Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover started their marriage in China – with six servants. They didn’t need them, but it was customary – in China.
The Mining Engineer
Both Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry were graduates of Stanford University, and degreed geologists. Even though they were the same age, he graduated three years ahead of her, and the two of them corresponded as regularly as possible, since his various jobs took him to remote locations in the world. Once Lou completed her education, the two married. By that time, Bert as his friends called him, had embarked on a hugely successful career as a mining engineer and consultant, and the two of the circumnavigated the globe, living in exotic places. It was a fascinating life.
Their honeymoon (and his job) was in China, and, according to Chinese custom, their house came equipped with a hierarchy of six servants. The new Mrs. Hoover would learn early how to work with “staff.”
By the beginning of World War I (1914), the Hoovers had been living in London’s tony Mayfair section for five years, firmly involved in the smart set of wealthy London society, since Hoover was a millionaire several times over.
Entertaining on a high-level was a part of the Hoover lifestyle. Since they were wealthy, and their household included several servants, most of the “details” of hosting were done by others. All Mrs. H. needed to do was “invite” and tell the head housekeeper how many and what time – and perhaps a hint of what might be served.
Mrs. Hoover’s Bad Habit
History would paint both Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover as “aloof” or “unsociable,” but that was far from the truth. They were genial people, happy to mix with their English friends and neighbors.
Since “others” were responsible for the mundane details of entertaining (think Downton Abbey), both Hoovers were somewhat oblivious to the consternation it caused their household staff when Mr. and Mrs. Hoover, together and separately, invited people for lunch or dinner on the spur of the moment.
It was not unusual for Mrs. H. to advise the housekeeper at nine o’clock that there would be a dozen for luncheon at one. An hour or two later, after attending a meeting or making calls, she might telephone and up the count to twenty. Mr. Hoover may have extended invitations as well, and by noon, the number of guests expected could exceed thirty.
This went on so often, that the Hoover kitchens were prepared for all exigencies. The larder was always well stocked.
The Habit Continues in America
When the Hoovers returned to the U.S. in 1918, his renown as a mining consultant was dwarfed by his new-found prominence as a humanitarian on a grand scale. He and his wife had performed yeoman services providing the necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, fuel and medical supplies – to war-torn Belgium.
Recruited by President Woodrow Wilson to “come home” and head the Food Administration, the Hoovers purchased a house in Washington, and immediately became involved in the capital’s social circles. In addition, Lou, with many interests of her own, including the nascent Girl Scouts, developed friendships and resources apart from those of her husband.
Needless to say, their “bad habit” of issuing spontaneous invitations for meals wreaked havoc with their Washington household staff. They never knew how many places to set, and despite the Hoovers’ best intentions to keep their guest lists in check, anywhere from ten to fifty extra guests might show up.
Entertaining at the White House
The Hoovers were one of the wealthiest couples to reside in the White House, and it was all self-earned. Herbert Hoover had been a poor farm boy, orphaned at ten. He had developed a strong sense of noblesse oblige, and quietly returned his monthly salary check to the treasury. While there was a substantial budget for presidential “entertaining,” it seldom covered those expenses in full, and Mrs. Hoover would just as quietly write a personal check for the difference.
Even though the Great Depression caught the country off guard and austerity was now the watchword, President and Mrs. Hoover believed the White House should continue to present a positive face. There would be guests for breakfasts, luncheons and dinners. And teas. And receptions. Often there might be two or three teas and receptions in a day. “Company, company, company!” groused Ava Long, the head housekeeper. But Lou Hoover, concerned that her husband’s onerous workload needed some respite, continued to invite a large group of guests that she thought might be helpful to alleviate the President’s mounting cares.
The “Surprise Supreme”
It had started innocently enough. A one o’clock luncheon was planned for Mrs. Hoover’s guests, perhaps a dozen. By ten, the number had increased; by eleven it had increased yet again, and by noon, the kitchen was advised that forty would be coming within the hour.
Ava Long had already gone to the market, but this was far more than she expected, and there was not enough food. She immediately instructed the kitchen staff to empty the iceboxes, collect whatever meats were available and put it all through the grinder. Then she had them prepare a basic “white sauce.”
The ground-up meat was formed into croquettes, cooked, plated and “sauced” for the luncheon guests.
The ingenuity paid off. Everyone thought the croquettes were delicious. When one guest asked for the name of this wonderful concoction, the housekeeper told her it was called “The White House Surprise Supreme.”
Nevertheless, the strain was too much for Mrs. Long, and she resigned a few months later.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Boller, Paul Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995
Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934