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Hail to the Chef Draws Crowd at Nixon Library

“Cook two pounds of peeled fresh chestnuts in a little water for about 15 minutes. Brown a pound of ground veal with a pound of ground pork. Poor off excess juices. Add sauteed onions and garlic to taste. Separately, boil two cups of Chablis wine with two cups of turkey or chicken stock for about a half hour . . . “

It isn’t every day you get a chance to ask the White House executive chef who served under five Presidents--Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Ford and Reagan--how he prepares his favorite Thanksgiving stuffing.

But before he spoke to hundreds of guests at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace on Friday, Swiss-born Henry Haller shared the recipe for his chestnut creation--a favorite of Nancy Reagan’s.

He continued: “Combine all, including the remaining chestnut liquid, with 12 slices of toasted, diced white bread and two fresh eggs. Add dashes of thyme, marjoram and sage.

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“Bake, uncovered, in a chafing dish at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes or until the stuffing rises and has a little crust on top.”

(Tip: Peel chestnuts by dipping them in boiling water. If you have to cut them up, they aren’t cooked enough. They should fall apart.)

Whipping up a holiday feast for the First Families was easy, Haller said. They all wanted a traditional meal.

Pat Nixon loved roast turkey, “and she insisted on having celery stuffing, which was kind of unusual for me,” said Haller, author of “The White House Family Cookbook.” “I was used to making stuffing with a little celery, but she liked lots of it.

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“We’d start the meal with a fruit cup, then have turkey with the trimmings--baked sweet potatoes, whipping-cream potatoes, yellow turnips and asparagus when it was available.

“We also had a nice green salad. The Nixon family was fond of salads. Dessert was always pumpkin, coconut and pecan pie, so they would have a choice.”

Before the lecture--part of the Yorba Linda library’s annual Distinguished Speaker and VIP Luncheon Series--Kevin Cartwright noted that on one Thanksgiving, Pat Nixon invited some of the Washington-area citizenry to join her for dinner.

“Mrs. Nixon invited senior citizens with no place to go to dine in the East, Red and Green rooms,” said Cartwright, the library’s assistant director. “I think that event really sums up her generous entertaining style.”

Haller landed his job as White House chef because of Lyndon Johnson, he told the crowd. “Vice President Johnson used to dine at the Sheraton East Hotel where I worked. He was there often with his aides, guests or family. After he became President, my wife noticed there was an ad in the newspaper for a chef’s job at the White House. She told me: ‘Write to Mrs. Johnson!’

“I said I wouldn’t do that--if they wanted me they could write to me. There’s more money in it that way, see?” (Guests roared.)

Three days later, Mrs. Johnson called and Haller went for an interview in the First Family’s private quarters on the second floor. He accepted the job.

“I knew I was on my way to the White House when I learned that the FBI was in my neighborhood the next day, asking questions,” he said.

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It was a 22-year love affair.

During his tenure, he whipped up distinguished fare for dignitaries who came to the White House from around the world.

But, oh, the challenges. He worried about duplicating meals. “I was careful to vary the menus,” he said. “Frequently, we had the same people.”

He worried about breaking the Presidential china. “It didn’t happen often, but when it did, we reported it immediately. Members of the the White House staff would glue the beautiful plate back together, store it carefully, and it would never be used for service again.”

He worried about offending guests. “When we served portions from trays, we would always have one more than was needed. We never wanted a guest to feel like they were getting the last portion,” he said.

Of the thousands of meals he prepared, one is closest to his heart. “That was when President Nixon invited 1,300 Vietnam War POWS to dine at the White House. We erected a huge tent on the lawn, and when I saw those 130 tables, I almost fainted.”

He served roast beef as the main course. “I figured they hadn’t had much of that. It was a wonderful day.”

During his White House years, were there any culinary disasters? “I’m always asked that question,” he said. “The answer is no.” They weren’t allowed. “You just couldn’t embarrass a President or a First Lady.”

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