Cassandra Malis reviews Adrian Miller’s “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas,” which dives into the history behind food workers in the White House, adding a historical perspective
Michelle Obama famously charged Americans to remember that enslaved peoples built the White House, the home in which she spent eight years living, eating, and fulfilling her duties as First Lady. Her choice of Sam Kass as White House chef provided an interesting twist on history, as having a white man as an everyday worker sustaining an African American president and his family was definitely a historic first. Adrian Miller’s book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas dives into the history behind food workers in the White House, and adds a historical perspective to the current political conversation about African American foodways. Through intense primary research, Miller names and identifies the African American chefs, cooks, butlers, stewards and general food-preparers who worked for the Presidents of the United States. Miller utilizes historical documents, letters, anecdotes, interviews, and more to highlight the workers’ lives, stories, and roles in feeding the First Family. In today’s political and racial climate, Miller’s showcase of a historically marginalized group works as an important form of protest, and is welcomed within the field of food studies.
In Chapter One, Miller frames the topic by discussing the public’s historical obsession with what the First Family consumes, and highlights important public appearances that are associated with specific consumption habits. These “Presidential Foodways” show the influences on the President’s diet, including his own preferences, other people’s opinions (including the First Lady and the President’s physician), White House culture, and public perception. This chapter outlines the difficulties of feeding someone like the President, who has a myriad of internal and external forces driving the types of food they “should” eat versus what they might personally prefer to consume. Miller makes it extremely clear that the White House cooks, chefs, stewards, pantrymen, and maids had a much more difficult job than others working in food service in “normal” homes, restaurants, or hotels.
The most revelatory section of the book is Chapter Three, in which Miller focuses on antebellum America. Miller tells the lost stories of the enslaved cooks and food laborers of the White House, and puts them on the same plane as the hired chefs who followed them. Miller does not shy away from the ugly past of slave-owning presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but highlights the painful history surrounding the leaders of our country. Still, Miller manages to write without judgment, and presents the stories with factual grace. Specifically, the long story about George Washington’s enslaved cook Hercules shines through the pages as one that needed to be told, with Miller stepping up to the task.
Throughout the book, Miller successfully illustrates the connection between the presence of African American cooks in the White House and larger political scenarios, for instance when sharing the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s maid and food-worker Lizzie McDuffie. Miller describes how Lizzie’s informal nickname was the “Secretary of Colored People’s Affairs,” and how she had an integral role in courting the black vote (135). Similarly, Miller describes Lyndon B. Johnson’s cook Zephyr Wright as believing that her main role, outside of cooking for the President, “was to give LBJ a unique perspective on African American life” (118). Miller adds that LBJ gifted Wright with one of the pens he used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bringing the story full circle and showing the immense effect of the presence of African American workers, particularly women, in the White House.
However, there are also many times throughout the book where such stories could welcome more thorough analysis. In Chapter Two, for example, Miller recounts the entertaining story of President Roosevelt sharing his favorite dish of sour pigs’ feet with Winston Churchill (54). Even though the dish, introduced to Roosevelt by his African-American cook Daisy Bonner, didn’t go over very well with Churchill, Miller marks this as one of the “top soul food moments in White House history” (54). Miller however, never fully explains why this moment was so important, and the potential implications of a President sharing a traditionally African American dish with a foreign VIP such as Churchill. To make this story complete, Miller could have informed the reader about the historical raced and gendered connotation of soul food dishes, and how a moment like this is emblematic of the African American contribution to American food.
For all of its insightful observations on the racialized history of kitchen work in the White House, the reader is left craving a more thorough exploration of gender dynamics. Many of the prominent workers that Miller describes are women, and yet there is no mention of how their gender affected their ability to work within the constraints of the system he lays out. Miller’s account of so many female workers invites an intersectional approach to the workings of race and gender within the food industry of the White House, and the rich material Miller presents on women cooks and chefs suggests that this would provide a ripe area of analysis and exploration in the future.
Overall, this book provides a unique perspective on the history of food preparation for the First Family, and highlights the trajectory of workers who deserve recognition. The book does not shy away from the uglier parts of our country’s past, but dives in head first with purpose and insight. The expertly researched anecdotes that pepper the pages are both entertaining and discerning, and prove a successful means for giving voice to many hard-working, talented, and oppressed workers in our country’s past.
Cassandra Malis is a graduate of Chatham University’s Masters in Food Studies program, with a concentration in food politics. Her thesis work was a feminist perspective on the commodification of breast milk, and the emerging global market for the product. Cassandra has previously worked as a food systems analyst for a local non-profit, where she helped to research ways to strengthen the local food system. Currently, Cassandra is living and working in Pittsburgh as a project manager for Chatham University’s new research center, the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT).