January 2007 Issue
At the Head Table
The new Governor's Residence Cookbook chronicles the history of mealtime at Ohio's most stately home.
This month marks the changing of the guard at the Governor's Residence in Bexley as the Taft family moves on and the Stricklands settle in. And while most Ohioans view this event with a partisan eye, for June McCarthy, the executive chef for the Governor's Residence, the change is more likely to affect her pantry than her politics.
"Mrs. Taft's carrot cake, that's been the birthday cake around here," laughs McCarthy. "It's the one thing Governor Taft just loves." This January 8 marks the first time in eight years that McCarthy won't be baking this Taft-family tradition for the former governor's birthday celebration. "But," she adds, changing her tone from observational to authoritative "the recipe really is perfect."
She would know. McCarthy has been satisfying the stomachs of Ohio's first families and their guests since December of 1995, when she assumed her post mid-Voinovich administration. Thirty years as a family consumer science teacher for the Newark city school systems coupled with formal culinary training at La Belle Pomme (the former Columbus culinary haven run by chef and author, Betty Rosbottom) armed her with the practicality and panache needed to run the kitchen of Ohio's first household. But the teacher's soul inside her recognized that the home's culinary history might be just as interesting as its political.
"The [Governor's Residence Cookbook] is about two years in the making," says McCarthy. According to the chef, the impetus occurred in 2004 while meeting with other governors' chefs at a conference she helped to organize in Washington, D.C. "The chef from Missouri brought each of us a copy of his cookbook," she says. "I thought it would be great fun to create one for [Ohio]."
The cookbook is part kitchen tool, part history lesson, with eight chapters corresponding to each of the eight families who have lived in the residence. Chapter One - "First Courses & Appetizers"-introduces readers to the home's first first family, the O'Neills', who moved into the mansion at 358 North Parkview Avenue in 1957 (the home was actually built in 1925 and occupied by two families before it was donated to the state). Along with stories of Governor O'Neill's political history, black-and-white family photos and a tidbit about Betty O'Neill's frequent tea parties share space with her shrimp au gratin recipe on the opening pages.
"Each chapter begins with a recipe from a former first lady," explains McCarthy. "For each administration, we tried to put pictures in of what the Governor's Residence looked like at that time, along with little stories and photos that come from the families themselves. The beginning [of the book] is the beginning of the residence, and all of the chapters tell the story down through the Taft administration," she says.
Telling the story of the Residence was as important to the project as providing enticing recipes. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to the Ohio Governor's Residence Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization created to "help preserve, sustain and enhance the Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden" according to a link on its Web site, www.governorsresidence.ohio.gov. "That's something not everyone understands," adds McCarthy. "Your tax dollars pay for the residence's needs - a new roof etc. The foundation is for its wants," she explains, patting the scarlet-cushioned chair underneath her. "These chairs are very new. Before that it was mix and match - we didn't have enough chairs that were all the same." With help from the foundation, the formal dining room now has 14 coordinating chairs for its guests.
McCarthy spent hours in the kitchen, testing and retesting and eliminating the "sketchy" recipes for the book. She had help with the historical research from Hope Taft and Mary Alice Mairose, curator for the Governor's Residence Foundation. "My contributions [to the book] were part of a larger project," says Mairose. "The history of the Governor's Residence is not well documented, and we have been working to develop the history of the house for educational purposes."
Mairose says she contributed background information she and Hope Taft had already compiled through interviews with families and research. Not all of her material made it into the book.
"The Celeste administration hired the first chef," says Mairose. "Initially, all of the house staff were inmates from the old Ohio Penitentiary [in Columbus], including the cooks," she says. "There were one or two employees on staff, but the majority of the workforce from 1957 to 1970 were inmates." McCarthy adds that during that time the first ladies could frequently be found in the kitchen as well.
Not all of the recipes in the book come from former first ladies. The majority of the entries are a combination of family recipes - Turkey Vanderbilt from Governor Taft's maternal grandmother - and recipes that Chef McCarthy and her predecessor, Chef Frannie Packard, have developed. Still, all of the entries at some point graced the first table, and the book shares stories about some of the more prestigious guests who have enjoyed them. The Simple Sweet Scones with Lemon Curd were the highlight of a tea hosted for Barbara Bush by First Lady Janet Voinovich (apparently Mrs. Bush, mindful of the calorie intake, called Chef Packard a "naughty girl" for the indulgence). When the Reverend Billy Graham paid a visit, he was treated to Governor Voinovich's French Bread with dinner. "After dinner he went into the kitchen and told Frannie [Packard] 'that's the best bread I've ever eaten!'" quips McCarthy. Along with trivia bits, each recipe includes chef's notes for shortcuts or substitutions. Few of the recipes have more than five steps, and all can be made in less than 30 minutes.
McCarthy takes great pride in pleasing the palates of Governor's Residence diners. What starts out as a professional relationship with each first family inevitably seems to soften through the years, and she shares a few humanizing anecdotes that the voters rarely get to see. "I kind of tease about Governor Taft when people ask me what his favorite dish is," she smiles. "I always answer 'the one he had last night.' He's a great eater, and I don't think there's one dish he loves more than another. He's a lot of fun to feed."
"I could always, with Governor Voinovich, say trout," she continues. "He liked to go fishing to relax, and he brought back all of the trout that he caught. So we had a constant supply of trout in the freezer," she says. "If I thought he was having a difficult day I would make a trout dish for dinner. You could just see his face perk up - he'd say "Oh! We're having trout tonight!"
As taxpayers, we should thank McCarthy and other residence staff, who donated immeasurable amounts of time to keep costs for the cookbook down. But it's clear that the project was a labor of love, and she hopes her efforts will translate into memorable experiences for those who buy it. "My first hope is that people will look at the recipes and say 'wow, that sounds good,'" she laughs. "Then after they make them say 'wow, it was even better than I thought.'
"My other hope is when the Stricklands come to the residence they'll want to have another printing, but add another chapter from the Strickland family."
The Governor's Residence Cookbook is available for $20 at the Governor's Residence in Bexley, the Statehouse Museum Shop, Cherry Valley Lodge in Newark and Robert Rothschild Farm in Urbana, or by visiting www.governorsresidence.ohio.gov
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