It was the carrot carved into the shape of a palm tree, topped by green peppers shaped to resemble its fronds and designed to decorate an otherwise simple dish of cold salmon, that made me realise this was no ordinary cookbook. Then there were the recipes, a strange assortment, particularly a certain concoction called "Grandmother Pierce's Creamy Salad Ring", of which more later.
These dishes are not really of the modern world - there's not a rocket leaf or sun-dried tomato in sight. These are dishes laden with cream and butter, where tinned peaches and frozen vegetables are key ingredients, and bits of bacon top a chicken curry; dishes in which the ring mould rules.
But this is not some ironic retro-cuisine, designed for those satiated by the River Café. Neither is this a republished work from the culinary Dark Ages of the English post-war period, before Elizabeth David began to educate our taste buds.
This is The Bush Family Cookbook, by Ariel De Guzman, personal chef and house manager to George Bush Snr and his wife, Barbara, from the White House onwards. This is the food George W and brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, eat at home, this is what the President gets when he returns to the bosom of his family (presumably at dinners where he sits in the corner muttering about "Pop's unfinished business in Iran" until Barbara cuffs him).
It's what the Bushes and their circle like to eat at "informal family buffet suppers" and "casual pool parties" at their homes in Houston and Walker's Point, Maine. And frankly, most of it is odd, bizarre even.
De Guzman's book suggests that great American cooks such as Alice Waters, renowned restaurants like the French Laundry and wonderful writers such as Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten might all have been wasting their time. It tells us that, out there in America's heartland, there are people still eating as if it's the 1950s.
The great fish cookery writer Alan Davidson once recalled a 1949 American recipe for bouillabaisse, the French fish stew, that consisted of a can of tomato soup and a can of pea soup. "No fish, no herbs and no olive oil,'' he noted mournfully.
Well, the Bushes are keeping this tradition alive with recipes such as baked chicken breasts, which, we are assured, has been in Mrs Bush's family cookbook since the time she and George were at Yale. It goes: "One pack of onion soup. One can of mushroom soup. One pint of sour cream..." which you mix with the chicken breasts before baking.
Now, if I had recipes like that, I'd keep quiet about them. Not the Bushes. George Snr and Barbara both contribute forewords to the book, as does Jeb Bush. And as de Guzman reminds us proudly, the seafood casserole, "was the entrée during the inaugural brunch of Governor John Ellis Bush of Florida".'
Vast amounts of cream and sugar are bunged in at every opportunity, egg yolks are used as thickening, and even with a simple tomato and mushroom sauce for pasta, butter instead of olive oil is used to fry mushrooms - and, incomprehensibly, flour is added. I could feel my arteries clogging reading about this stuff, let alone eating it. And why frozen peas and beans (and mayonnaise and cream) in a vegetable casserole? Don't they have fresh vegetables? Are they trying to economise?
Not that we can see what most of these dishes are supposed to look like. In an age when food photography is positively pornographic, this book contains some rather small and slightly artificial images of dishes, including a couple involving the aforementioned carrot palm trees, one of a carved pineapple and many of de Guzman - including one with the current Prez with his arm around the cook and a strained expression on his face. Perhaps he was digesting lunch.
To be fair on de Guzman, originally a Navy chef, he is presumably cooking to order, although one should be wary of anyone whose "signature dishes" are chicken kiev and chicken cordon bleu. He does try a little with recipes from his native Philippines and some regulation Indian and Chinese fare. But it still feels like something out of a 1950s guide for suburban housewives, with conservative spicing and inappropriate ingredients, such as "bacon, avocado and chopped hard-boiled eggs" as optional toppings for a chicken curry. That's a curry with milk in it, by the way.
The only vaguely interesting recipes - a couple of Arabic dishes - are contributed by a Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who, de Guzman, notes, "during his second visit to Walker's Point ... surprised everyone by saying he would cook lunch for the former President and first lady''. The next day he arrived with his own provisions and took over the kitchen. He must have remembered the food from the first time he visited.
But what does all this taste like? On behalf of Independent readers, I was determined to discover whether culinary treasures lurked here and enlisted friends to sample a range of de Guzman's creations. And that meant tackling Grandmother Pierce's creamy salad ring - passed down from Barbara Bush's grandmother - a sugared sauce of tinned tomatoes, mixed with diced salad vegetables, horseradish, double cream and mayonnaise, set with gelatine in a ring mould.
All went fine until I brought it out of the fridge where it had been setting, eased it out of the ring, dressed it as instructed with seafood and brought it into a warm room. It proceeded to melt rapidly, a pinkish creamy sauce slowly oozed out, exposing bits of cucumber and celery and turning the crabmeat in the centre into a mush.
Everyone was polite: "It... er, tastes exactly like a prawn cocktail,'' was the verdict of my neighbour, Julia Rees. She confessed it reminded her of her Welsh childhood. "You would get this sort of thing at wedding buffets,'' a feeling echoed by everyone else. No one asked for seconds - perhaps put off by the acid aftertaste.
Next: a Walker's Point seafood chowder, a soupy dish made with fresh instead of de Guzman's tinned clams and thickened with cream and egg yolks. Matthew Hoffman, Independent colleague and token Yank, was unimpressed: "There's something wrong, this isn't the kind of chowder I'm used to."
Everyone else thought it OK, if a bit heavy and again, no seconds were requested. I'd always wanted to cook a chowder, but was disappointed. A corn spoon bread, consisting of sweetcorn (tinned) and cornmeal, baked with milk, eggs and cheese, was saved from terminal blandness by chopped jalapeno peppers. Tasty but stodgy. The cream and eggs were taking their toll.
"This tells us an awful lot about the American diet and why they have such a weight problem,'' was the verdict of Jeremy Laurance, the Independent's health editor. Any unpleasantness was alleviated by copious quantities of Californian wine, to remind us of things the Americans do well. As did shrimp creole, typical southern-states cooking which was greeted with some relief - and like all the dishes, was easy to cook. It needed a boost of garlic and chilli to de Guzman's tomato/celery/green pepper sauce, but remained a bit bland. "All this food is just too under-seasoned - surely Creole food is meant to be hot and spicy,'' said Cathy Pryor, a colleague. "I think that says a lot about the Bushes.''
It was back to cream and butter in Paula's lemon chicken - chicken breasts fried in butter and baked in a lemony cream sauce with parmesan topping. Not bad, we thought, but again too rich. With plain carbs or salad, it might be OK for supper - but I'm not adding it to my repertoire in a hurry, especially after my younger son Max, 11, who adores chicken and parmesan, pronounced "Yeeuck".
Surprise hit (almost) was a dish Mrs Bush Snr apparently brought home from Las Vegas from the wife of Steve Wynn, "owner/builder of many Las Vegas casinos, hotels and resorts". De Guzman says he gets a "sweet smile" from Lauren Bush, the President's vegetarian daughter, every time he prepares it when she visits her grandparents.
Fabulous noodle kugel - apples, cinnamon, eggs, cream, raisins and cottage cheese baked with flat noodles - struck a chord with Matt: "I know this very well, it's an old Jewish dessert, common throughout central Europe. It's a variation on lokshen pudding, although not as sweet. And I don't think some Vegas builder can really claim credit for it.''
Jeremy dug in for seconds. "This reminds me of my childhood - it's the bread and butter pudding taste; it's comfort food.'' And in the tradition of comfort dishes, very filling.
But there's one problem. Between central Europe and Houston, via Las Vegas, someone decided the best topping for this venerable Jewish dish was crushed Cornflakes. And in the Bush household, it's not a pudding: "Mrs Bush thinks the recipe is great when served during brunch meals or as a side dish to complement beef tenderloin or roast leg of lamb.'' Even Max and my other son, Leo, 13, who hoover up anything sweet, found the Cornflakes 'n' noodles combination off-putting.
The finale, baked peaches flambé, a childhood favourite of the Bush sons, cooked when they obtained good grades at school - and still served, says de Guzman, when they return home, good grades or not. De Guzman stipulates canned peaches, using the syrup as baking medium. Now, if Bush Snr can draw a line in the sand over Iraq, then I can draw a line at canned peaches and use fresh instead. No one has an appetite for the suggested whipped cream. "Er... we can do without it this time,'' says Jeremy. But everyone likes the dish.
So, hits and misses in a meal confirming that the Bushes like bland, creamy food that is somewhat out of touch. Draw whatever dietary or political conclusions you want. There's nothing I'd run to again. I don't need to cook for a while anyway - it's all so filling, there are plenty of leftovers. But not the disgusting grandma thingie, which oozed itself into the bin.
Anyone for some cold Cornflakes and noodles? Anyone...?
Grandmother Pierce's creamy salad ring
3 cups canned diced tomatoes
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons onion juice
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons gelatin
1/3 cup cold water
1/2 cup diced cucumber
1/2 cup sliced celery
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1 tablespoon of prepared horseradish
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup mayonnaise
In a heavy bottomed saucepan, bring tomatoes to a boil. Reduce heat and add sugar, onion juice, salt and pepper and simmer for 10 minutes. In a small bowl, soak gelatin in water until dissolved, blend and mix well. Add this to the hot tomato mixture.
In a bowl, toss cucumber, celery, and bell pepper with horseradish. Add the tomato gelatine to the vegetables.
In a small bowl, beat heavy cream until stiff. Blend in mayonnaise. Immediately fold in tomato and vegetable mixture.
Pour into well-buttered (or coated with pan spray) 12-inch ring mold. Chill thoroughly, at least three hours or overnight.
To serve, dip mould in hot water to loosen and invert on a serving tray. Carefully unmold ring. Fill centre as desired.Reuse content