Even the busiest people in the world need to eat, and knowing how a good meal can serve as brain power, there’s no denying that food can energize, sustain, and certainly comfort those who need it. Today we’re focusing on a fascinating new project by Adrian Miller, his newly released book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas. Adrian, a food author and soul food scholar, combed through the stories of more than 150 black men and women who cooked in the White House kitchen throughout history — from George Washington’s “onions done in the Brazilian way” to a controversial beanless chili prepared for Lyndon Johnson — to shine light on how food played an important role in major events.
Including 20 recipes from black chefs who cooked in the presidential food service over the years, Adrian’s book celebrates those who nurtured the nation’s presidents while examining how the pivotal role of food-related work changed and developed for African Americans from before Emancipation to present day.
Today we’re thrilled to have Adrian tell us more about his book, the special stories he uncovered, and food’s meaningful influence on past presidencies. He’s also sharing a Jerk Chicken Pizza Recipe — beloved by Bill Clinton! — and it’s easy enough for anyone to make (White House chef or home cook novice). Check out my Q&A with Adrian and the recipe after the jump, and you can order a copy of his book here. —Kelli
All photography courtesy of Adrian Miller
Design*Sponge: What inspired you to write this book?
Adrian Miller: The short answer is “unemployment.” I was in between jobs when I was inspired to write a history of soul food. As I researched that book, I came across several references to African Americans who have cooked for our presidents. Even though I worked in the White House (for President Bill Clinton), I had never thought about this unique aspect of presidential history. I felt that someone needed to tell this story.
Can you shed light on how race and civil rights played into these jobs and roles? Did any of these chefs and cooks comment on what it was like to cook in a White House that didn’t fully support their civil rights?
The White House kitchen has often mirrored what was happening in our broader society. We had many slaveholding presidents, and they brought enslaved cooks with them to the White House. Most of the enslaved cooks spent the majority of their time in the White House basement where the kitchen is located. Understandably, most enslaved cooks were silent about their time in the White House. Yet, there is a remarkable interview of an unnamed, enslaved cook for President Tyler that was printed in an anti-slavery publication in July 1842. The cook makes quite clear to the interlocutor that he desires freedom more than the prestige of being a White House cook.
Image above: Gerald Ford’s staff preparing the Japanese state dinner
In your research, did you discover any stories of traditional African foodways and culture affecting or influencing the cuisine served at The White House?
Given that we have had so many southern-born-and-bred presidents, and that the White House lies in an area carved out of two southern states (Maryland and Virginia), southern cooking is the White House’s foundational cuisine. Though this point seems to be somewhat lost these days, African Americans made huge contributions to southern cuisine. In many cases, our First Families have given African American cooks free reign to make classic southern dishes, and historic newspapers are full of articles indicating how much presidents loved those dishes. My favorite story involves President Franklin Roosevelt serving sweet-and-sour pig’s feet to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill . . . in the White House!
How do you view the current food scene (in and out of the White House) as it relates to race history and culture?
All of those things — race, history and culture — are infused in our current food scene in terms of what we eat, how it is prepared, how it is perceived and its availability. I love the current discussions about food justice, cultural appropriation and culinary justice. I do believe that food has the power to bring us together, and I think a sustained, fruitful dialogue on such thorny issues will move us towards reconciliation and fellowship at the table. The biggest stumbling block to such progress is the reluctance of some to open their minds and exhibit a willingness to unpack how privilege (particularly in terms of class, gender, political power and race) have shaped our food system here and around the world.
Image above: Chef Charlie Redden and President Clinton
What is your favorite recipe from the book and why?
I actually like the Pedernales River chili recipe the most because of the backstory. The Lyndon Johnson White House created a firestorm when this recipe was released because it is a beanless chili. Most Americans are used to chili with beans, but Texans have a different philosophy. Given the public backlash, the White House went into damage control and worked to reassure the public that their president loved beans. That reassurance came from Zephyr Wright — President Johnson’s longtime, African American cook.
What was the most interesting story you discovered when researching this book?
There are so many. I really like the story of Laura “Dolly” Johnson who was hired by President Benjamin Harrison. Here’s an example of an African American cook at the height of her bargaining power. She had to be persuaded to work at the White House. When she was hired, the French woman already working in the White House kitchen filed a lawsuit against the president for unlawful discharge. Johnson’s hire made national headlines which was quite surprising for an African American living during those times.
Image above: Laura “Dolly” Johnson
There’s much to be said about the power of food and its comfort in trying situations. Did you see that play out through history in the meals these chefs prepared for their administrations?
Yes, absolutely! The president’s intense desire to indulge in comfort foods is a cornerstone of the presidential food story. The main objectives of the chefs were to please the presidents and keep them healthy. These goals were in conflict at times because the stress of the job makes presidents crave the comfort food of their childhood, or just plain old junk food. The only people standing in the president’s way — and keeping the president on a diet — have typically been the First Lady or the White House physician.
Who do you draw inspiration from to both cook and write?
In terms of food writing, I was first drawn to Calvin Trillin’s essays. I love his wry sense of humor, and I wanted to put my own spin on it by writing entertaining and slightly humorous culinary history. In terms of cooking, it’s definitely my late mother, Johnetta Miller, the late Edna Lewis and the southwestern cuisine that Bobby Flay put out earlier in his career.
Jerk Chicken Pita Pizza
Recipe by Chef Charlie Redden, the first certified executive chef of the White House Mess. This was the first thing that he prepared for President Bill Clinton — who loved it!
Makes 4 servings
-4 pita breads
-12 tablespoons pizza sauce
-1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
-1/2 teaspoon dried basil (optional)
-Sliced chicken breast strips (pre-cooked)
-2 tablespoons of jerk seasoning (Recommend Island Jerk Seasoning by Tropical Pepper Co.)
-1 cup low-fat shredded mozzarella cheese
-4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
-1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion (optional)
-1/2 cup thinly sliced green bell peppers (optional)
-Red pepper flakes, to taste
Place the pita breads on a cookie sheet.
Spread 3 tablespoons of the pizza sauce onto each pita.
Sprinkle 1/8 tablespoon each of oregano and basil, if using, onto each pita.
Toss the chicken strips with the jerk seasoning and place them on the pizza.
Top each pita with 1/4 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese and 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.
Top each pita with 1/4 cup each of the onions and bell peppers, if using. Season to taste with red pepper flakes.
Place the pizzas in the oven and broil for about 4–5 minutes at 425°F.