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November 15, 2012

At a White House Thanksgiving, tradition is a presidential thing

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

In the not-so-calorie-conscious early 1930s, Eleanor Roosevelt talked about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's love of oyster stew and browned sausages as Thanksgiving Day mainstays. The Roosevelts' Thanksgiving chestnut stuffing recipe called for roasting the nuts in "fat" (though it doesn't say what kind), sauteing celery and onions in bacon fat, then tossing it all in melted butter: an artery-clogging trifecta.

But by 1946, in the fresh aftermath of World War II, a measure of caloric restraint was restored. Come Thanksgiving, Harry Truman's housekeeper, Mary E. Sharpe, was said to be counting presidential calories, and the White House menu kicked off dutifully with clear bouillon and curled celery.

For Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the dutiful requirements had to do with scheduling. Their Thanksgiving wasn't the extended feasting and football-watching fest of the Obamas, who have celebrated each year at the White House, making them the first presidential family to have their Thanksgiving meal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Gerald Ford's. The Reagans wanted family members to arrive at their Santa Barbara ranch at precisely 5 p.m., their son, Michael Reagan, says. Dinner was served at 6, followed by coffee and dessert, and all but one or two overnight guests would be out by 8 p.m. No lingering.

Joke swapping was a Reagan family Thanksgiving tradition, Michael Reagan says. While his father was running for president, Michael says, he told his father a joke that made fun of Poles and Italians. Reagan liked it so much that he retold it to a group of reporters who did what reporters do — they reported it — leading to a brief but intense flash of controversy and a hasty apology.

The Reagans' meal was always prepared by Ann Allman, the family's longtime California housekeeper and cook, rather than the White house chefs or — certainly not — the first lady. "Nancy didn't cook," Michael Reagan says. "Nancy? We didn't let her boil water."

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