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Monday, September 3, 2007

Book: All the Presidents' Pastries

An occasional series on books and movies about DC:

I first heard of this book from this episode of Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me. In the "Not My Job"

segment of the show, Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was asked three questions about the book All the Presidents' Pastries. From this, I learned that Prince Charles had never seen a tea bag until his tea with Ronald Reagan, that Francois Mitterrand is very particular about his toilet seats, and the Clinton family's favorite dessert is Coca Cola flavored jello with glacee cherries. I was intrigued.

Then the next week, they invited the author of All the Presidents' Pastries, Roland Mesnier, to come on the show to play "Not My Job." You must listen to this segment. His French accent is just too outrageous and endearing. His dismissal of the Coca Cola jello ("but usually no one eats it") so dryly disgusted. His overt disgust at the foods in the questions being asked of him ("but who eats this stuff?!") so funny. I bought his book the next week.

So why haven't I written about it until now? Well, it took me this long to finish it because unfortunately, it's not very good. Mesnier writes in a very abrupt style, mentioning everything but not going into detail about anything. Over his long career, he served five presidents in 25 years at the White House. He served desserts to heads of state from almost every country you can think of, large elaborate desserts for state dinners, and small ones for family celebrations. He describes these occasions and desserts in a purely perfunctory way, but leaves out the stuff we really want to know. How did he make them? Did anything go wrong? How long did it take? How was it received?

Instead we get paragraphs like this one:

One year, Mrs. Bush asked me to make a birthday cake evoking their favorite sport. I made a full-sized tennis racquet in chocolate, standing up straight on top of the cake, with slightly slack strings, entwined with roses. Game, set and match! Everyone was delighted.

Or this one:

I discovered another favorite Argentinian specialty, an extraordinarily delicious ice cream known as dulce de leche made from condensed milk, which is boiled for hours until it turns into a kind of caramel. This is what I would serve for the dessert. In addition, I served a dish of pineapples -- an imported Argentinian crop -- cooked in a very special way, then arranged on silver platters topped with a kind of sweet pastry, giving them an agreeable crunchy taste.

By describing everything, we don't get a true sense for the time, effort and craftsmanship that went into each dessert, nor the scale of grandeur of each.

If you are hoping for a little juicy gossip about the presidential families, you won't get it here. In fact, it takes Mesnier nearly 100 pages of the book before he even gets to the White House. Up until then, we learn in detail of every job and opportunity he had until he was offered the job in the White House. And once he is in the White House, he has only the nicest things to say about all the presidents and their families.

The book does have its moments. You get a pretty good sense of how the White House is run behind the scenes, the level of excellence and professionalism that is demanded from everyone. You get a glimpse at what it was like to actually be in the White House on September 11th. You learn some interesting things about how world class pastry chefs become world class, the hard work and sacrifices along the way. And there is a collection of recipes in the back of each of the five presidents' favorite desserts. I haven't tried any out yet, but they all look quite good (especially the orange flourless chocolate cake for the Reagan family).

Rest assured, he leaves out the recipe for Coca Cola jello with glacee cherries.


Anonymous said...

That writing is cringe-worthy, which is a shame because the book has an interesting premise with a lot of potential. I'll see if the library has it, anyway-- I'm sure it's at least worth a skim-though.

dc365 said...

I agree -- I was disappointed even more so because I thought the premise was really promising. But it's worth a skim, and at the very least a test run of a couple of those recipes in the back!