A celebration of black chefs and U.S. presidents came together Saturday night at Old Salem Museum & Gardens.
If that sounds like a celebration well suited to the middle of February, it was meant to be. The event was originally scheduled for Feb. 15, midway through Black History Month and two days before Presidents Day. But that turned out to be the week of a big winter storm, so the event was rescheduled for last weekend.
Adrian Miller, the author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time” (UNC Press), spoke to about 140 people about black chefs in the White House at the Old Salem Visitors Center.
He also gave participants a tangible taste of history during a four-course dinner prepared by Chef Don McMillan and his team at Simple Elegance Catering.
Cheryl Harry, the director of African-American programming at Old Salem, described the event as an “interactive meal:” Participants listened to Miller talk about presidents and their chefs while participants were eating a four-course dinner.
Miller, from Denver, has been researching black chefs in the White House for about five years, ever since he found a mention of them in a book outline by Alphonse Schomberg in the public library in Harlem while he was researching “Soul Food.”
Harry learned about Miller’s interest a year ago through the Internet, then had a chance to meet him last September when he came to town for the Bookmarks festival. “He told me about this event with black chefs. He already had done it in Denver and some other cities,” Harry said.
Miller expects to turn his research into a second book in 2016, and he plans to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a companion television documentary.
Miller is a writer and an attorney. He currently is the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, but previously worked as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton.
“The weird thing is that I didn’t have any interest in the chefs when I worked in the White House,” Miller said. But now he has uncovered hoards of interesting information.
“A lot of the information comes from old newspapers. They often mention a ‘negro’ or ‘colored’ cook, but often not the name,” Miller said. “But I’ve been able to identify 150 African-American workers in the kitchen at the White House. And I know I’m just scratching the surface.”
Miller gave an overall history of the White House kitchen, and how it and the various dining rooms have changed over time. He talked about George Washington — “definitely a foodie” — and Thomas Jefferson, who had slave James Hemings, a brother of Jefferson’s supposed mistress Sally Hemings, trained to cook in France.
Many of the early cooks were slaves. And because the early presidents had to pay for their own entertaining, the White House cooks were ones they brought from home.
Later, of course, they were government-paid workers. Quite a few were black women, and many were the head cooks in charge of the kitchen.
“The thing that’s really striking is that every president has had an African-American in their kitchen as a head cook or an assistant cook,” Miller said. “African-Americans pretty much dominated the White House kitchen until the 1960s.”
In what might be considered an ironic twist, the decade that brought the Civil Rights Act also started a decline in the black presence in the White House kitchen. This also was the era of Julia Child and an American fascination with gourmet and European food, particularly French food.
It was Jacqueline Kennedy who hired a white European to head the kitchen, and from then on the White House had an executive chef, instead of a head cook. Lyndon Baines Johnson did bring his own black cook to the White House. But ever since then, the executive head chef has been trained in European cooking. Until recently, all have been white males. But the current chef is Cristeta Comerford, a Filipino-American woman, the first White House chef of Asian descent. She was promoted from assistant chef to head chef by Laura Bush in 2005.
Miller said that since the 1960s, the number of blacks in the White House kitchen has dwindled.
“At the assistant-chef level, you used to have a lot of African-American cooks, but over time as they retired, they were replaced by white or Asian-American chefs,” Miller said.
In the 1990s, President Clinton offered a black the job of executive chef, the late Patrick Clark, but Clark turned it down.
Miller noted that the White House kitchen is small. The current full-time staff is said to be only six, though that staff balloons with many part-time and temporary workers for certain events, such as state dinners.
White House chefs often became close to presidents and their families. They are, after all, the family cook.
Miller said that President Johnson often cited Zephyr Wright as he pushed for civil-rights legislation. “He would say, ‘Look, even my cook can’t do this or that,’” Miller said.
Miller played an audio recording of Wright being interviewed by a reporter about what kind of beans LBJ liked.
When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Wright was there. After signing the act, Johnson gave her one of the pens, saying, “You deserve this more than anybody else.”
Miller also said that Franklin D. Roosevelt would have Lizzie McDuffie, a cook and maid, stump for him on the campaign trail. “African-American leaders knew if they wanted to get something in front of FDR, they would take it to her,” Miller said.
Before the dinner, Carolina Vineyards & Hops, a store that specializes in North Carolina wine and beer, 1111 South Marshall St., served some of the wine for its new label. It also served some of its wine-infused chocolate truffles.
The dinner featured white and black White House chefs and consisted of:
• Deviled almonds, by Dolley Johnson, a black cook for President Benjamin Harrison. “Theodore Roosevelt actually recommended Johnson, who was a famous cook. When Johnson was hired, there were headlines in all the papers about it,” Miller said.
• White House rooftop garden salad, from chef Walter Scheib, chef for President Clinton.
• Country captain, from Daisy Bonner, a black cook for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR had Bonner prepare pigs’ feet for Winston Churchill on one occasion. And Bonner was cooking a soufflé for FDR on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt had a cerebral hemorrhage and died in his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Ga.
• Buttermilk blueberry Bundt cake, by Bill Yosses, pastry chef for President Obama.