While many aspects of her efforts as First Lady may now be forgotten, one bit of trivia managed to persist in presidential food lore for over half a century of Thanksgivings: Mamie Eisenhower is the First Lady with the most famous Pumpkin Pie recipe.
With her first Thanksgiving as First Lady, in 1953, she directed her White House social secretary to respond to press inquires about her uniquely named “Pumpkin Chiffon Pie” by supplying the recipe. With that ubiquitous of postwar food additives, gelatin, as a primary ingredient, the pie was no “lo-cal” wonder but it did taste lighter than the usual pumpkin pie and it became a wild hit, the recipe printed in thousands of newspapers every Thanksgiving.
While the press was always quick to credit Mamie, food companies that used the pie recipe by making one of their products a prominent aspect, many refrained from using the name of the president’s wife in a magazine print advertisement.
For six of the eight Thanksgiving days of her tenure as First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower spent the holiday at their personal retreat, a small house dubbed “Mamie’s Cabin,” on the grounds of the Augusta National Golf Course, permitting the President to indulge his love of golf and establishing a Thanksgiving morning tradition of quail hunting.
They spent their first one of the presidency there, in 1953, with their son, his wife and grandchildren. Their arrival was the most notable aspect of their arrival, having taken their first flight on the newly-built, super-sonic Air Force One.
The following year they were joined by a special guest, Sir Bernard Montgomery, the British Marshal who had become a colleague and friend of Ike’s during World War II. They were also there in 1958.
Thanksgiving 1955, however, the First Lady remained vigilant in her rigorous protection of her husband, guarding the time he needed for rest and ensuring he stuck to his medically-ordained diet, having only recently returned to their Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farmhouse from Denver, Colorado where he had suffered a heart attack.
For Mamie Eisenhower, the annual holiday for which she was most personally thankful was the one she celebrated in the White House, in 1957.
Only three days before Thanksgiving, President Eisenhower suffered a slight stroke. Again, the nation feared that the President’s health was in jeopardy.
But on Thanksgiving morning, as the First Lady’s limousine pulled up to National Presbyterian Church, she was followed by her husband, prompting the crowd to break into cheers and allaying fears that it had been anything but the mild stroke reported by the White House.
For their last two Thanksgivings as a presidential couple, the Eisenhowers celebrated the holiday in the White House.
In 1959, amid a national “Cranberry Crisis” set off by the Agriculture Secretary issuing a warning that some cranberries might be tainted with an insecticide, one of Mamie’s good friends, the famous movie actress Rosalind Russell who shared the holiday meal with the First Couple let it slip that the First Lady had cautiously decided to have apple sauce served instead of the traditional cranberry sauce.
In 1960, because her grandchildren were now regularly guarded by Secret Service agents, it was decided that they should celebrate the holiday at their own home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, rather than join their beloved grandmother “Mimi,” in the White House.
Towards the end of her tenure, Mrs. Eisenhower decided to spend Thanksgiving in Washington, to permit Secret Service agents a chance to spend at least part of the holiday with their own families, and she always wanted the agents guarding her grandchildren in Pennsylvania afforded the same opportunity.
The most meaningful, however, may have been their first Thanksgiving of his presidency, also spent in Augusta.
In his radio address to the nation on Thanksgiving Day, President Eisenhower did something nearly none of his predecessors had: he made mention of his wife, referencing her simply by her first name.
In doing so, he explained on their mutual behalf why that particular Thanksgiving of November 26, 1953 was especially valued by them and what his, admittedly idealistic vision of what the nation he led might hope for on future celebrations of the holiday:
America, of course, has countless things for which to be thankful on this November 26th. But I think the most important is this: for the first Thanksgiving in the last four, we sit down to our traditional Thanksgiving feast without the fear of the casualty list hanging over us. We don’t, longer, have to worry about the killing in Korea.
Now, my wife and I are just exactly like many thousands of other families in America tonight. We have home our son. But what is far more important than that is that our grandchildren have home their daddy; our Barbie has her husband home.
We are very, very thankful, and I am certain that I speak for thousands and thousands of other families in America, when I say: may we never again have to have our loved ones go off to war.