Food
10:01 pm
Thu November 17, 2011

Mrs. Stamberg's Relish Goes To Washington

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:16 am

All families have Thanksgiving traditions, and longtime NPR listeners know that Susan Stamberg is always willing to divulge her own. Every year since 1972, Stamberg has shared her mother-in-law's now famous cranberry relish recipe on the radio. Stamberg says the relish — a shocking pink, like Pepto-Bismol — sounds terrible, but tastes terrific.

This year, she's brought her recipe to two chefs who have worked in the kitchen of a well-known address — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In October, two former White House executive chefs talked turkey, first families, state dinners and more at the National Archives. Roland Mesnier and Frank Ruta joined the kitchen staff in 1979, during the Carter administration. Mesnier, a pastry chef, baked for the families of Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush, while Ruta cooked for the Carters, Reagans and the first Bushes.

Ruta and Mesnier had staying power in the White House kitchen, but not all chefs have been so lucky. One chef, Mesnier recalls, shortened his stay when he served the first family's Thanksgiving turkey hastily sliced and arranged on a platter.

"The platter looked like he had taken the turkey and stuck a stick of dynamite in the turkey's behind, and whatever came out, [he] put it on the platter," says Mesnier. Needless to say, first lady Nancy Reagan was not pleased.

Good thing Mesnier had prepared a delicious dessert that he was sure would save the day. "This is where the pastry chef comes in — to clean up after the chef," Mesnier says with a laugh. It was a pumpkin ice cream dessert ... that didn't go over quite as well as he had hoped. "Mrs. Reagan told me to never do [it] again," he says.

Perhaps Mesnier would have had better luck if he had served Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish. With cranberries, sour cream, onions and horseradish — (you can find the full recipe below) — Ruta says, the recipe reminds him of one infamous White House dish: the Carter cheddar cheese ring.

"We had a cheddar cheese ring that Mrs. Carter would serve as a mainstay for hors d'oeuvre parties," Ruta recalls. Grated cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos were served in the shape of a ring, with strawberry preserves at its center. The first lady insisted on serving it, but the cheese ring was never a hit.

"I think we made one and kept bringing it out, kind of like the fruitcake," jokes Mesnier. "We froze it, brought it out, and I bet [if] you go back to the White House freezer today, you would still find [it]," he laughs.

The White House chefs were privy to plenty of the first family food peculiarities. Richard Nixon's favorite lunch was cottage cheese and ketchup. And Ruta claims that slim Nancy Reagan actually ate three square meals a day — including a proper, three course lunch — and she never skipped dessert. Nixon's cottage cheese and Nancy Reagan's desserts never came out of taxpayer dollars, though. The first families pay for their own food — and the process requires top security.

The food is picked up in an unmarked truck, Mesnier explains. Nobody knows from where. If food arrives at the White House in any other way — gifts of fresh strawberries, even Girl Scout Samoas — it has to be destroyed. Sometimes it's a real shame.

In 1987, President Reagan held a state dinner for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. A package arrived a few days after Gorbachev had returned home. On a Friday afternoon, Mesnier was in the White House kitchen, talking with Executive Chef Hans Raffert when the head usher came in with a big brown box.

"He said to both of us, 'I want you to destroy what is inside the box. That box came straight from the Kremlin,'" Mesnier remembers. "So we opened the box and we found two tins inside, each filled with seven pounds of caviar. I looked at the chef and I said, 'Hans, I don't know about you, but I'm willing to die for that.'"

When they aren't destroying (or consuming) suspicious packages, the chefs at the White House are tirelessly coming up with new ideas to keep the first family's table fresh. In order to figure out what the family likes, they use a simple trick. Were their plates empty? Did they ask for seconds? If so, the chefs knew they had found a favorite.

Back in the Stamberg Thanksgiving kitchen, there is the occasional pink smudge on plates coming back to the kitchen but the undaunted Stamberg says she wouldn't stop making it. After all, it's tradition.


Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish

This relish has a tangy taste that cuts through and perks up the turkey and gravy. It's also good on next-day turkey sandwiches and with roast beef.

Makes 1 1/2 pints

Ingredients

2 cups whole raw cranberries, washed

1 small onion

3/4 cup sour cream

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons horseradish from a jar ("red is a bit milder than white")

Instructions

Grind the raw berries and onion together. ("I use an old-fashioned meat grinder," Stamberg says. "I'm sure there's a setting on the food processor that will give you a chunky grind, not a puree.")

Add everything else and mix.

Put in a plastic container and freeze.

Early Thanksgiving morning, move it from freezer to refrigerator compartment to thaw. ("It should still have some little icy slivers left.")

The relish will be thick, creamy and shocking pink. ("OK, Pepto-Bismol pink.")

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Obamas have spent the last two Thanksgivings at the White House. No word yet on this year's location. If it's Camp David, then the White House chef gets to rest. The Navy cook is there. So reports NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg. A notorious Thanksgiving fan, she got two former White House chefs to chat about the holiday in front of an audience and to tell some First Family food stories.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: We met onstage at the National Archives auditorium. Several hundred people there for our public chat. Clip-on mics, so the sound's not great. But the stories are. Pastry chef Roland Mesnier - he baked for Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush One, Clinton and Bush Two - told about one executive chef who didn't last very long at the White House after he made turkey one Thanksgiving, sliced it, and arranged it on a platter.

ROLAND MESNIER: The platter looked like he had taken the turkey and stuck a stick of dynamite in the turkey's head(ph) and whatever came out, put it on the platter. Needless to say, at the time the first lady was Mrs. Reagan.

STAMBERG: Oh, she would not have liked a firecracker turkey.

MESNIER: No. No. She was not very fond of that.

STAMBERG: Yeah.

MESNIER: And, of course, that chef was passing like a flash through the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: That Thanksgiving was not a total loss, however, according to Chef Mesnier.

MESNIER: Luckily, we had a great dessert to save them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: This is where the pastry chef comes in. Clean up after the chef.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: And what was the dessert?

MESNIER: It was the pumpkin ice cream dessert that Mrs. Reagan told me never to do it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Well, I had a secret agenda for beginning with Thanksgiving. Every year I give my late mother-in-law Marjorie Stamberg's recipe for cranberry relish. And each year I am challenged with a fresh and new way to present this recipe. So last year I got a rap singer to do it for me. And he rhymed relish with fetish.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

COOLIO: (Rapping) That's what y'all heard. With some cranberry, a little bit of onion, y'all, and some horseradish. Now I got a fetish for that relish. And it's pink now...

STAMBERG: But this year I have two former White House chefs captive in front of an audience to help. Frank Ruta, who cooked for the Carters, Reagans, and Bush Ones, gave my ingredients.

FRANK RUTA: Two cups whole raw cranberries, washed. One small onion, three-quarter cups sour cream, one-half cup sugar, two tablespoons horseradish from a jar.

STAMBERG: White House chef Mesnier tells the procedure.

MESNIER: Remember, I don't have my glasses on.

STAMBERG: Uh-oh. Do you want mine?

MESNIER: Grind the raw berries and onions together. Everything else and mix. Put in a plastic container and freeze. Early Thanksgiving morning...

STAMBERG: He's got it. And doesn't this weird recipe sound great with a French accent? So move it from the freezer to the regular fridge to thaw. It will be chunky, icy, and the color of, yes, Pepto Bismol.

MESNIER: Creamy and shocking pink. And after that, just throw it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: No, no. I take that back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: It's delicious. Remind me of the Carters cream cheese ring.

STAMBERG: Frank Ruta remembers that one.

RUTA: We had a cheddar cheese ring that Mrs. Carter would serve as a mainstay for an hors d'oeuvre party. It was very simple. It's cheddar cheese, grated, and it was mayonnaise and it was pimentos. And it was in a ring and it was served with strawberry preserves in the center.

MESNIER: Which nobody ate.

RUTA: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: I think we made one and keep bringing it out, kind of like the fruitcake. We froze it, bring it out, and I bet you go back to the White House freezer today, you still find the Carter cheese ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Yes, friends, you heard it here. Good taxpayers' money going for a cheddar cheese ring. Well, not exactly. The First Family pays for family food. Which means that once upon a time, Richard Nixon shelled out perfectly good cash for his favorite lunch of cottage cheese with ketchup. Watching his weight, no doubt.

Ingredients arrive at the White House every day. Roland Mesnier says the buying and delivering system is efficient and secure.

MESNIER: It's very simple. They buy the food. Nobody knows from where it is. Somebody pick up the food - unmarked truck. People that pick up the food, you'll never know that's going to go to the White House.

STAMBERG: When food arrives any other way - gifts of fresh strawberries, Girl Scout Samoas, the order is: destroy. In 1987, President Reagan held a state dinner for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. After the Gorbachev went home, pastry chef Mesnier was in the White House kitchen on a Friday afternoon, talking with executive chef Hans Raffert, when a package arrived...

MESNIER: And the head usher came down with a big brown box. And he said to both of us, he said, I want you to destroy what is inside the box. That box came straight from the Kremlin. So we opened the box and we find two tin inside, filled with seven pounds caviar.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MESNIER: Now, I looked at the chef and I said, Hans, I don't know about you, but I'm willing to die for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: These White House chefs learned how to tell what the First Family liked. They would watch to see how their plates came back from the dining room. Empty, they liked it. Asked for seconds, they liked it.

Now, over the years you would think I would learn a similar lesson in my Thanksgiving kitchen, if, so unlikely. My plates come back with little shocking pink blobs. Do I stop making Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish? Not on your life and you won't either once you check out the recipe at npr.org. Happy Thanksgiving everybody. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related Program