Culinary historian Adrian Miller details African-Americans' contributions to presidential cuisine
Author and culinary historian Adrian Miller is celebrating Black History Month in a way that he is uniquely qualified for — by sharing the contributions African-Americans made and continue to make in the culinary field, including as chefs and cooks in the White House.
His latest book, “The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African-Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas” (2017, University of North Carolina Press), details historical accounts of men and women who served American presidents — often without any recognition or regard.
Miller is scheduled to visit the Waterworks Market District for a cooking demo and book signing at 4 p.m. Feb. 9.
Last month, he was honored as an NAACP Image Award finalist for outstanding literary work — nonfiction for his latest publication. He also wrote “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time” (2013, UNC Press), for which he earned a James Beard Foundation Award in 2014.
The lawyer, author and historian, who now lives in Denver, Colo., says he turned his attention to food writing after several positions in politics, most notably as a special assistant to former President Bill Clinton. After the change in administration, he left Washington for Denver, where he served as general counsel and outreach director of the Bell Policy Center, working to advance economic opportunities in Colorado, and as a senior policy analyst for Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr.
While researching his “Soul Food” book, for which he says, “I had no qualifications at all except for eating a lot of soul food and cooking some,” he came across stories of as many as 150 African- Americans past and present who had served in presidential food service as chefs, personal cooks, butlers, stewards and servers for every First Family since George and Martha Washington.
Among his most fascinating revelations was discovering that “African-Americans who dominated presidential cooking positions and made food for very elite people were at times Civil War chefs who had escaped and wanted freedom.”
Miller also learned about a woman named Daisy McAfee Bonner, who worked for President Franklin Roosevelt as a cook at his Warm Springs, Ga., retreat. She introduced him to Southern delicacies, including sweet and sour pigs' feet. Accounts of the president's love for the dish included an occasion where he offered pigs' feet to visiting Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who tried them and noted they were “very good, but sort of slimy.”
Believing that people in this profession deserved to have their stories told, Miller began to scour biographies and cookbooks and visit presidential libraries to learn all he could. One of his proudest accomplishments, he says, was finding a chart that listed a chronology of presidential cooking staffs.
“I decided I wanted to give them names and a voice,” he says.
His book also includes historical information about cooking techniques and equipment, as well as 20 recipes, from Wanda Joell's Hawaiian French toast, reportedly a favorite of President Clinton created by the chef in the galley of Air Force One, to chef Patrick Clark's recipe for sesame and wasabi-crusted halibut served at a 1994 White House dinner honoring Nelson Mandela, then-president of the Republic of South Africa.
Miller says it was harder to identify contemporary cooks and chefs due to “increasing racial sensitivity” in recent years, whereas newspaper accounts of state dinners in the 1800s “described every detail, from the flowers to the grand meal.”
The author is working on his third book, which he says will be a history of the African-American barbecue culture that he will explore by research, “taking trips and eating a lot of barbecue.” His distinction as a certified BBQ judge and a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society should give him an edge in his research.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
Adrian Miller will prepare the following recipes from “The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African- Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas,” as part of his cooking demo at Waterworks Market District:
Makes 2 quarts
2 quarts water
1 ounce fresh or dried food-grade hibiscus blossoms (about 1⁄2 cup)
1 ounce fresh ginger, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 cup sugar, honey, or agave syrup, or to taste
Juice of 1 fresh lime (about 3 tablespoons)
Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat and add the ginger, hibiscus, and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
Cover and let cool to room temperature. Strain into a large pitcher, stir in the lime juice, and refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold.
Jerk Chicken Pita Pizza
Makes 4 servings
4 pita breads
12 tablespoons pizza sauce
½ teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
½ teaspoon dried basil (optional)
Chicken breast strips, cooked and sliced into strips
2 tablespoons jerk seasoning (Island Jerk Seasoning by Tropical Pepper Co. recommended)
1 cup low-fat shredded mozzarella cheese
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
½ cup thinly sliced red onion (optional)
½ cup thinly sliced green bell peppers (optional)
Red pepper flakes to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place the pita breads on a cookie sheet. Spread 3 tablespoons of pizza sauce onto each pita.
Spread 1⁄8 teaspoon each of oregano and basil, if using, onto each pita.
In a bowl, toss the chicken strips with the jerk seasoning and arrange them on the pizza.
Top each pita with ¼ cup mozzarella cheese and 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese.
Top each pita with 1⁄8 cup of the onions and bell peppers, if using.
Season to taste with red pepper flakes.
Place the pizzas in preheated oven and bake 4 to 5 minutes, until cheese is melted and cooked through.