Photograph by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
What our presidents eat says a lot about their tastes, but also about our times. In 1939, FDR served hot dogs to King George VI. (Bold move.) And President Obama once slurped on $6 pork noodle soup with Anthony Bourdain. (Hip move.) Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard Award-winning Soul Food who worked in the White House as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, has written a new book about the people who’ve made all of that food called The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. Miller is in town this weekend for the AJC Decatur Book Festival, where he’ll talk about this new work in more detail. Here’s a preview:
Why write a book about our presidents’ cooks?
It’s a piece of American history that has never really been fully explored, and I think that goes back to the general invisibility of cooks before we got to this foodie moment we’re in now. Cooking wasn’t as glamorized before. And I’m a sucker for hidden stories.
Why focus on black presidential cooks?
The idea was two-fold: One is that, overwhelmingly, the cooks in the White House have been African American. [Caucasian White House cooks] are a more recent phenomenon, and that’s really because of Jacqueline Kennedy. She shifted White House culinary culture back to the 1800s when French cuisine was glorified. For whatever reason when we got to the turn of the 20th century, there was a Swedish and Irish cook craze, then they went back to black cooks, and then Eisenhower had a Filipino cook who was a Navy chef. Jackie Kennedy was not feeling his food; she wanted classically trained European chefs. So she created the position of White House executive chef. (Before that, they were just called “head cook” or “first cook.”) That changed the trajectory of a lot of people who were already in the White House kitchen, and ever since then, African Americans have been the assistant cooks. [Ed note: Cristeta Comerford, who has held the White House executive chef position since 2015, is Filipino American.]
You say these cooks were also family confidants?
You see example after example of the first families having strong relationships with these cooks. Arthur Brooks was in charge of the White House wine cellar for many years, mainly during the Calvin Coolidge administration. When Brooks became terminally ill, Coolidge rushed to his bedside and was with him for a day or so, then attended his funeral. If you know anything about Coolidge, that’s not something you would expect. That’s evidence of a close relationship.
In the book, you say these cooks gave our presidents a window on black life in America they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Can you expand on that?
The best example is Lyndon Johnson and [family cook] Zephyr Wright. Johnson wanted a positive legacy, and he saw civil rights as a way to get that. He was making some big-time moves in that arena, and even to this day I wonder why he made some some of them because he knew the political cost. He would periodically ask Wright if African Americans appreciated his efforts. It was a way for him to take the political temperature of the black community, but I also think he really just wanted to make sure that he was doing the right thing. I think through Wright, he sometimes got that validation, which would buck him up, because in many ways he was besieged in his presidency and heavily criticized.
You also write that presidential cooks were at times civil rights advocates. What are some examples of that?
Lizzie McDuffie was a maid and assistant cook for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the 1936 election, she actually went on the stump to cities with large African American constituencies. She also prided herself in being a conduit to the president. John Moaney did, too, with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Moaney [Eisenhower’s valet and cook] was often asked by civil rights advocates to speak to the president on their behalf.
It gets tricky for African Americans who are working for presidents, because presidents are never doing enough, right? You see a few examples of the African American staff really standing up for the president, defending what he has done, even though for a lot of civil rights advocates, it’s not enough. Moaney was definitely in that situation quite a bit.
And, in a wide interpretation of being a civil rights advocate, I think of someone like Hercules, an enslaved family cook who ran away from George Washington. He successfully escaped. That’s a protest against the status quo.
Which of our past presidential cooks have hailed from Georgia?
There’s Lizzie McDuffie, and there’s a very memorable woman named Daisy Bonner. She would cook for FDR when he went to Warm Springs, Georgia, for polio treatments. She was a cook for a local wealthy family, and to ingratiate themselves with Roosevelt, the family would lend her to the president when he was in town. She got him hooked on all sorts of Southern delicacies, including pig’s feet—so much so that he served pig’s feet to Winston Churchill at the White House. And if you go to Warm Springs, they have on display the shopping list from his last week of life. On that list is four hog’s feet.
You also mentioned Wanda Joell.
Yes, she was actually born in Bermuda, but she ended up living in Georgia. She was a flight attendant on Air Force One; she got there during George W. Bush’s time and served on that plane until Obama. She was on the plane during 9-11.
So each new president doesn’t bring on his own culinary staff?
The president can pretty much change out the cooks for the White House kitchen and the basement, and the private cook that he or she may have on the second floor apartment, but other than that, the cooks are career military people. The only reason Joell stopped flying is because it was mandatory retirement; she had served 20 years.
So why should we care? What does the food being served in the White House say about our presidents or about the times we live in?
We want our presidents to be extraordinary people, but we also want them to be a lot like us. Food plays a pivotal role in giving us a sense of the presidential personality. If we have a president who seems to like French food, then we might worry about them being elitist or out of touch. We love the president to love the foods of their childhood and revel in American regional specialties. That makes it seem as if they love the country more or have the common touch, and that reassures us that we have the right leader. Most savvy presidents understand that if the people feel good about them, and understand them, then they have a lot more latitude in their policy making.
Who has most compelled the American people through his food choices?
I’ve got to say FDR. He was a man of the people, and he would go to community food events. I just think he understood how having that common touch helped his presidency. He even weighed in on the whole debate about whether to dunk or crumble cornbread in potlikker.
Another person who really indulged and did this well was LBJ with his unabashed love of barbecue and Tex-Mex. I think that reinforced the folksy, Western image that he so much wanted to cultivate as a sharp contrast to the east coast liberal image JFK had.
Do we know yet what’s going on in Trump’s kitchen?
No, they’re so secretive. I wonder how much Trump actually eats at the White House? There are snippets that come out. Supposedly, when ice cream is served at the White House, everybody gets one scoop of ice cream, but Trump gets two.
Back to the book: Let’s talk about drinks.
Yeah, we shouldn’t overlook the role of drinks. Obama’s love of beer worked for him. He brewed beer in the White House, and when he made public appearances [at restaurants], he would order a beer. You could tell that this guy really loved beer and knew something about it, and it helped undercut his aloof, kind of intellectual image.
To hear more from Miller, head to his presentation, moderated by Atlanta magazine food editor Julia Bainbridge, at the Decatur Book Festival this Sunday, September 3, at 1:15 p.m. For the full schedule of events, check out decaturbookfestival.com.