On the quest for cottage cheese trivia this week for my story for Morning Edition, I asked our research department for help. Researcher Barclay Walsh sent me a photo that stopped me in my tracks.
Take a look. Notice the official White House emblem on the plate. The silver platter. The sculpted ball of cottage cheese encircled by slices of pineapple, perhaps canned. The glass of milk.
This is the lunch that President Richard Nixon ate on August 8, 1974, just before going on national television to announce that he was resigning. White House photographer Robert Knudson captured it on film. The next day, Nixon boarded a plane for California.
By the standards of official White House photography, this image is spare and melancholy, almost shockingly so. Typical White House photography “is so people-focused,” says Jon Fletcher, an archivist at that National Archives who is responsible for the Nixon Administration photographs.
Fletcher could not remember offhand any other photo in the collection that is devoted to food itself. After our conversation, he did a search and came up with a few images from Nixon’s trip to China that featured tables filled with food that had been prepared for the visiting American president.
Those images, though, show occasions of promise and possibility. The pre-resignation meal is the opposite. Ryan Kellman, one of our photographers here at NPR, described it as “so sad, austere, stately, funny.”
It’s a humble meal at the seat of power, just as that power is slipping away. And the person who will eat this food is not in the picture. Soon, he will be gone from this place.