Buzz announced that the next political recipe he had found was going to be “Rice Crispy treats, but with cheese instead of marshmallows.” It turns out that the dish had come from the kitchen of that icon of Southern cooking, Lady Bird Johnson.
Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Recipe for…
1 cup margarine or soft butter
2 cups flour
8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups rice krispies cereal
Cut butter into flour, add cheese and seasonings, fold in cereal. Drop by small rounds on ungreased cookie sheet and flatten with a spoon.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 12-15 minutes, depending on oven (careful not to get too brown). Yields approximately 5 dozen wafers.
Cheese wafers are a “ranch staple” which are served on all occasions: with salads, with cocktails, etc., or just when one of the grandchildren gets the “munchies!”
Mrs. Johnson’s recipes were an important part of her husband’s political outreach efforts. LBJ came up through the machine-like politics of the old-fashioned Texas Democrats. In the run-up to the Second World War, he triangulated between the southern conservative faction in Washington, led by Vice President John Nance Garner and House Speaker Sam Rayburn (both Texans), and the New Deal Democrats who controlled the White House. Throughout his Congressional career, he maintained strong credibility with conservative (and racist) southern Democrats.
Yet when Johnson became president, his domestic policies were not what his southern political allies necessarily had expected. He continued the policies of President Kennedy, who had seemed to be quite a bit more liberal than Johnson. If fact, Johnson went much farther than Kennedy in most respects; with his commanding personal presence and experience as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson was much better at cajoling the Congress into carrying out his will.
However, the expansion of the social welfare state through Johnson’s Great Society and, even more, the civil right legislation of the late 1960s were a tough sell to southern whites. Johnson himself declared that the Democratic Party had “lost the South for a generation”—and he was quite correct. Nevertheless, the Johnson administration made a concerted effort to bring moderate southern whites around to LBJ’s way of thinking.
One of the most famous aspects of his campaign to promote his social policies in the South was the way he dispatched Lady Bird on tours of the region, to talk about food and politics. Lady Bird Johnson’s cookbooks and personal appearances, where she talked about Coca-Cola-glazed ham and southern-style biscuits, emphasized her and her husband’s connection to southern culture. Her dishes made their way into church cookbooks all across the American South and the Great Plains—and the hope was that the social justice ideas that she also talked about to the congregations would remain behind as well, in ministers’ sermons and congregants’ minds.
While Lady Bird’s food tours were probably ultimately a disappointment—in many ways, the South is still not sold on LBJ’s social agenda—they are certainly one of the most important episodes in the story of American political recipes.
Anyway, it was time for us, probably like many other families in the Deep South before us, to try Mrs. Johnson’s Cheese Wafers.
We did cut down on the suggested amount of cayenne pepper slightly. Our family isn’t generally fond of just spice, and a teaspoon felt like a lot.
This sort of looks like biscuit dough, but I’m adding (dry) rice cereal instead of milk or some other liquid. I’m concerned, Mrs. Johnson…
There’s nothing binding all this together except butter (not melted) and cheese.
But despite my misgivings, everything held together surprisingly well. Butter and cheese melted together in the oven, and the result was wafers!
These are fantastic: crumbly, crunchy, cheesy, and spicy. I found myself grabbing one for all sorts of occasions — a snack when I got home, a side for lunch, a snack when I wandered through the kitchen, a fast breakfast… I can’t wait to make these again, and plan to try a few different spice profiles to look for something similarly zesty with a little less heat (for the kids). I’m looking forward to showing them off at parties and potlucks and getting compliments on my amazing cheese wafers. Good job, Mrs. Johnson!
Some of Lady Bird Johnson’s Recipes are available online from the LBJ Presidential Library archives at the University of Texas.