The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

cover image

The President’s Kitchen Cabinet by Adrian Miller, UNC Press 2017, $30.00 cloth, 296 pages

His cook is his chief merit. The world visits his dinners, not him.


And I suppose, depending on your party or your president, you can say the same about the White House.

There are all kinds of anecdotes about presidential food–Nixon’s cottage cheese and ketchup, Bush the elder’s dislike of broccoli, and Jefferson’s scientific gourmandism.

But in this book, Miller goes behind the scenes to find out who was actually doing all the cooking–and often it was African Americans.

Because some of America’s first presidents were slaveholders, the first presidential cooks were enslaved people. George Washington “summoned Hercules from Mount Vernon and installed him as his presidential cook in Philadelphia.” Jefferson brought James Hemmings to be trained in France and then to cook at the White House.

But, as Miller points out, after Emancipation, “…the African American struggle to be fully integrated into American society had not ended with slavery’s demise. It merely changes the context of servitude.” So while James Madison’s cook, Augustus Jackson, perfected ice cream, Dolley got the credit. After his time at the White House, Jackson became wealthy selling the ice cream, but he had to do it in Philadelphia, “perhaps because of the increasingly restrictive black codes enacted in D.C. The clear message was that D.C. whites were hostile to black success.”

Miller places all these cooks and stewards–from George Washington to the Obama administration–in a firm and complete historical context, framed around four “ingredients,” the first being the presidential palate. The president’s wealth, food philosophy, schedule and prerogative all forced kitchen workers–cooks and stewards–to adapt to their employer. Washington enjoyed the meals delivered by his steward, Samuel Fraunces, but was frustrated with his profligate spending. Washington was conscious that he was setting a precedent and did not want to  appear in any way monarchical.

The second ingredient, is those who surround the president–his family, friends, and staff. Of course, first ladies, whether they liked it or not, needed to at least appear to care about the kitchen. Many kept their husbands on diets–Nancy Reagan vetoed the Bavarian cream apple pie on the Air Force One menu and while historically, the White House garden supplied the kitchen, under Michelle Obama, it became a fixture of food and politics.

The White House has its own culture–like any grand house or hotel–with a team of workers who have their own standards and expectations. As part of this third ingredient Miller examines the White House’s surprisingly cramped kitchen, its sometimes outdated equipment, and racial attitudes, particularly that “blacks were created for servitude,” an attitude exemplified in the Taft White House, where servants segregated themselves by race.

Miller calls the fourth ingredient Surprising Elements, which naturally include politics–Congressional control over the budget, the intangible but important power of public perception, climate, and even food gifts. The president used to eat the food sent by Americans, but now all food is sourced from Secret Service-approved purveyors.

The influence of these African-American cooks often reached beyond the kitchen. They would often be a conduit to the president on Civil Rights issues. Elizabeth McDuffie campaigned for FDR in Baltimore. “She went out to make one speech, did make three and could have made twenty-four more…”. But despite the skill and loyalty African-American cooks brought to the White House, they were rarely paid fairly and were often assistants to  more exalted chefs, as when Pearl Nelson had to step aside for Rene Verdon in the Kennedy administration.

With scholarship and  behind-the scenes anecdotes, Miller balances this particular set of kitchen scales.

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Springtime Food Traditions at the Sandy Spring Museum

bread table

Thank you bakers!


A fun time last night at the Sandy Spring Museum, talking about springtime food traditions.

A close look  at the seasonal cycles, the foods we eat, and the holidays we celebrate, reveals ancient fears of famine and death.

From Demeter and Persephone to Mardi Gras, we share rituals and define our communities.

And we celebrate with symbols of life and fertility–greens, eggs, rabbits, and even jelly beans.

Thank you to the museum for the opportunity and to the bakers for sharing their skills and creativity!

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Rio de Janeiro, A Food Biography

I love the idea of looking at a city through its food–revealing of people, geography, economy, and culture. And this books goes beyond what you think you know about Rio’s food culture, linking it to the city’s extraordinary setting and its native and immigrant populations.

This review appeared in CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C.

Be sure to check out Rowman & Littlefield‘s expanding and intriguing list of books on culinary history.

CHoWline review

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A Culinary Education

view of the Pacific from Miraflores

(Many, many) thanks to Latam Airlines, I was gifted with two tickets to Lima, Peru, and used the trip as an opportunity to eat. Yes, we visited museums, no we didn’t go to Machu Pichu, but we did eat. Ceviche of course, and pastries at the charming La Mora pasteleria around the corner from our hotel.

The education came at Central, Virgilio Martinez’s restaurant that “celebrates the bio-diversity of Peru.”

Behind a discrete facade, the sign nothing more than a brass plaque set into the sidewalk, and through a dark entry and bar, the dining room opens into a tall skylight dining room. The journey begins.

central dining room

Impeccable but friendly service, refined decoration of raw wood and smooth stone, and a menu that ranges from the countries highest to lowest points–I mean that literally, not metaphorically. With his sister, Martines explores Peru’s unique environments from the thin air of the Andes, to the mysterious oceans. They gather flora and fauna, some that are used as food by local populations, some that are not considered food.

the menu at Central is marked with altitudes, not prices (the menu is prix fixe)

They gather, and empty their rucksack findings onto the kitchen counter, and he (and his wife, who is also a chef) begins to experiment. Each course is a composition of the biome where it was found–noting the elevation from 3,500 feet above sea level to below sea level.  River Scales marks both the river shrimp and the texture of the dish.  There are completely unfamiliar ingredients like air potato, sachaculantro, and olluco. On the Netflix series, Chef’s Table, Martinez admits that not everything tastes so good, but you quickly realize that taste is only part of the equation. You are participating in a scientific experiment.

a biome on a plate

It’s a food writing trope to describe the moment when you look at a menu and unfamiliar with the dishes, you just point and end up with something daunting like calve’s head. At Central, the waiter delivers each dish and describes what is in front of you. Nearly every word is unfamiliar, the colors are often bright, the shapes are sometimes Seuss-ian, textures unexpected, and with each bite you struggle to find familiarity and comparison. Aah, the corn dish is like American Indian pudding, the grassy corn flavor complemented by sweet molasses. Oh, pepino melon and with sea urchin and razors clams is a kind of ceviche. Flavors range from bright to earthy and are somehow a message from their source.

this did taste good (most of the courses did)

Martinez is pursuing an idea, allowing us into that idea by running an elegant restaurant, but also performing ethno-botany that may have reverberations for Peru’s culture, economy, and menus.

If eating at Central is like reading an explorer’s journals, a meal at Astrid y Gaston is familiarity, wit, and surprise. Courses are served balanced on little tripods or arrayed on rocks. Savory alfahores are served on a ceramic bed, when you open the little wooden drawer below you’ll find two neatly folded empanadas.

you made your bed, now eat it

The restaurant is in a renovated San Isidro mansion that has been decorated in the most elegant way. The wall of the bar is lined with modern interpretations of the Incan breastplates that you saw earlier at the Museo Larco.

one balanced bite

The wine pairing is its own kind of culinary education, ranging from fine French to local Peruvian, and including sherry and beer. It is all generous and charming, from the art on the walls, through the truly explanatory wine explanations, to the final dessert course–a massive candy box from which you can choose among Astrid’s inspired bonbons and truffles–or choose them all.

foams and dots and precious presentation, it would be a joke if it weren’t all so expertly delicious

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Thirty Recipes Suitable for Framing

My tattered edition of this portfolio was picked up at a small bookstore in western Massachusetts. The folder was torn and it was shoved into a remainder bin.

After framing one image–Cherries Jubilee (we live in DC, cherries are a thing)–I shoved it into a safe space between my desk and bookshelf and forgot about it for years at a time, which I sometimes think is the easiest way to create value–forgetting about something and  seeing it with new appreciation when it resurfaces. It applies to people and prints.

When I graduated from college, David Lance Goines‘ work was the height of sophistication–hippie historicism. Medieval, William Morris, filtered through Berkeley California, where Goines set up his Saint Hieronymus Press and printed annual anniversary posters for Chez Panisse, another alternative business run by his friend Alice Waters.

I am a sucker for the nobility of the press and the artistry of letterpress. I still love these images–calm, carefully considered, assembled on the page with a creative rigor enforced by the press and the page. Roots and stems crawl and twine; crabs, carrots and cows march in sturdy sets. Most of the recipes are illustrated with their ingredients but Chicken Breasts Florentine come with two blank-eyed, burgundy harpies, Marinated Tomatoes are elaborately illustrated with a crusader knight on horseback, and Apple Sauce with a fundamental Eve, Adam, snake, and tree.

And the I love the recipes as well. They capture a time of growing interest in the American table. Reaching out to unfamiliar cultures with dishes like Chicken Biryani, Stuffed Grape Leaves,  and Moroccan Carrots; interpreting French sophistication with Orange Duck and Pate Maison; and exalting the simple in recipes like Pepper Toast and Homemade Yoghurt.

I’m thinking it’s time they come out of their portfolio–maybe framed on the dining room wall?





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Fruit by Nancie McDermott, UNC Press 2017, $20.00 cloth, 144 pages

It has so happened in all ages of the world that some have labored, and others have, without labor, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits.

Abraham Lincoln

It’s easy to see how the wild and cultivated sweet produce that nature gives us is turned into a vivid metaphor.

This Savor the South series continues to unearth culinary treasures. In this book, McDermott admits that, “While apples, pears, blueberries, raspberries, and nectarines have a proud place on the Southern table, they are also widely known…”.

And so she reaches up higher into the top branches and deeper into the thorny patches to pull out distinctly Southern fruits like scuppernong and muscadine grapes, mayhaws and damson plums, wild persimmons and elusive pawpaws.

As with all the books in this series, McDermott incorporates her own memories and some history–cantaloupe was  named in the 16th century for the Italian city of Cantalupo, even though the strain we enjoy is actually a muskmelon cousin. Fig orchards thrived at Mount Vernon and Monticello–it was the founders’ intent that we should enjoy fruits–actual and metaphorical. The indigenous pawpaw is full of vitamin C and sustained Native Americans and African Americans escaping slavery, but the mango-like pods are easily bruised and unsuitable as a market fruit.

Some of these fruits take work–pawpaws and mayhaws are foraged, and mayhaws and quince have to be cooked into preserves or syrups before they can be enjoyed. But others, like peaches and blackberries can be found at a pick-your-own farm or, if you must, at the supermarket.

Make this book a summer project, from cooling Cantaloupe Agua Fresca, Fresh Fig Pie, and Bill Smith’s Green Peach Salad, to Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. And if you time your project right, preserves like Watermelon Rind Pickles, Quince Ratafia, and Damson Plum Jam will take you right through the winter.

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Eight Flavors

In a clever combination of history and contemporary technology, Sarah Lohman has sussed out what really American flavors are. And you can blame it on the rosewater used to flavor cookies at the Ohio living history museum she worked at as a teenager. Why not vanilla? Run that question through data-mining software and it leads to all kinds of revelations–in this case, eight.

This review appeared in CHoWline, the monthly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Washington DC. We meet monthly, check us out online.

chowline review

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