The Soul Food Scholar: An Interview with Adrian E. Miller

Courtesy of Adrian Miller

This month I interviewed Adrian E. Miller about his work on soul food, culinary history, and the African American cooks who worked at the White House. Miller is a graduate of Stanford University and Georgetown University Law School. After practicing law in Denver for several years, Adrian became a special assistant to President William Jefferson Clinton and the Deputy Director of the President’s Initiative for One America, the first free-standing White House office in history to examine and focus on closing the opportunity gaps that exist for minorities in this country. After his White House stint, Adrian served as the General Counsel and Director of Outreach at the Bell Policy Center—a progressive think tank dedicated to making Colorado a state of opportunity for all. In 2007, Adrian became the Deputy Legislative Director for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. By the end of Gov. Ritter’s first term, Adrian was a Senior Policy Analyst for Gov. Ritter where he handled homeland security, military and veterans’ issues.

Adrian is currently the Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches. He is the first African American and the first layperson to hold that position. Adrian is also a culinary historian and a certified barbecue judge who has lectured around the country on such topics as Black Chefs in the White House, chicken and waffles, hot sauce, kosher soul food, red drinks, soda pop, and soul food. Adrian’s book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship. His second book is The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @soulfoodscholar.

Keri Leigh Merritt: Congratulations on the James Beard Award for your book Soul Food, and also on the publication of your newest book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. Given your background in law and politics, what brought you into the world of culinary history?

Adrian E. Miller: Unemployment. The job market was really slow at that time (after the Clinton administration). I hate to admit this, but I was watching too much daytime television and, one day, I told myself I needed to read something. So, I went to a local bookstore and I was browsing through the food section, the cookbook section, because I like to cook. There was this book on the history of southern food written by the late John Egerton. That book was Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History and if you’re a southern food history buff, you need to check out that book. So, I pick it up off the shelf and early in the book, Egerton wrote that the tribute to African American achievement in cookery had yet to be written. The book was about 10 years old when I picked it up, so I just emailed Mr. Egerton because I figured that someone had done that work in the interim. He confirmed that no one really had. People had done pieces of it, but no one had really done a comprehensive work. So, without any qualifications at all except eating a lot of soul food while growing up and cooking some, I decided to dive in. That put me on the journey to Soul Food, and while I was researching Soul Food these African Americans who cooked for our presidents kept coming up in my research. So, I decided once I finished the soul food book, that was the next book I would like to write.

Merritt: I think that part of the importance of your work on soul food is the way it connects poverty and necessity to some really amazingly creative and wonderful recipes. Can you explain that connection?

Miller: The dominant narrative of soul food is that it is a poverty food. Part of this story is how African Americans, typically being part of the lowest segment of the racial caste system in the United States and thus being poor and part of a lower socioeconomic status, often had very little access to prestige ingredients. They had to “make do” with lesser cuts of meat, undesired foods from other parts of society, and things that they could put together by foraging, gardening, hunting, and fishing. It led to a creative cuisine. But, that’s only part of the story. If you actually look deeply at soul food, there is a mix of high and low, and a lot of what we consider comfort food today was actually prestige food a hundred or a hundred fifty years ago.

Merritt: Right, like fried chicken among the enslaved.

Miller: Right. Fried chicken was something that, in general, people maybe only had once a week—tops—and only during certain parts of the year. It was really special occasion food, but now it is an everyday convenience food. There are a lot of reasons for that. Another case is macaroni and cheese. Macaroni and cheese used to be royalty food during the 1300s and well into the 1700s and 1800s it was wealthy people food, mainly because the earliest mac and cheese was made with parmesan cheese—which was super expensive—and you had to use the special macaroni noodles made from Durum wheat, which were also expensive because they were imported. Mac and cheese starts to change its status once cheddar is used and American farmers got good at growing the wheat to make macaroni noodles. Another dish is sweet potato pie, which Henry VIII used to grub on.

Merritt: Wow, so you are shattering all sorts of preconceived notions about soul food as well?

Miller: Exactly, and these notions tend to die very hard. The flip-side of the poverty narrative is that it’s empowering. It shows that despite all of the things that whites had done to keep blacks down, such as starve them, the ingenuity of these cooks allowed them to create a wonderful cuisine that nourished a people. So, I think that is part of the reason the poverty narrative continues to thrive.

Merritt: Tell us a little about your new book. When did you first realize the connection between U.S. Presidents and black chefs, and how did you uncover their stories? Will we be seeing a television special soon?

Miller: I found this topic several ways. Once I was set on researching the book about African American presidential chefs, I started reading every presidential biography I could get my hands on that at least talked about food, and I looked for references to food and the cooks. I looked at the memoirs of their staff, the presidential staffers, to see if they would talk about these cooks. I looked through and purchased every single presidential cookbook—there are not many of them, so I did not have to do much there. The boon to my research, really, was digitized historic newspapers. The Library of Congress and other private companies are digitizing newspapers from as far back as the 1700s and they’re word-searchable. Once I figured out the parlance of how people talked about the president’s residence and the kitchen and the terms for cooks, that opened up a floodgate of information. Unfortunately, due to the racial dynamics of the time, they do not give us the names of the people. They use the terms “colored cook,” “negro cook,” and “negro scullion” (which was a term for kitchen worker). Although I know that every president had an African American cooking for them at some point, we just don’t know the names of all these people.

Soul food. Photo: Adrian Miller/Instagram.
Soul food. Photo: Adrian Miller/Instagram.

Merritt: Can you give us a general breakdown of what you found about these cooks? Were there general trends in gender and class and were they all from the D.C. area or were they brought from the president’s hometown?

Miller: Most of the cooks in presidential history were accidental in the sense that they were enslaved or employed privately by someone who became president. Overwhelmingly, the majority of African Americans who cooked in the White House were from the South, particularly from Virginia since we had a lot of slaveholding presidents from Virginia. But, even outside the South, quite a few of the men who became president had an African American cook working for them who they brought to the White House. What people don’t know is that prior to Truman, the president had to pay for groceries, residence staff, and the cooks out of his own pocket. So, it made a ton of sense to bring your enslaved cook or your private cook because you could save money and get good food without having to pay the prevailing wage on the labor market to hire an independent cook.

In terms of gender, overwhelmingly black women have been the face of White House cooking. There are several kinds of White House cooking, which I’ll break down very quickly. Most people know about the state dinners and the grand entertainment, but you also have the private cooking in the residence—the daily meals for the First Family—and there is also the White House Mess—mess being a Navy term for kitchen—that is a clubby dining space in the West Wing reserved for senior staff of the president and they cater all of the office parties at the White House. The White House basement kitchen is really for the big events, feeding the First Family, and whenever the president is entertaining someone personally. But, if the president is not there, then they usually have the White House Mess do it. The other cooking is for when the president travels—on Air Force One, Camp David, and other places. My book is mainly about the residence cooking in private for the president. African American women have been the face of cooking for the private residence because for a long time whenever there was a state dinner—especially in the 1800s until about the 1920s or 1930s—the White House would outsource cooking for these dinners to a prominent caterer, usually a French person either in D.C. or New York. The interesting turning of the tide happens in 1961 when Jacqueline Kennedy enters the White House and changes the vibe—a stark contrast from the Eisenhowers, who were your typical 1950s American family. Jacqueline Kennedy wanted elegant European cooking done by a European chef. She hired René Verdon and he became the Executive Chef of the White House, a title created by Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961. At this point, the reign of the African American cooks starts to end and slowly the African American presence in the kitchen is weeded out as they retire or move on to other positions as white European chefs—classically trained—are hired in their place. There was a dominant African American kitchen staff in the 1960s, but by the 1980s, there were very few African Americans on staff in the White House kitchen.

Daisy Bonner, who made FDR's last meal—a cheese souffle—in 1945. Photo: Adrian Miller/Instagram.
Daisy Bonner, who made FDR’s last meal—a cheese soufflé—in 1945. Photo: Adrian Miller/Instagram.

Merritt: Where do you want to be in ten years? What does the future hold for Adrian Miller?

Miller: In ten years, I hope to have produced at least two more books that try to round out the contributions of African Americans to America’s culinary history. I’m very interested in writing a book on the African American barbeque tradition because, in the current state of food media, you would not even know that black people barbeque. It’s pretty much white hipsters and “Bubbas” who get all the love. Until very recently, in any community, if you were going to get top-notch barbeque, odds were that you would go to an African American-run joint. So, I feel like that story needs to be told. I am also very interested in the intersection of faith and food. There is much more consciousness in the faith community—and I am a person of faith—about food justice issues, being better stewards of the Earth, and our agricultural and food production system, and then there is a rich history in these different faith traditions of coming together through food. I believe that in a society that needs a lot of reconciliation, coming to the table is one of the easiest places to do that. So, I’m hoping to have two more books and at least one TV special about African American presidential chefs. Other than that, I’m a speaker who is sharing this history in an entertaining and informative way while bringing people together through food. I would love to be there in 10 years.

Merritt: I hope you will start coming to some of our historical conferences and educate the historians on foodways as well.

Miller: Before we end, I just want to give you what I think are the major themes of the book. These African Americans were culinary artists. They were often family confidants. In several instances, they were actually civil rights advocates. When civil rights leaders could not get the president’s ear, they would go to the cooks and say, “Could you talk to him about this?” They gave these presidents a window on black life that they might not otherwise have had. A lot of presidents chose not to open that window, but with the ones who did, I think the nation is better off for it.

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Keri Leigh Merritt

Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of the 19th-century American South who works as an independent scholar in Atlanta. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of the forthcoming Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power . Follow her on Twitter @KeriLeighMerrit.