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Culinary Historian Presents “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” at Upper House

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In an event Wednesday evening, award-winning author Adrian Miller said the face of White House cooking is Black men and women who played remarkable roles in events throughout the nation’s history. 

Photo by Mackenzie Krumme.

“Daisy McAfee Bonner, for example, (Franklin Roosevelt’s) cook at his Warm Springs retreat, described the president’s final day on earth in 1945; he was struck down just as his lunchtime cheese souffle emerged from the oven. Sorrowfully, but with a cook’s pride, she recalled, ‘He never ate that souffle, but it never fell until the minute he died,’” his website reads. 

Miller recently authored “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who have Fed our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas.” 

The book outlines the lives of 150 Black people who worked in presidential food service from 1789 to 2017. Some were enslaved people, while others were private chefs before the president moved to the White House. The team includes chefs, personal cooks, butlers, stewards and servers. 

Miller held a presentation on Wednesday night at Upper House, where 80 participants ate a full course meal with five of the 20 recipes from his book. Madison365 is the media sponsor of the event.

Photo by Mackenzie Krumme.

Each dish that evening represented a different chef during a particular administration:  Hercules, an enslaved family cook, made hoecakes for George Washington, Edith (Edy) Hern Fossett made the baked macaroni and cheese for Thomas Jefferson, Denzil Benjamin created a salmon swiss chard salad for Barack Obama and Charlie Redden made sweet potato cheesecake for Bill Clinton.

While the audience ate, Miller told anecdotal stories of some of his favorite characters.

“These men and women gave presidents a window on the Black life that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Some presidents opened that window and some didn’t. The ones who did it, made the world a better place,” Miller said during his presentation.

During his research for  “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” he found the first known picture of the White House domestic staff taken in March 1877, with five Black women and four Black men. He also found a recorded conversation between Zephyr Wright, who cooked for Lyndon Johnson, and a White House staff member Wanita Roberts, over what type of beans the president favored. 

Photo by Mackenzie Krumme.

For his books, Miller conducts extensive research. For instance, for his first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” Miller read 3,000 oral histories of formerly enslaved people, 500 cookbooks, thousands of newspaper articles dating back to the 1600’s and interviewed hundreds of chefs and experts. He even taste-tested food at 135 soul food restaurants in 35 cities across the nation, he said. 

Miller, who was a special assistant to president Bill Clinton and was the deputy director for the One America initiative, said his favorite recipe in the book is the sweet potato cheesecake which was made during Clinton’s presidency. During that time, roughly 1994, a White House executive chef salary was roughly $58,000, Miller said. 

In addition to his work as a culinary historian, Miller is also executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches.