History and HerStory: Legal Eats: Food and the Culture of the U.S. Supreme Court

What would you like to know about the eating habits of the Supreme Court? A peek behind the bench was revealed earlier this month when the Smithsonian Food History Program collaborated with the Supreme Court Historical Society to present a panel on that topic at the National Museum of American History.  The two bona fide historians were beside the point – everybody was there to be in the same room as the two Justices.  For a foodie in this town, it was thrilling.

These Are the Justices You're Looking For

These Are the Justices You’re Looking For

L to R: John Gray, Clare Cushman, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Catherine Fitts

L to R: John Gray, Clare Cushman, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Catherine Fitts

Secretary Skorton

Secretary Skorton

The program was introduced by David J. Skorton, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and John L. Gray, the NMAH Director.  Appropriate for the level of company!  On stage along with the Justices were Catherine E. Fitts, the Curator of the Supreme Court, and Clare Cushman, Director of Publications of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

It transpired that Justice Ginsburg had made a study of Supreme Court history.  In addition, her late husband, Martin, was a consummate cook.  The SCHS has published a collection of his recipes as a tribute.  Justice Sotomayor?  “I love food!”  We have something in common there!

Among the interesting historical facts: Justice John Marshall’s court lived and dined together in a boardinghouse – sometimes alone, sometimes with the other boarders.  At the time, the Court’s normal practice was to issue unanimous opinions.  That broke down when the Justices moved out of the boardinghouse.

In those early days, the rule was to drink only “when it’s raining or for medicinal purposes” – but, as Justice Ginsburg said, “Somewhere in the world, it’s raining!” Justice Marshall and Thomas Jefferson were both partial to Madeira.

Until Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court building had a Ladies Dining Room for spouses.  It has been renamed.  Here’s the funniest historic tidbit: sometimes during oral arguments, the Justices would slip behind a partition and eat lunch, while the proceedings continued.  When, in 1898, a Champagne cork sailed over the partition, the Court initiated a lunch break for all.

The audience listened politely to the history discussion, but really appreciated the nuggets of personal and current information revealed by the Supremes.  Justice Sotomayor’s clerks have an “other duty as assigned” – to scout out restaurants she might like.  She brings candy back from trips, even though she’s diabetic and can’t eat it.  Why?  It attracts people to come and talk.

The Chief Justice will bring a bottle of wine for a toast on each Justice’s birthday.  There are formal dinners for each Justice’s appointment and retirement.  The Justices often eat lunch together, and the topics of conversation do not include current cases.  They have guests: Heads of State, Justices from the EU and the Court of Human Rights, other high-level personages.  Alan Greenspan and James Wolfensohn are both favored guests.  Why?  They can both eat and speak at the same time.

Justice Ginsburg does not cook.  Her daughter fills her freezer with lunches for her.  Justice Sotomayor wants something different every day.  Salads, sushi, Indian carryout, sandwiches.  “Eating is sacred.” A woman after my own heart.

Tales out of school: Justice John Paul Stevens had a cheese sandwich every day, with the crusts cut off.  Justice David Souter ate nothing but plain yoghurt for lunch.  You should have seen the look on Justice Ginsberg’s face at that!  “And sometimes an apple later!”

Justice Sotomayor, by her own admission, is not a bad cook, but not of Puerto Rican food, because her mother and grandmother were such good ones.

One More - Because, Why Not?

One More – Because, Why Not?

And the last question (though not, alas, from the audience; that might have been too undignified): who would you most like to have lunch with, living or dead? Justice Ginsburg: John Marshall.  Justice Sotomayor: also John Marshall, and Thurgood Marshall, “who never told the same story twice.”

About Judy

I have been cooking and eating all my life. I help run the Olney Farmers and Artists Market in Olney, Maryland, arrange their weekly chef demos and blog from that website (olneyfarmersmarket.org) on Market matters. This personal blog is for all things foodie: cookbooks, products, restaurants, eating.
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