Forgotten White House History: Chef Francois Rysavy and the Eisenhower Years
Finding the History Of the White House Kitchen Before Camelot
In the 2010s, the world is provided with dozens of culinary reality shows on television, some of them incredibly foolish, while others are fully engaging and informative.
This reality show development is a major change from the cooking shows of the 1970s - 1990s, like Justin Wilson's Louisiana Cookin', The Galloping Gourmet, and local chefs on community access channels. Cooking reality shows are gathering an astonishing viewer momentum and chefs are the new rock stars.
However, a segment of viewers is drawn by the profanity and violence portrayed in these television kitchens. This makes a bad change from the past and I do not want to consume food and drink that has been sworn over or thrown across the kitchen. One wonders about the kitchens around one's own town and shudders.
One White House Chef combined his own global knowledge of cuisine with historic recipes and the tastes of the current administration to provide unique White House menus in our nation's history. Yet, he received little credit in the 2010s. In fact, many White House Kitchen histories begin with the Kennedy Administration in 1961 and sketch through the Washington and Lincoln presidencies only, and leaving the rest untouched.
Looking into the past at famous chefs has become more interesting since Food Network's Alton Brown highlighted food anthropology as a discipline in a fun way. One important post in the cadre of historic chefs is the White House Chef. During the Truman and Eisenhower Years, he studied the history of the White House Kitchens of the past himself, all the way back to the Washington Administration as made his own important contributions to White House history.
Chef Francois Rysavy's accomplishments spanned about 40 years, but the best reference was published in 1957, out of print today. It takes digging to find a copy. I found it a miracle to stumble upon a first edition copy at my local Half Price Books store for 25¢. It is wonderful!
Chef Rysavy survived a difficult infancy and toddler years in war-torn Europe during WWI, survived Hollywood and the loss of several families, and contributed much to the White House Administration from 1953 - 1961. This includes your delicious but infamous blueberry pie, discussed below.
I have searched for a pie dough recipe such as Rysavy's, as if for the Holy Grail, and now I think I have it. I met the Chef in an out-of-print book and learned that this extraordinary pie dough is European. The recipe is better even than my grandmother's, from which my father used to make delicious elephant ears better than those found at the State Fair or Ringling Brother's Circus. However, the pie crust recipe is not in the book! Happily, some friends of European descent have what looks to be the one.
Rysavy, François, and Frances Spatz Leighton. White House Chef. New York, Putnam, 1957. 286 p.
Blueberries Hit the Stock Market
A funny thing happened on the way out of the White House for Chef Rysavy.
In June, 1957, shortly after Chef retired, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ate too much blueberry pie and suffered indigestion from his overeating. As a result, Wall Street stock markets suffered a significant decline the next day. Chef was jokingly blamed for the situation by the media, until they learned he was no longer on staff in the White House Kitchens!
Such stories of the White House Chefs who worked between the Washington and Lincoln years and from the late 1800s to WWII are found today in museums, diaries in homes and museum collections, in the memories of Senior Citizens one might interview, in black and white documentary films, and in university special collections.
If you have a chance to see any of these collections, please do so. You will not regret that expenditure of time.
A notable relevant website is WhiteHouseMuseum.org. While this site does not contain information about all the chefs, it does contain many photographs of the kitchens through time.
An orphan twice-over in then-Czechoslovakia during WWII, Francois Rysavy lost both his parents at age two. Then he lost the family that took him in at the same time as he was separated from his siblings. His was a hard life and he focused on food - to make it beautiful, not to overeat when he finally had enough food. It became his treasure to share with the world.
Francois's Auntie Teta fostered him, but soon died when he was only 9. He had now lost two families. This included his half-dozen brothers and sisters, except for one sister from whom he heard occasionally. He was sent to a family that fed him only cabbage soup and bread and got him up at 4:00 AM to do all the household chores.
As an adult, Rysavy was ordered around Europe for years as a chef by the Germans, but he married, had a child, and they followed along - just like Army families. After this tour of work, he came to America. There, he traveled and worked in different large cities. The toll all this this took on his marriage and his young daughter never healed.
Chef Rysavy stayed in close contact with his wife and child, although Jeanette and little Janet would not follow him on his journey in culinary arts to the White House. They no longer could tolerate moving so often.
Chef Rysavy originally came to America to work in Hollywood, where he found many gorgeous celebrity homes and generous people with fine kitchens and stock. However, many of these employers were stingy with acceptance of a chef's family and did not offer accommodations for Rysavy's wife and daughter.
This drove Jeanette back to Europe, even though I believe that she and daughter Janet would have enjoyed the White House, which was the endpoint of Francois's active career. He continued writing culinary history books with recipes for several years, including materials about Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Food was his only constant and stable companion.
Francois Rysavy's Birthplace
Francois Rysavy, 1972
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A Tortuous Road
Chef Rysavy served as chef in European restaurants and mansions, in Africa and the Middle East, and on two grand passenger trains. He worked in Hollywood as well before accenting the position as chef in the White House Kitchens under the presidential administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He wandered the world, gather recipes that he finally provided to US presidents, because the White House was his last career stop.
In a news article in the Pittsburgh Press of June 3, 1958, Rysavy stated that since childhood, he had been obsessed with making food both beautiful and delicious. He had wanted to know everything of the mysteries of all styles of cuisine. His book confirms these facts.
Even his childhood hobby was standing in front of bakery windows in Vyskov, Czech Republic, looking at "pretty pastries" and watching pastry chefs filling dough with jelly. Rysavy learned to decorate the pastry chef's cookies with different frostings and was permitted to help sell the cookies around the town on a pastry route.
By the time he was 13, the pastry chefs had taken Francois on as an unpaid apprentice. They began accumulating a savings fund for him to use when he graduated the apprenticeship. It was hard work, however, in which Francois operated wooden mixing equipment larger than himself and suffered constant beatings , sometimes with large wire whisks, for not measuring up quite enough to standards.
Rysavy at this middle-school age had to eat in the back room - only a piece of dry rye bread and a cup of black coffee for breakfast every morning of his 7-day work week. His life was much worse than today's reality cooking show violence. On his pastry route, he overcharged everyone a bit so that he could purchase a small frying pan, and beginning to arrive in the kitchen before the 4:30 AM call, he was able to have a couple of eggs each morning. He hid his frying pan so he would not to be beaten to death. Finally, after running away twice, he persuaded his uncle to purchase his Certificate of Training. It cost $200 around 1920, a large sum of money.
He did have better experiences after his apprenticeship! A soup he learned to prepare in France and a dessert called Rum Fruit Savarin became favorite dishes of President and Mamie Eisenhower. In turn, Rysavy learned plain cooking from Mamie's collection of recipes. It was a good combination.
John L. Hennessy, president of the Hilton Hotel chain, recommended Rysavy to the White House, where he made some history.
Some of the Chef's Travels
This is where the Chef did his painful pastry apprenticeship.
The Working White House
Pies and Crusts
Below is the recipe for the famous Blueberry Pie that brought down the Stock Market, written step-by-step rather than in a narrative, along with two European pie crust recipes. Enjoy the pie that was one of President Eisenhower's favorites.
The crust recipes come from the families of Eastern European friends, because the wonderful crust recipe is not in Rysavy's book!
Eisenhower Blueberry Pie
- A double pie crust, Recipes Below
- 2 2/3 Cups fresh blueberries
- 1/2 tsp Lemon zest
- 1/2 TBSP Flour
- 1/3 Cup Light brown sugar
- 1/3 Cup White granulated sugar
- Pinch of Salt
- 1/2 tsp Cinnamon
- 1 tsp melted Butter
- Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees F.
- Roll bottom crust and place in bottom of a 9--inch pie pan.
- In a large bowl, gently mix blueberries, flour, lemon zest, both sugars, salt, and cinnamon.
- Pour the filling evenly into the bottom pie crust.
- Sprinkle melted butter over the blueberry mixture.
- Put top crust into place, twist top and bottom crusts together into an attractive edging, and cut three slits about 2 inches long in the center area of the pie to allow air to escape.
- Bake 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake 40 minutes or until done.
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European Pie Crusts
1) Pie Crust with European Butter - Makes a single 9-inch crust. Double the recipe for a 2-crust pie.
- 1 1/4 Cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 10 TBSP unsalted European butter (high-fat), chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- Ice water and a TBSP measuring spoon
- Place the flour in a large bowl and add kosher salt; stir.
- Cut in the butter pieces a few at a time, until the dough is the consistency of a bowl of peas.
- Add ice water a spoonful at a time and mix until the dough holds together.
- Form a dough ball, wrap in plastic wrap, flatten into a tick disk and refrigerate for 60 minutes. Remove from refrigerator and roll out on a floured bread board.
2) European Butter, Lard and Vinegar Pie Crust - Makes 2, 9-inch Crusts.
- 2 1/2 Cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 TBSP sugar
- 6 OZ. cold high-fat butter, cut into 1-inch pieces (1 TBSP each)
- 7 TBSP pork lard
- 1 TBSP apple cider vinegar
- Ice water and a Tablespoon measuring spoon.
- Into a large bowl, place the flour, sugar, and kosher salt; stir. Add the cold butter and lard alternately by tablespoon and cut it into the flour until it forms balls the size of peas.
- In a smaller bowl, mix the vinegar with 5 TBSP if the ice water and pour into the flour mixture. Toss with a fork until a loose dough ball forms and add another TBSP or two of ice water if needed to make that happen.
- Roll a tighter dough ball between your hands, separate into two balls, wrap in plastic, press into thick disks, and refrigerate for one hour. Remove when chilled and roll out both crusts on a floured bread board.