The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

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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.

About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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