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Adrian Miller (Photo: Bernard Grant)

The stories behind White House kitchen doors

New book by Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller shares stories of African Americans who’ve fed the First Families. African American Presidential chefs throughout the course of history have wielded tremendous influence and not just over a soup pot, says soul food scholar and food historian, Adrian Miller.

The former D.C. politico and special assistant to President Bill Clinton is the author of “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from The Washingtons to the Obamas.” The book explores the back stories of the chef's, personal cooks, stewards, butlers and service workers who have served every First Family since George and Martha Washington.

Miller’s latest book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time” received the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship. He is a certified as a barbecue judge by the Kansas City BBQ Society and former Southern Foodways Alliance board member.

DC Refined spoke with Miller about White House cuisine, chili scandals, and presidents who cheated on their diets.

How did the book come about?

I was inspired by John Egerton’s 1985 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” where he observed the tribute to black cooks had yet to be written. I became intrigued by this notion and thought I could do this. So many of our former presidents were slaveholders and southerners. People may be surprised to learn that at least 36 presidents, including George Washington, had black chefs that cooked for them. In our early history, particularly starting with Jefferson, cuisine for the first family fell along two lines. There was haute cuisine, heavily influenced by France, which was the cuisine of presidential entertaining, and there was simpler, home cooking for the president and his family.

What themes do you explore?

African Americans have been in the presidential kitchen from day one. It’s one of those things that may seem obvious when you hear it, but I don’t know how many people consciously think about that. These people were celebrated culinary artists who brought comfort to presidents and their families. In many respects, they were civil rights advocates - each in their own way. These people were family confidants and the book illustrates the friendships that developed over the course of these relationships.

Which White House chefs had the most culinary and advisory influence?

From a culinary perspective, I’d name three individuals.

  1. Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef: We know he was a very accomplished chef because people who dined with Washington wrote about him.
  2. James Hemmings, one of Sally Hemmings’ older brothers: He didn’t serve as a presidential chef but cooked for Thomas Jefferson before he was president. He shaped the cuisine that Jefferson would later serve in the White House in terms of this mix of French and Virginian cuisine. When Jefferson was minister to France, Jefferson took the teen-age Hemmings with him and had him trained in French cuisine. Later in 1785, Hemmings negotiates his freedom from slavery with Jefferson on two conditions: He had to turn over all his recipes and he had to train others on Jefferson’s staff how to prepare them.
  3. Laura “Dollie” Johnson: She was a private cook discovered by a young Theodore Roosevelt in Lexington, KY. He loved her food so much that when Roosevelt’s friend Benjamin Harrison became president and was looking for a White House cook, Roosevelt recommended Johnson. She was one of the earliest cooks to be celebrated in national newspaper headlines, there are many print mentions of her and her superlative cooking.

In terms of advising, Zephyr Wright was LBJ’s private cook before he entered public life and almost his entire time in public life, as a congressman, senator and then as president. They were close. Johnson would often use her life experiences in lobbying for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he frequently tapped her Jim Crow experiences in trying to shame other legislators into supporting it.

Lizzie McDuffie was also influential. She was FDR’s maid and helped with cooking when FDR traveled. In the 1936 election, she stumped for FDR in several cities with large African American communities. After the election, he called her into the Oval Office and thanked her.

Share some favorite anecdotes from your research.

FDR frequently went to Warm Springs, Georgia on retreat to receive treatments for polio. He was involved in a long running cat and mouse game with his doctors and the First Lady over his diet. They wanted him to eat healthy and he of course craved comfort food. Daisy Bonner and Lizzie McDuffie helped in Warm Springs with the meals. They’d bring out the doctor-approved food for him and then whisper in his ear, “Don’t eat it.” After everyone had left, they’d hook him up with what he really wanted, good southern comfort food like fried chicken and biscuits.

Another funny story involved Zephyr Wight and her Pedernales River (the river that runs through the LBJ Ranch) Chili she made for LBJ. In true Central Texas form, this chili has no beans. Periodically the White House put out recipes and when they put out the recipe for this chili without beans, the agriculture people felt scandalized. The White House went into spin control and I share a transcribed conversation between LBJ’s social secretary and Zephyr Wright going over the kind of beans LBJ liked and how he liked them to be prepared for the onslaught of criticism.

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“The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from The Washingtons to the Obamas” releases on Presidents’ Day, Feb. 20, 2017.

Adrian Miller is scheduled to appear at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffee House, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 3:30 p.m.

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