Disappointed though she must have felt on the day she ended her presidential campaign, I hope Hillary Clinton was able to see the silver lining: No more Happy Homemaker talent shows. This is one female politician who’s been shoved onstage in a gingham apron for the last time. The first time, of course, was back in 1992, when a little-known Bill Clinton was running for president. Hillary’s offhanded reference to baking cookies—she said she had chosen to focus on her profession instead—blew up into such gigantic headlines she was still being flogged with them 16 years later, during her own White House race. Meanwhile, the flap inspired Family Circle magazine to launch a cookie-baking contest between the wives of the presidential candidates, publishing recipes from Hillary and Barbara Bush and inviting readers to vote on their favorites. Hillary, so spooked by the firestorm of bad press that she never again uttered an unscripted word in public, made haste to assign her best staffer to the case. Maybe she even took it on herself. At any rate, the Clinton family’s allegedly beloved recipe for chocolate chip oatmeal cookies triumphed over the Bush family’s allegedly beloved recipe for classic chocolate chips. Four years later, when Family Circle called again, Hillary entered exactly the same recipe and won a second time. She may or may not be a baker, but nobody ever said she wasn’t a smart cookie.
Family’s Circle’s contest, an exercise in extreme cognitive dissonance now in its fifth season, is finally showing signs of stress. Last time around, Teresa Heinz Kerry was forced to admit she had never even seen the recipe for pumpkin spice cookies submitted in her name, much less baked them. This year it’s Cindy McCain’s turn to skulk off to the baker’s hall of shame. The allegedly beloved recipe for oatmeal butterscotch cookies that she sent to Family Circle is nearly identical to one that appears on the Hershey’s website. (To make matters worse, this was a second offense: Earlier in the year, food sleuths discovered that recipes posted on her husband’s website as Cindy’s favorites had been lifted right off the Food Network website.) Michelle Obama at least had the decency—or maybe just the foresight—to attribute her shortbread recipe to her children’s godmother.
In an era when many Americans don’t expect to see home cooking even in their own homes, the notion that potential first ladies must demonstrate a close, personal relationship with the kitchen has been strangely hard to shake. Surely nobody believes that high-level, hardworking political operatives—which is what candidates’ wives are—actually tote groceries home at 6 P.M. and start chopping onions for lasagne. Yet the fantasy endures, maybe because we’re always hoping that food will tell us the truth about people who are very good at staying hidden. Women whose husbands are running for office learn quickly, the way Hillary did, that when it comes to speaking in public, bland is best. No wonder we seize on their recipes for signs of life. Food talks, even when nobody else does.
Last fall, early in the primary season and even earlier in the political-recipe season, Yankee magazine invited all 13 of the candidates on the campaign trail to submit recipes to a baking contest. A team of judges, as well as readers who voted online, chose the winner: Bill and Barbara Richardson’s biscochitos, a sugar cookie made with wine, anise, and lard that came out from behind to defeat Hillary’s hitherto unconquerable oatmeal chocolate chips. (Make of this what you will, but you have to admit it was a portent.) Now that the field is down to two, I decided to look more closely at the recipes submitted to Yankee on behalf of McCain and Obama. The personal is political, as we used to say in the women’s movement, and what could be more personal than dessert?
I started with Cindy McCain’s 3-Minute No-Bake Cookies—predictably enough, a recipe swiped from the Quaker Oats website. Only the brand names were cut. (Memo to Cindy’s staff: Don’t you people have grandmothers? If you’re going to steal a recipe, do not go to the websites of the biggest companies in the food business.) On the positive side, recipes lifted from test kitchens always work, and the no-bakes came out just as they were supposed to—very sweet and very mushy, perfect for toddlers and geriatrics. I used an excellent brand of cocoa, which helped, but only while the cookies were absolutely fresh. After that they tasted flat, and by the evening of the first day they had settled into the unpleasantly flabby state that dooms all no-bakes. The problem, of course, is that a no-bake isn’t an actual cookie by any definition except the lamest. It’s a placeholder, an apologetic reminder that somewhere in this happy land there are cookies, but not here. As for the staffer who decided that a no-bake was an appropriate choice for a baking contest, was this an act of chutzpah, domestic naiveté, or a mysterious passion for culinary oxymorons? You decide.
Michelle Obama’s Apple Cobbler recipe couldn’t be more different from Cindy’s no-bakes—it represents genuine baking, and it’s so resolutely down-home that you expect to see it emerge from your printer on a splattered index card. There’s nothing corporate about these instructions: They’re written the way most people give out favorite family recipes, which is to say chattily and from memory. So I can imagine this cobbler coming out of the oven quite nicely—at the hands of someone who had made it many times before. My version was full of guesswork and wasn’t very successful. I wanted to know the exact size of the baking dish (“large” is all she says); I wanted to know whether I could substitute another apple for the Granny Smiths (I used Idareds from the farmers market instead, which was probably a mistake); and I worried about the 1 1/2–2 cups of brown sugar—wouldn’t it overwhelm the 8 sliced apples? Since I have a well-founded fear of making pie crust, I gladly used the readymade dough she called for, but real pastry would have made a big difference. The combination of packaged dough, disintegrating apples, and too much brown sugar resulted in something that tasted like the old Table Talk pies I remember from childhood. In other words, Michelle’s cobbler is a honest, homemade version of a commercial original. I’m still pondering the implications.