African-American Chefs’ Contributions at the White House Chronicled In “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet”

Adrian Miller, author of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet / University of North Carolina Press, February 2017

Believe me, I get it. You’re reading the food section because you want a respite from politics. You want cheese soufflé, beef stew and apple pie. Don’t worry, although Adrian Miller’s new book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families,” from the Washingtons to the Obamas, may sound bureaucratic, it’s actually a surprisingly apolitical look at our presidents, what they ate and most important, the people who sourced, cooked and served that food. And there are recipes – because who doesn’t want to eat like the leader of the free world?

Miller is a Denver-based lawyer-turned-food historian – pretty much a fancy term for a nerd who likes to eat – whose first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” won a 2014 James Beard Foundation award.

“I had no qualifications other than eating a lot of food,” Miller said of writing “Soul Food.”

It was while researching that first book that Miller became inspired to take on the story of African-American cooks in the president’s kitchen. He kept seeing mentions of them come up in the historical documents he pored through but couldn’t find any books specifically looking at White House cooks from their perspective.

“I wanted to tell that story because no one really has,” Miller said.

Part of that story is FDR’s miraculous cheese soufflé. On April 12, 1945, Daisy Bonner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s primary cook at his retreat, cooked a beautiful soufflé for FDR’s lunch. As Miller tells it, Roosevelt was reading the Atlanta Constitution when Bonner took the soufflé out of the oven. Just then, FDR slumped over in his chair, dying two hours later.

“He never ate that soufflé,” a New York Times article reported, “but it never fell until the minute he died.”

If you’ve ever attempted a soufflé, you know that one standing for two hours is a downright miracle, and if that isn’t worth reading about, then I don’t know what is. Through Miller’s book we also learn that FDR loved sweet and sour pigs’ feet (but not the broiled kind), chicken curry and fried foods. I can honestly say that I never wondered about any of these things, but still I thrilled to learn them.

We also get a glimpse into the relationships formed between these African-American cooks – a generic term used for roles ranging from stewards to chefs – and the predominantly white presidents they served. This is as close to political as Miller gets, surmising how these friendships may have impacted racial policies.

“I only brought in politics if it colored what was happening in politics at the time. I was really trying to give the perspective of the cooks. Their job wasn’t so much political; just doing food well and making sure the first family was happy and healthy,” Miller said.

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SOURCE: The Denver Post
Allyson Reedy