Ulysses S. Grant Enjoyed a Morning Cucumber
President Richard Nixon was known to eat ketchup and cottage cheese for breakfast. William Howard Taft consumed a variable amount of steak for his morning (and midday and night) meal. John F. Kennedy tucked into his wife's waffles from time to time. Ulysses S. Grant dug starting his day with a cucumber and there is absolutely nothing weird about that. OK, maybe it would be if he’d been just indiscriminately gnawing on cucurbits as he met with cabinet members to discuss how to effectively restrict the reach of the Ku Klux Klan, or as he signed legislation to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, but by the time he ascended to the presidency, he'd turned to more lavish fare.
Historical documents note that during Grant’s tenure as a Union general in the Civil War, not only did he made certain that his soldier had access to the best rations the Army could muster—when his old friend, Confederate brigadier general Simon Bolivar Buckner, humbly asked for food for his own starving troops, Grant issued an order for two days' rations from his commissary to be delivered to the enemy. Grant himself consumed sparingly, preferring a cup of coffee and a cucumber soaked in vinegar overnight as his morning sustenance.
Folks, that’s a pickle. Not in the sense of “that’s a strange and complicated situation,” but rather literally a pickle. And that’s not an odd thing to have for breakfast.
Again, OK—maybe it was during Civil War times, and still it's not as if you're going to find dill spears or bread and butter chips on your average American breakfast menu. But pickles are standard morning fare in the form of tsukemono in Japanese breakfasts, topping Chinese congee, or stirred into Indian kambu koozh, and chopped cucumber is a standard part of the salad served with Israeli breakfast. This little fact about Grant is often cited as a "Did you know this president's weird food habit?" sort of thing, but let's just go ahead and pretend that he was prepping for the world tour he'd later take in an attempt to rehab his image after a notably rough tenure in the White House.
But while he was actually in office, the 18th president went buckwild over breakfast. According to Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks' The Presidents' Cookbook: "The one large meal that President Grant indulged in was breakfast. Leaner, more Spartan days, when breakfast consisted of cucumbers and coffee, may have been responsible for his insistence on a hearty morning meal. A favorite breakfast was broiled Spanish mackerel, steak, bacon and fried apples, flannel cakes or buckwheat cakes, and a cup of strong black coffee."
That feast was likely prepped by or under the auspices of Valentino Melah, the Italian steward who was responsible for the post-Andrew Johnson uptick in fanciness of White House menus. And while the Grant family became fond of hosting frequently, lavish, multi-course dinner parties, there was one humble dish the president returned to time and time again. Per Cannon and Brooks, "His fondness for simple rice pudding was almost a mania."
The authors also noted that: "It was the president's habit to roll his bread into tiny balls and shoot the balls as ammunition at [his children] Nellie and Jesse." You can take an old general off of the battlefield, but you'd be in rather a pickle if you tried the reverse.