Adrian Miller wrote the definitive book on American soul food and was a credential-carrying member of the Clinton White House. You might think that with such credibility it would be easy for him to interview African-American chefs working in the White House kitchen.
You’d be wrong.
“My requests all have been denied,” says Miller, who is researching the evolving role of black cooks in the White House. The culinary historian says he appreciates that they don’t want to be perceived as seeking glory or telling tales on the First Family.
“My plea is that people are fascinated by their story,” says Miller, who served as deputy director of Clinton’s Initiative for One America, which focused on closing the opportunity gap for minorities. “They want to know about their training, how they got there. They want to know what they cook at home. I hope to get referred to them by someone they trust.”
Miller announced last week on President’s Day that The President’s Kitchen Cabinet will be published in early 2017 by the University of North Carolina Press, which also handled his first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. It won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.
While researching Soul Food, Miller learned enough about the African-Americans hired to cook for presidents to intrigue his publisher. Miller says that black cooks have always had a presence in presidential kitchens, starting with enslaved persons who honed their skills while feeding plantation-owning Founding Fathers.
Early presidents “wanted to maintain the style of cooking they were accustomed to at home, which in many cases was prepared by African-Americans,” Miller says during a recent call from his Colorado home. “Then, over time, a lot of professional independent cooks were hired. During much of the 19th century, cooking was one of the few professions African-Americans were allowed to engage in and thrive.”
Whatever prestige they might have achieved in the private sector, however, black cooks rarely attained top jobs in the White House kitchen. Historically, they were relegated to everyday fare or prep roles with little opportunity for creativity or promotion.
While President Obama invited celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson to cook the first state dinner of his administration, it’s unlikely that someone on that level would give up a high-profile career for a government service salary. Since President Truman’s time, most White House chefs have been recruited from various branches of the Armed Servicesmeaning their salary is set and paid by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“Celebrity chefs can make millions through book deals and TV shows,” Miller says. “People who work in the White House kitchen have a different motivation. They do it to serve their country.”
So far, Miller has found it easier to connect with white executive chefs who are effusive in their praise of black colleaguesnotably Walter Scheib, whose 1994–2005 service included both Clinton and President George W. Bush. In fact, Scheib wants to help Miller develop an educational TV show to support the book.
Much of Miller’s content has come from presidential libraries and recipes included in period cookbooks. “You might find a random listing saying it’s from ‘President McKinley’s colored cook,’” explains Miller, who also serves as executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, a multi-denominational social justice agency. “References to chefs and the food they served is very hit or miss. In more recent times, it depends a lot on whether the presidential photographer thought it was worth taking photos in the kitchen.”
Miller anticipates that the finished book will emphasize the Founding Fathers’ generation. “We have a lot of early information,” he says, “then about 80 years where there’s not much.”
For example, there were few African-American cooks in the Kennedy kitchen. Especially for formal occasions, Jacqueline Kennedy required elegant European food cooked by European chefs. It was a shared preference among famously competitive D.C. hostesses.
“It wasn’t that they couldn’t make the food,” Miller says, citing the pre-Civil Rights Act workplace. “They just lacked the training.”
Note: The Adrian Miller Cooks & Books Luncheon scheduled for Thursday at the Fearrington Granary has been canceled because of a family illness. For information, call 919-542-3030.
This article appeared in print with the headline “White house, black kitchen.”