We can thank the Cincinnati palate for bringing probably the nation’s weirdest historical food to the White House Thanksgiving table. This happened during the presidency of our larger-than-life local boy William Howard Taft. The headlines in the 1909 Washington Post read, “Taft Eats Turkey, Pie, and Possum.”
The article below the headline read: “President Taft and family had a genuine Thanksgiving dinner today. In addition to the mammoth turkey which had been sent to the White House by Horace Vose of Westerly, Rhode Island, and the 50-pound mince pie sent by the bakers of Newark, New Jersey, there was a 26-pound possum, said to be the largest and plumpest ever trapped in the Georgia woods, on the table in the White House dining room.”
Yuck – a 26 pound possum – the largest and plumpest ever trapped?? I shake in horror to think how a 26 pound possum could be prepared and presented to be appetizing at any table. Was there a separate possum gravy – hopefully one that covered up the taste of greasy gamey rodent? Was it served with a side of mint jelly? Was the head and long mangly teeth left on? It may not have been the first possum, but it was the last recorded time of possum making it to the White House table.
Both Washington and Jefferson were interested in the possum as pets, and wrote about them in their journals. President Benjamin Harrison had two pet possums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection at the White House, secured him by his Secretary of Agriculture, “Uncle” Jeremiah Rusk, which he gifted to his grandchildren. Lucky them!
Although it seems weird to us today, what we consider wild game meats were very popular in Victorian America. High class restaurants, like our famous St. Nicholas Hotel downtown, served a variety of game meats including real turtle soup, canvasback duck, and a variety of fowl and animal critters.
The nation learned early on of Taft’s love of possum. The President-Elect Taft was the guest of 650 on January 15, 1909, in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce Banquet. The menu was composed mainly of famous Southern Delicacies, like Brunswick Stew, and Persimmon Beer. But, at Taft’s request, a dish of “possum and taters” – baked possum on a bed of sweet potatoes, was added to the menu. Taft said of the meal, “Well I certainly like possum… I ate very heartily of it last night, and it did not disturb in the slightest my digestion or my sleep.”
Taft was presented that night with a stuffed possum, with the hopes that it would replace the Teddy Bear, the mascot of his predecessor President Theodore Roosevelt. Toy makers, who had created Teddy’s Bear in 1902, thought that when this presidential transition occurred, their stuffed bear would lose popularity and stop selling. The Georgia Billy Possum Company formed, churning out thousands of the stuffed rodents. The company’s slogan was “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.” Anti-teddy bear ads were all over the place. The market flooded with Billy Possum postcards, pins, and posters. Marketers introduced Jimmie Possum—Billy’s running mate—named after Vice President James Sherman. Supporters could join a group called the “Possum Club.” Composer J. B. Cohen and lyricist G. A. Scofield even wrote a ragtime tune called “Possum: The Latest Craze,” whose last verse goes:
Ole Teddy Bar’s a dead one now Sence Bill Possum’s come to town. An’it taint no use to make excuse Or raise a fuus an’frown. Jes get in touch wit’de President Eat possum when you dine. Den ask a Job of de Government An’ you’ll cert’ly be in line.
Companies tried to push the sales of the stuffed possum. Unfortunately, sales died quickly, and it was all a massive flop. Billy Possum didn’t even last a year—the craze died by Christmas. The possum failed and the teddy bear endured. So, thankfully none of us grew up spooning a creepy stuffed possum instead of a cute cuddly bear.
In addition to the possum, William Howard Taft was also a fan of turtle soup, and ate it regularly at home, and requested it at public dinners. He even chose his White House Chef on his ability to make turtle soup. This was not the mock turtle soup we Cincinnatians eat today put out by local Worthmore Soups, it was the actual terrapin meat turtle soup. Today, with many turtle species on the endangered list, these real turtle soups are not available, but they were extremely popular in Taft’s time.
So of all the weird 1960s and 70s Jell-O salads that make it to the Thanksgiving table, know that none other Thanksgiving table was as weird as the White House in November 25, 1909, thanks to President Taft.