On Friday night, April 14 (2017), I had a very odd dream involving Richard Nixon. I note the date because it’s almost three years to the day after I had another very odd dream about a former President, that being George W. Bush. Maybe there’s something in the air in April. Who knows? Anyway, my Nixon dream–which involved, of all things, grilled cheese sandwiches–was hardly as soul-searching or morally illuminating as my imaginary nocturnal repartee with Dubya, but it was so odd and charming in a weird kind of way that I thought I had to write it down and share it.
That the dream took a turn toward Nixon at all seems pretty random. First things first, I dreamed that I was roaming around in a very large house with many rooms and corridors–many more than would exist in any real building. This is pretty normal for me: I often dream about fascinating imaginary locales, especially interiors, that don’t exist in real life. The house had a very traditional “homey” look, with many rooms decorated with red gingham, varnished pine, stocked with old cookbooks or family photos I didn’t recognize, and quaint furniture that bordered on an Arts & Crafts style. I’m not sure what I was doing there, but I know I talked to a few people; I get the impression I was looking for something, or more likely someone, but not Richard Nixon.
Nixon: “I am not a cook!”
Then, suddenly, the 37th President of the United States was there, dressed in a blue suit, a red gingham apron and one of those paper hats that cafeteria employees wear. I happened upon the room he was in by accident. It had pine walls and a counter with bar stools, and Nixon stood behind a large griddle, spatula in hand. “You’re just in time!” he said, with a broad smile. “Care to help me out? I’m making grilled cheese sandwiches.”
Being a historian, and having finished reading Nixon’s memoirs not too long ago, how could I turn down a chance to chat with Tricky Dick, even if the price of the conversation was to fill in as a short-order cook? I agreed, came behind the counter and Nixon started handing me some pieces of bread. In his very deep Nixonian baritone voice, half-mumbling as he sometimes did, he told me, “We’re not making just any old grilled cheese sandwiches. These are from an old Whittier recipe. They’re something truly special.”
Surprisingly, Nixon was (at least in my dream) pretty deft in the kitchen. We weren’t using plain old white bread for the sandwiches, regardless of what you might expect from a politician who won elections by pandering to white grievance of what he called “the Silent Majority.” In fact he was using several thick slices of a home-baked rye bread that was quite excellent. My job was to brush the bread with a butter mixture Nixon had made up in a bowl, and hand them to him for assembly. Forget rubbery slices of American cheese. These were gourmet sandwiches, made from gorgonzola and a sort of French cheddar that Nixon told me the name of but which I forgot. He also sprinkled some chives and just a hint of rosemary in amongst the cheese slices before pressing the sandwiches on the grill. I was reminded of the mouth-watering gourmet grilled cheese sandwich that Jon Favreau makes for his son in the 2014 film Chef, which is, in my opinion, one of the tastiest scenes ever put on film.
“If you’re ever down to San Clemente,” said Nixon cheerfully, “come over and we’ll do this again. I learned a lot about America from grilled cheese sandwiches.”
As the triangular morsels sizzled on the griddle there was so much I wanted to ask Nixon. What was he thinking when he uttered the famous words, caught on tape on June 23, 1972, whose exposure ultimately ended his Presidency two years later? Did he still think his policy in Vietnam was the right one, given how modern conditions have belied the assumptions of what would happen if we didn’t prop up the regime of South Vietnam? Did he pay attention to current events, and if so, what did he think about the scandals and follies of our unfortunate new President, Donald Trump?
But alas, I didn’t get a chance to ask any of these questions. After only a few minutes the sandwiches were done. Wielding the spatula with considerable skill, Nixon scraped them off the griddle and put them on a plate where they steamed tantalizingly. “America thanks you for your help!”
I could not find any direct historical reference to how Nixon was as a cook. He was famous, however, for one occurrence in the kitchen: the “Kitchen Debate” with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959.
I asked if I could have one of the sandwiches myself. He pushed the plate toward me. I bit into it–and tasted the single most awesome, rich, hot and flavorful grilled cheese sandwich I’d ever experienced.
I said, “Mr. President, I may disagree with most of your policies and your actions in office, but I’ve got to say, you make a damned good grilled cheese sandwich.”
Nixon shook my hand, smiled broadly and then gave his famous double-victory hand signals.
So, I have no idea what this dream means. Grilled cheese with Tricky Dick–there’s got to be some deep Freudian or Jungian analysis to be had there, but I have no idea what it is. All I knew is, I woke up hungry.