What’s it like to be the state’s entertainer in chief? Three former Texas first ladies and the current one dish about life in the mansion and share their favorite recipes.
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At nine o’clock in the morning on June 10, four of the six living first ladies of Texas—Anita Perry, Linda Gale White, Rita Clements, and Nellie Connally—assembled on the porch of the Governor’s Mansion for brunch and a historic photograph. (Laura Bush and Jean Daniel were unable to attend.) There was no particular occasion for the picture, no anniversary or holiday. We asked the women if they would let us photograph them simply because we thought it was high time they were recognized for doing a job that too often goes unremarked: that of entertainer in chief.
As sunlight fell across the building’s tall white columns, I watched as the four of them smiled for the camera, obligingly moved a step to the right and then to the left, stood up, sat down, and smiled some more. During breaks, the three former first ladies strolled about the building and gardens to see what had changed since they left and to say hello to employees they had known. It was like a reunion of members of the state’s most exclusive club.
Far more than governors do, first ladies practice pragmatic politics. They understand that while they are expected to support worthy charities and deliver speeches, their role as hostess is equally significant. They learn the political value of a well-set table laden with prime rib, mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, and chocolate mousse. Moreover, they understand the subtle (and not-so-subtle) power of good dining to make guests feel contented, magnanimous, and beholden. When I asked the first ladies if they would let us publish a recipe from their time at the mansion, they immediately agreed.
Later, when I called to ask a few questions about their culinary interests and what it was like to live in the historic home, it felt more like talking to friends than doing interviews (the fact that I wasn’t trying to dig up dirt on the governor or the kids didn’t hurt). Anita Perry told me that she loves to read cookbooks (she owns about 75) and that since she was a child, her favorite dish has been buttered grits; Governor Rick Perry’s favorite dishes are his wife’s fried chicken and buttermilk pie. During Laura Bush’s tenure as first lady, the mansion kitchen turned out an array of dishes with a Texas and Southwestern orientation. One—a spicy snack called Sarah’s Chex Mix, after mansion chef Sarah Bishop Ninaud—even made national headlines when the White House had to call Ninaud to get the recipe just right. Linda Gale White recalled that one day in 1983, the cook fixed a dessert so unpalatable that the White children sneaked out the back door and dumped their servings into the flower bed. When Rita Clements moved into the then 123-year-old structure, in 1979, it was so decrepit and the kitchen so cramped that food for large events had to be temporarily stored in the garage; she and Governor Bill Clements initiated a major renovation project. Nellie Connally, who told one funny story after another, remembered that when her family moved into the mansion, in 1963, the china cabinet had exactly two serving pieces. “One was a bowl—a flower bowl, actually,” she said, “and the other was a platter that looked like it had come in a box of laundry soap.” Jean Daniel, a descendant of former Texas governor Sam Houston, always had fresh-baked sugar cookies on hand for her four children when she was first lady, from 1957 to 1963.
Talking to the first ladies, however briefly, whetted my appetite for more details, especially about some of their predecessors. So I turned to Austinite Carl McQueary, a member of the Texas Historical Commission and the author of a forthcoming cookbook and culinary history of the mansion that will be published by Texas A&M University Press next year. I had seen part of the manuscript and was intrigued. “So, Carl,” I asked, “what’s the most unusual dish ever prepared at the Governor’s Mansion?” He replied, “Well, they had bear once,” then added, “Why don’t I just send you a copy of the whole book?” In due course an e-mail arrived with a monster attachment: 450 pages. In the time it took to print it, I could have roasted a buffalo like the one Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel served at his inaugural party in 1941.
Although I was vastly disappointed that the book did not contain a recipe for buffalo (or bear, for that matter), I still found it a fascinating window onto Texas history. I discovered that the Governor’s Mansion has been no rarefied repository of haute cuisine. At any given period, the food served there reflected what ordinary people were eating. Yes, the mansion cooks prepared fancy fare for official dinners, but even those dishes were never too far removed from the mainstream. The other interesting thing is how the mainstream has changed over the years. A typical pot of coffee in Governor Sam Houston’s day (the mid-nineteenth century), for example, would take the bristles off a hog. Brewing the stuff entailed boiling a cup of freshly ground coffee beans and a crushed eggshell in six cups of water for three minutes; the liquid was then strained into cups containing beaten egg whites, cream, and lots of sugar. Breakfast was a much bigger deal in the past than it is today. During the administration of Governor James S. Hogg (1891-1895), the kitchen staff regularly cooked fried eggs, home-cured ham, grits with redeye gravy, a choice of butter biscuits or cornmeal hotcakes with ribbon cane syrup, and oatmeal with cream or clabber (similar to yogurt). No wonder the estimable governor weighed nearly three hundred pounds.
But the flip side of these culinary oddities is an equal number of recipes that have an enduring appeal. Homey comfort foods haven’t changed at all—Orlene Sayers’ coconut cake, dating from around 1900, would be at home on any dinner table today, as would Miriam “Ma” Ferguson’s chili, served during the twenties, and Margaret Lea Houston’s fried green tomatoes. The most common recipes are for corn pone, corn cakes, and their fancier descendant, cornbread; Jell-O desserts (the stuff was being marketed as early as 1900); and cakes, cookies, and biscuits. Indeed, if any one food embodies the heart and soul of Texas cuisine, as served in the Governor’s Mansion over the years, it would have to be biscuits. The aforementioned Governor O’Daniel was elected at least in part because of a song that he wrote, “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy.” (He also inspired the character of Mississippi governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel in the 2000 hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
So it’s fitting that for this story, Nellie Connally supplied a recipe for biscuits. She told me that they were first made by a mansion cook named Annie Menzel and that they are best when served with lots of butter and honey. “I could eat a whole plateful about now,” she said. Me too.