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Local Ladies Were First: Julia Grant and Bess Truman Brought Midwestern Style to Washington

by Janice Denham, St. Louis Suburban Journals


If Laura Bush wants to add Midwestern style to her entertaining in the second term of her husband's presidency, she can draw on the designs of two First Ladies who came from Missouri: Julia Dent Grant and Elizabeth Virginia Wallace Truman.

Steve Brawley of Kirkwood, a marketing specialist who wishes all his jobs included a segment of history, says each First Lady, one from the 19th and the other from the 20th century, was known for a deliberate style.

Each was grounded in her Midwestern upbringing, as well as the times in which she lived in Washington, D.C.

"I think they both were very deliberate in their strategies in the White House," he says.

When he was a youngster in school, Brawley took Abraham Lincoln under study. His collection of "pop culture" information surrounding Jacqueline Kennedy brought him an invitation to speak in 2002 at her 50- year George Washington University class reunion in Washington, D.C.

Now his studies have rooted into the entertaining styles of both Julia Grant and Bess Truman.

Although their public styles differed radically, Brawley says both wives "had influential roles behind closed doors."

Julia and Ulysses Grant, a Civil War hero, came to the White House in 1869. After eight years there, Julia was hailed as a triumphant First Lady who served elegant 29-course meals. Menus were in French.

"Her entertaining was over the top," he says. "People had to get up and take an intermission before they could finish. She brought a steward from Italy."

The wedding of their only daughter, Nellie, is the standard for all White House weddings.

The wedding breakfast menu included soft crabs on toast, chicken croquettes and peas, aspic of beef tongue, broiled spring chicken, strawberries with cream, wedding and other fancy cakes, ice creams and ices.

Brawley says Julia was raised on a modest plantation called White Haven, now a national park in south St. Louis County. Eighteen years after the death of Ulysses Grant, Adolphus Busch bought part of the property as a gift for his son and named it Grant's Farm.

"They had moved around a lot, so once they moved into the White House, she felt really balanced,"

Brawley says. "Both dads lived with them and their four children. It was a rambunctious house with fathers who didn't get along."  Julia oversaw the kitchen staff.

"She was very intimately involved in food preparation," Brawley says. "She ran the White House closely. Her growing up as part of a farm family, having grown up at White Haven, she knew how to grow and prepare foods, how to allocate resources."

While Ulysses first felt more at home as an officer in the saddle than as an internationally-tuned host, he came to like the lavish foods, including chicken and other foods he had not taken seriously.

In contrast to Julia Grant, who relished her role, Bess Truman made it clear her responsibility was to keep her hat straight and send press inquiries to her husband.

"She entered the White House on war rations," Brawley says. "She supervised the household with an iron thumb, straight from her Midwestern roots."

Bess took over the books to be sure the household abided by the rules. When the head housekeeper, who cherished Harry Truman's predecessor dearly, found out the new president did not like to eat Brussels sprouts, "they started appearing regularly," by Brawley's account.

Bess' social crowd included friends from the Senate. She hosted meals with her Spanish club, where foods of Spain and Mexico were shared.

Her canasta club proved the housekeeper's undoing.  She lost her job when she did not produce a stick of butter, a rationed food, needed for the dish Bess wanted to make for the club's potluck gathering.

President Truman ate the basic foods he enjoyed in Independence: oatmeal with brown sugar, buttermilk, roast beef with whole wheat toast.

"The Trumans loved ice cream," Brawley says.

"Margaret's favorite flavor was chocolate. The family made an effort to eat together. They liked to drink coffee and actually took time out to have it together."

Because the White House had been found structurally unstable, the Trumans lived across the street at Blair House for three years.

"Between the war and the move, the Trumans did a lot of entertaining at hotels," Brawley says. "They invited soldiers to the Blair House. It was symbolic, but it wasn't anything over the top."

Recipes for macaroni and cheese, Ozark pudding and other foods the family loved to prepare, serve and eat are readily available, even in Bess' handwriting, on the Internet.

Brawley says, contrary to some social criticism, macaroni and cheese was not a regular menu item at state dinners.

"The Truman Balcony was, of course, reflective of their Midwestern style," he says. "They liked being outside and sitting out on the porch with a meal." Brawley says they did the same when they were home – which was as often as Bess could get there, particularly in the summer – in Independence. Truman initiated many visuals taken for granted today.

The presidential seal and stage held up at inaugurations until Reagan. He used the Rose Garden and the Oval Office, too despite living across the street.  While history may attribute a formality to the Truman era in the White House that was intact until the Kennedys arrived, Brawley says, "The Trumans were a very human family. They had watermelon seed fights in the dining room."  Jacqueline Kennedy credited Bess as one of her models for family privacy in the White House.

Overall, the local student of history agrees the Trumans are more recognizable because their times were closer to today, but no one could beat Julia (Grant) as a lavish entertainer."

He sees both First Ladies from the Midwest getting due respect as time goes on.

French Vegetable Soup is a recipe of Julia Grant, as interpreted by Steve Brawley. He credits tipsy Roman Punch as another of her favorites.

The simpler Macaroni and Cheese recipe credited to Bess Truman comes from the Truman Library. In her own hand, she writes that it can be made the previous day and refrigerated.


6 cups vegetable broth (or 6 tsp. chicken bouillon dissolved in 6 cups water)

1 can (28 oz.) chopped tomatoes

2 to 3 medium carrots, thinly sliced

1 cup fresh basil leaves

1 can (16 oz.) white beans, rinsed, drained

1 can (16 oz.) french-style green beans, drained

1/4 cup uncooked vermicelli, broken in 1/2 inch pieces

3 tbsp. light soy sauce

1 to 2 cloves garlic, pureed

Grated parmesan cheese

In 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, bring broth, undrained tomatoes and carrot to boil. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer 15 minutes or until carrot is slightly tender.

Chop basil fine by hand or in food processor.

Add white and green beans and vermicelli to tomato mixture. Simmer until pasta is done. Stir in basil, soy sauce, garlic and a little parmesan to taste.

Makes 6 servings.


1 qt. lemon sherbet

1 cup rum

1 split (about 3/4 cup) champagne, iced Place sherbet in chilled bowl. Slowly mix in rum.

Quickly add champagne.

Serve in sherbet glasses. Mixture should be mushy texture, to be sipped, not spooned.

Makes 10 servings.



8 oz. uncooked elbow macaroni

8 oz. grated cheddar cheese

2 cups milk

1 egg

1/4 cup margarine ("oleo," as written)

Cook macaroni. Drain and cool.

Place layer of macaroni in baking dish, then add layer of cheese. Repeat layers.

Combine milk and egg and pour over macaroni and cheese. Dot with margarine.

(No time or temperature is given for baking.) This can be done the previous day and refrigerated.

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Steve Brawley (314) 740-0298