Thanks to a successful fund-raising effort on Kickstarter in late June, Adrian Miller’s The President’s Kitchen Cabinet is finally a goal within reach—an American dream, if you will. Miller, a James Beard Award–winning author, soul food scholar, and politico, plans to release a TV documentary on President’s Day 2016 that will trace the hidden history of African-American cooks in White House kitchens. He hopes to publish a companion book as well. It was actually after Miller’s own stint in the White House (he served as a special assistant to Bill Clinton) that he came into contact with this topic while poring over the manuscript of scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who in the 1920s began collecting material to write the history of African-American cooking. We asked Miller about the influence of black cooks at the highest levels of American culinary tradition.
CHOW: In a Washington Post article you use the phrase “hiding in plain sight” to describe African-American chefs in the White House. During Washington and Jefferson’s time, was having a black chef something purposefully hidden from the public eye?
ADRIAN MILLER: Yes and no. Washington was in Philadelphia, which was a hotbed for abolitionists. So he knew there were a lot of people who were not OK with enslaved people working for him. Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which said if you were an enslaved person on Pennsylvania soil for six months or longer, you were automatically free. Washington knew this, so he would pack up his slaves before the six-month period expired, send them back to Mount Vernon, and then have them return to Philadelphia. So in effect, Washington was trying to downplay the issue as much as he could.
Jefferson was responsible for creating the dumbwaiter. The purpose of that was to secure privacy, since he didn’t want people hearing him. As a result, the cooks and chefs spent their lives in the basement preparing the food, and sending it up on the dumbwaiter. This was a manipulation to keep them out of view. This theme of “hiding” continues in the sense that it becomes more about class and status. After slavery ends, you had African-Americans running kitchens, but there’s all this division of labor. European chefs were hired to cook high-end affairs and inaugural banquets, and the newspapers wrote about these spectacles. The African-American chefs had a very important role because they mostly cooked for private affairs, but very few people outside of the White House knew who they were.
How much of the African-American culinary tradition—including soul food—was integrated into the diet of our presidents?
There’s a very strong undercurrent throughout the White House history. If you had Southern-born presidents, the Southern soul food influence was strong to the extent that those foods overlap. Greens and things like possum and pig’s feet were served. JFK had a black cook making a version of his favorite seafood chowder, but Jacqueline Kennedy ultimately wanted European food. This marks the transition. 1960 is where you start to see the break, and African-American White House chefs move into the rear view. Since that time we’ve never had an African-American executive chef, only pantry workers. The only break in that was LBJ. He clashed with the Kennedys’ French chef, and at one point he had African-American cook Zephyr Wright teaching the chef how to make things like chili and chicken. LBJ loved fried chicken and peach cobbler. Jimmy Carter loved fried chicken and greens. FDR liked boiled pig’s feet and Country Captain, which is a Southern chicken curry dish from Georgia. And Washington loved hoe cakes.
So then were African-Americans respected in the kitchen?
Within the White House, their level of respect waxed and waned. In some cases, these cooks were valued as confidantes and policy advisors. Lizzie McDuffie was a part-time cook for FDR, and she would actually go on the campaign trail for him and gin up votes among African-American voters at a time when the vote was not guaranteed for FDR in 1936. Outside the White House context, this position was considered a plum job in a world that limited your professional opportunities. In fact, in the ’20s and ’30s, there was talk of creating specialized programs at Tuskegee to train African-Americans for high-end restaurant jobs.
Any techniques or recipes by these chefs that surprised you?
I did not know the extent to which African-Americans were trained by classically trained European chefs. If you think of spoon bread, it’s really cornbread soufflé. Because French food was the food of entertainment during the 19th and 20th centuries, people would save money by having African-Americans trained to cook in the French style. That way, you wouldn’t have to go hire a caterer because you now had an unpaid worker who could do everything. So the obvious question is, why did some presidents hire these outside European cooks? And it really depends on the racial attitudes of the First Family. By the late 1800s, African-American chefs were put on the same level as French chefs. They were on par.
Photos courtesy of Adrian Miller