stop, but he did buy a peck of McIntosh apples to take back to the White House. The White House staff and Secret Service, however, “couldn’t get enough of our apple cider doughnuts.”

“They bought several dozen for the trip back on Air Force One,” he said, “and the way they were talking about them, I would be surprised if Trump didn’t try one.”

Bush family favorites

Former presidents George H.W. Bush (41) and George W. Bush (43) have the closest ties to Maine, given that the Bush family home, Walker’s Point, is in Kennebunkport. The family has been known to eat in restaurants around town, such as Mabel’s Lobster Claw, where 41 and First Lady Barbara Bush liked to sit in a little nook called the “B table.” The president, according to the restaurant, loved to order “The Duke,” scallops, shrimp, lobster and haddock baked in a casserole with garlic and wine sauce and topped with seasoned crumbs.

President George W. Bush and Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, at a lobster bake in 2012. Photo courtesy of Steve Kingston

But probably no restaurateur has been as close to the Bush family as Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack restaurant and seafood market. In addition to selling the Bush household much of its seafood – Walker’s Point chefs “have used my seafood market as a pantry,” Kingston says – Kingston has put together lobster bakes and annual fried seafood and chowder dinners for the Bushes.

For Barbara Bush’s 90th birthday, the 41st president invited 250 friends and family to a party where lobster rolls and chowder from The Clam Shack were served.

“The senior Bushes were big fried clam fans,” Kingston said, “and one of my favorite pieces of memorabilia is a letter they wrote us after our clams won an award.”

Kingston still sells swordfish in honor of 41, who regularly requested it grilled. The former president also loved boiled lobster and lobster rolls, Kingston said.

George W. Bush likes his lobster rolls with both mayo and butter, Kingston said, and he loves chowder. “Last summer,” he said, “43 ordered takeout many times to help support us.”

Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, with former President Bill Clinton in fall 2013. Photo courtesy of Steve Kingston

Kingston has also fed former President Bill Clinton during his visits to Walker’s Point. Clinton usually ate salmon salad made with salmon from The Clam Shack market, he said.

Obama ate here

Former president Barack Obama’s campaign fundraising visit to Maine in March 2012 probably provides the best-documented accounts of presidential food because fundraising events were held in Portland and South Portland at a time when the area was gaining a national reputation for food and restaurants.

VIPs at an afternoon cocktail reception held in South Portland noshed on lobster corn dogs, lobster rolls, Maine oysters and shrimp, smoked salmon, and local beef tenderloin. Obama gave a short speech and took photos with his supporters, but did he partake in the Maine-centric spread as well? We don’t know because we couldn’t afford the $10,000-per-person price tag on the fundraising event, but surely he must have managed to grab a bite.

At the time, Chris Weber was president of The Black Tie Co., which catered the event. She told the Press Herald that she had, over the years, catered weddings for the senior President Bush and made barbecue for Bill Clinton, and that the first time she cooked for a president it “was so nerve-wracking I don’t think I slept for a week.”

Later that evening, after the South Portland reception, Obama’s campaign held another fundraising event, a dinner for 100-plus guests at the Portland Museum of Art. Leslie Oster, the manager of Aurora Provisions on Portland’s West End at the time, was in charge of the dinner. (Oster is now director of the Blaine House in Augusta.) It was March – not exactly the height of Maine’s growing season – but Oster was determined to showcase Maine food by using fresh seafood, storage crops, Maine grains, and greens harvested from farmers’ winter greenhouses. In the end, the menu was 98 percent local, she said.

“The only thing that wasn’t local was the wine because this was in 2012,” Oster said. “There weren’t a great deal of wine producers in Maine at that point.”

Standard Baking Co. provided the bread for a 2012 Obama campaign fundraiser in Portland. Check out the loaf’s Obama campaign logo. Photo courtesy of Alison Pray

She also took it upon herself to fill a presidential “goodie bag” for Obama that overflowed with local foods. Standard Baking Co. provided a boule decorated with the Obama campaign logo. Rob Tod, the founder of Allagash Brewing Co., raided his personal beer cellar for the president. (Tod does not recall exactly what he contributed.)

For the meal, Oster chose a first course of local greens with Aroostook County potatoes, Sunset Acres goat cheese timbales, pickled Laughing Stock Farm beets, and Maine Mead Works mead gastrique. The course came with Standard Baking Co. bread and Kate’s Butter.

Gulf of Maine cod loin in tomato-fennel broth, served with mashed spring turnips followed, and guests finished with cornmeal cake with preserved peach sauce and Maple’s Organic ginger gelato.

While Oster and her volunteer staff prepared dinner downstairs, Obama was upstairs, working the room during the meet-and-greet period. Then he gave a speech. As the speech was ending, Oster got a call to gather the staff. “All of a sudden, Obama comes down the stairs,” Oster recalled. “You could hear the cheers of the people upstairs. He came down to thank us. He thanked every single one of us. He shook our hands. It was one of the most joyful days of my life.”

Obama left before dinner was served. But the naval attache who cooks for him came into the makeshift kitchen (in the museum’s old coat room) and pointed to the ingredients he wanted to take with him on Air Force One, where he would prepare the food for the president. Oster said she later heard from him that Obama “really enjoyed his meal.”

He must have. Obama sent a thank-you note expressing his gratitude “for all the wonderful Maine goods and the Maine hospitality,” Oster said.

She framed the note, and it now hangs in her Blaine House office.


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