‘Black Chefs In The White House’ Reveals Hidden History

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in: Chefs

Dolly Johnson in the White House kitchen.

Let’s face it, fundraising dinners aren’t typically fascinating affairs. But on June 8, I attended a rare exception to the rule: “Black Chefs in the White House: The Hidden History of the White House Kitchen,” presented by the Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Colorado Black Health Collaborative at the University of Denver’s Tivoli Student Union. It was not only incredibly enlightening and entertaining, but rubber chicken-free.

The traveling event’s success is due first and foremost to its founder, Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and author of the newly released “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine (University of North Carolina Press). The intense research he’s done on the history of African-Americans in the White House kitchen from post-Independence onward showed in a lecture that spanned a three-course meal; should he ever reprise it in your city, rest assured it’s well worth the time and fee.

Adrian Miller's presentation at the University of Denver offers insight into how black chefs' role in the White House was affected by presidential families. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Adrian Miller’s presentation at the University of Denver offers insight into how black chefs’ role in the White House was affected by presidential families. Credit: Ruth Tobias

But he wasn’t alone at the Denver installment; also on hand were Jack Van Ens — a local Thomas Jefferson scholar who does presentations in character — and Walter S. Scheib III, who served as executive chef to presidents Clinton and Bush from 1994 to 2005. (Though Scheib is not black, his intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the White House kitchen led to his collaboration with Miller “about two years ago, when he was doing research for his book, and it turned out we enjoyed each other’s company,” as he told me. “We did a dinner together in Washington, D.C., not unlike what we’re doing this evening, and have kept in touch ever since.”)

Kicking things off with the provocative statement that “food is a metaphor for how we view our presidents — consider Clinton’s Big Macs versus Obama’s arugula” — Miller went on to present a vivid chronological account of the topic at hand, starting with the pre-Emancipation “enslaved cooks who basically lived in the basement and weren’t allowed to leave the grounds.” Among these slaves, however, was not the mysterious Sam Fraunces, a restaurateur and steward to George Washington; to this day, Miller explained, there has been “an argument for him being a white guy and an argument for him being a brother.” (He was a free man and a registered voter, but he hailed from the West Indies and “his nickname was Black Sam.”)

A number of Washington’s successors brought their family cooks with them to the White House, most notably Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. Jefferson’s  slave James Hemings made such dishes as macaroni pudding (which we sampled during our meal) before apparently committing suicide. In Harrison’s White House kitchen, Dolly Johnson “was a headline-making sensation” in her own right insofar as she replaced a bona fide French chef at the president’s bidding. Roosevelt’s assistant cook Lizzie McDuffie “stumped in key African-American districts” — and cook Daisy Bonner was “making a cheese souffle when he died of a hemorrhage: it was due to come out at 1:15, he died at 1:10.” Johnson was “the last president to bring in a black family cook” — namely Zephyr Wright, who reportedly responded to his demand for fattening foods with a stern note: ‘I am going to be your boss for a change.'”

Laura Bush and organic food

Scheib brought his own colorful commentary to bear on the subject, beginning with the amusing point that “presidents have nothing to do with the food. It’s all about the first ladies” — including Laura Bush, who, he told me separately, “was very concerned about organic ingredients, though she didn’t make a public statement about it as Mrs. Obama has.”) As I dined on a main course of layered summer vegetables with lemongrass and red curry, I learned he had created the dish in honor of an official visit by Nelson Mandela, whereby the South African hero of anti-apartheid had shown that he clearly “identified with us working people more than with world leaders.” Scheib also drew a laugh when asked by a guest, “Did the party of the presidents you served make a difference to you?” His answer: “You check your ego and your politics at the door. My father’s own politics are to the right of Cheney and just to the left of Genghis Khan. When he came to visit the Clinton White House, I said to the president, ‘Let me put it this way, he’s not your best friend.’ Besides that, the only difference was that the Democrats asked for alternative menu choices, whereas the Republicans were like, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.'”

Presidents’ culinary favorites

Later, I asked Miller whether there were any choice tidbits he wasn’t able to touch on in his lecture. For instance, was there a historical correlation between the presence of black chefs and the types of dishes served? As he explained, “For the most part, White House chefs of any color made French cuisine for formal occasions because French food was synonymous with entertaining during the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. But when it came to private dining, the cooks often showed a more homey, regional flair. Southern food was dominant early on, since most of our early presidents were Southerners, yet presidents from other parts of the country made sure to get their regional specialties, too. For instance, John F. Kennedy relished bowls of New England chowder, and Richard Nixon got Cali-Mex food every now and then.”

As for particularly famous dishes created by black chefs, Miller told me, “The preeminent example is one of the past: terrapin, a type of turtle that was an expensive delicacy in the Chesapeake Bay area. The meat would be chopped up, seasoned, cooked and sometimes served in its own shell. The wealthy overate it to the point where terrapin practically disappeared. Another must be the beanless Pedernales River Chili prepared by Zephyr Wright. According to Lady Bird Johnson, the recipe for that dish was the second-most requested piece of information from the federal government in 1964.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s era

On a sadder note, he told me about the servants’ dining room, “a segregated area created during the Taft administration by housekeeper Elizabeth Jaffray. That Jim Crow policy lasted until Eleanor Roosevelt became the first lady. Her solution was to fire all of the white people on staff, technically ‘desegregating’ the space since everyone was therefore of the same race. I leave you to decide whether or not that was a sign of racial progress.”

Top photo: Dolly Johnson in the White House kitchen. Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Miller


Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of  "Food Lover's Guide to Denver & Boulder" and "Denver and Boulder Chef's Table" from Globe Pequot Press. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.

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