"Food is how presidents show they're normal people," writes Adrian Miller in his new book The President's Kitchen Cabinet. But inside the White House, food, and the people cooking it, have played different roles. Miller, an historian of African-American cooking, digs deep into the lives of black presidential cooks. From the state dinners prepared by enslaved servants, to the meals a black cook served the president while making her case for the Civil Rights Act, to the present day, food in the White House offers a fascinating look at at race and power in America. [Ed. Note: Miller also provided The Splendid Table with a recipe from his book for Daisy Bonner's Cheese Soufflé. The dish was served by chef Daisy Bonner during Franklin D. Roosevelt's time in the White House, including upon the announcement of his death.]
Francis Lam: In your book, we read about dozens of black cooks in the White House. From the enslaved to the free and professional, they play all different roles. You write about them being babysitters, pit masters, civil rights advisors, comfort food enablers, confidantes, culinary artists, and diet enforcers. It's amazing you can find records of so many of these people. I want to ask you first about one person in particular; I'm fascinated to know about Hercules.
Adrian Miller: Hercules was one of the enslaved cooks for George Washington. Washington acquires Hercules when he's about 19 years old. He was a ferryman. Washington transfers him to the Mount Vernon kitchen where he apprentices Hercules to the enslaved cook. At some point, he takes over duties there. When Washington ends up in Philadelphia, where the executive residence was while the White House was being built, there was a woman named Mrs. Reed, a white woman, who was the first cook at that residence. Washington wasn't too happy with her cooking, so he brings Hercules up to Philadelphia and installs him as the cook.
FL: But Philadelphia was a place where slavery was quasi-legal, not really that legal, right? There was a law that you could only have enslaved people for a certain period of time?
AM: It was the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which said if you were an enslaved person on Pennsylvania soil for longer than six months, you were automatically free. What Washington did to get around that is, right around the six-month deadline, he would pack up all the enslaved people, send them back to Mount Vernon, chill them out there for a few weeks, and then bring them back to start the clock all over again.
FL: Oh, wow.
AM: Isn't that crazy?
FL: That's crazy. There are all these stories you read about in the book where Hercules was a man about town. He would walk around Philadelphia, dressed in this sort of dapper way.
AM: Washington gives him a lot of liberties. He's allowed to go to the opera. When his shift is over at night, he gets to dress up like a dandy and wear blue vests, suit coats, and a golden cane to walk around town. He was a known personality. I think one of the other cool things is he was allowed to sell leftovers out of the back of Washington's kitchen. He made about $5,000 in current dollars selling his leftovers. You know the brother had skills, real mad skills.
FL: It's fascinating to me because when you think of enslaved people, you have a very particular image of what that life was like. I'm sure a lot of it is accurate, but the story of Hercules kind of blows it up a little bit for me, makes me feel like there's more to that.
AM: He definitely breaks the mold. He was a temperamental chef. George Washington Parke Custis, who was Washington's step-grandson, gives descriptions about all the people that worked for Hercules because he had a biracial staff. He had enslaved people as well as white indentured servants working in his kitchen. He supervised them in the kitchen. Evidently he would yell, and they would just fly in his direction. I think he would feel a kinship with Gordon Ramsey. Hercules was also a well-renowned chef. People write about him in their memoirs long after Washington is dead, and so we know that he was a great culinary artist of his time. He had a tremendous reputation.
FL: You found all these stories, dozens and dozens of them. Were there any of the cooks that stood out to you?
AM: I would say in addition to Hercules and James Hemings, who was one of Sally Hemings’s older brothers who cooked for Thomas Jefferson -- he was never a “presidential cook” -- the one that stays with me is Zephyr Wright, who was the longtime family cook for Lyndon Johnson. She started cooking for the Johnsons before Johnson enters Congress, and as he rises through the ranks in Congress, many attribute Zephyr's cooking to establishing his reputation as a great host and a great entertainer. Back in those days, members of Congress would invite other members of Congress over to dinner. That's how you ingratiated yourself and got to know people. Zephyr Wright's famous Southern cooking was part of the reputation that was built for the Johnsons. And she becomes part of the family. When Johnson becomes president, she sits in the inauguration box with the family. I don't know of another cook who's done that in presidential history.
FL: There's a story that you tell in the book, or just a line. When Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he gives her the pen.
AM: One of the things that people don't know is that Johnson, when he was lobbying for that landmark legislation, he would often use Zephyr Wright's Jim Crow experiences to persuade members of Congress to support the bill. At that time, the family would drive back and forth from Texas to Washington, D.C., and Zephyr would go along with the family. She could not go to the bathroom, and she couldn't go to the restaurants at the same time as the family. She suffered so many indignities that she said, "I refuse to take this trip any longer." So she would stay in D.C. year-round. By the time the bill gets passed, that's why Johnson makes this grand gesture to her and says, "You deserve this as much as anyone."
FM: But he said, "You deserve this," not just, "You've suffered enough."
FL: When you wrote that many of these cooks played roles including civil rights advisor, I assumed she was one of the people you were referring to.
AM: I would call her an unwitting civil rights advisor because if you look at the oral histories that she has left behind, she kind of has this cat-and-mouse game with Johnson. He would say, "Do Black people really appreciate what I'm doing?" She would say, "I don't know. I guess so." She'd be a little coy, but she definitely gave Johnson -- and I think this is the broader role of these cooks in the book -- she gave him a window on black life that he may not have had otherwise. It was up to a president whether to open that window or not. Many chose to keep it closed, but I think our nation is better for the ones who took the time to talk to their cooks and get a sense of what was happening for African-Americans in our society.
FL: It suggests that there's a power there, when you have access to someone in those kinds of intimate moments. I imagine for a president, too. Presidents live such an incredibly public life. I assume the moments they have that are private -- maybe just them and their family, their inner circle, and the people who are around at that moment -- that has to have so much impact.
AM: That's the role of family confidante that a lot of these cooks served. They wanted to make life comfortable for the first family, right? It's a pressure cooker job. You're in a fishbowl in many ways. Their role was to keep them healthy and happy. Often, these foods of the president's childhood or things that they really loved would help get them through the tough times.
But the interesting thing is a lot of people understood the power of the White House cook. When civil rights advocates couldn't get the ear of the president, they would go to the cook and say, "Hey, could you just talk to him about this X, Y, or Z?" And then the cooks, a lot of times did; sometimes they didn't feel it was appropriate. But they often saw the cook as the avenue to press their civil rights agenda with the president.
FL: That's amazing. It's like the hand that rocks the cradle.
FL: It's the hand on the pan.
AM: I like that. I might have to steal that.
FL: Take it and run with it, brother.
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