Writer, attorney, and culinary historian Adrian Miller discussed his new book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families from the Washingtons to the Obamas on September 19, 2017 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Adrian Miller is a graduate of Stanford University and Georgetown University Law School. After practicing law in Denver for several years, Miller was Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton and the Deputy Director of the President’s Initiative for One America. After serving at the White House, Miller served as the Deputy Legislative Director for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. and also as the Senior Policy Analyst for homeland security, military, and veterans’ issues.
Miller 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. Miller’s book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.
Miller explained that the inspiration for writing The President’s Kitchen Cabinet came soon after leaving the White House from a quote he read in the book Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History where the author John Egerton said “the tribute to African American achieve[ment] in cooking has yet to be written.”
Miller’s research identified 150 African-American White House chefs from President George Washington to President Donald J. Trump. Miller noted the best source of information came from old newspapers that chronicled the daily life in the White House. Additional research sources included presidential biographies, autobiographies, staff biographies, White House cookbooks and White House chefs alive today.
Miller started the lecture by providing details on President Washington’s White House steward (now referred to as the Chief Usher) Samuel Fraunces who was in charge of all domestic operations including cooking in the White House. He said that Fraunces was a biracial man born in the West Indies (either Haiti or Jamaica) that opened a restaurant in New York that President Washington enjoyed. Citing an example from President Rutherford B. Hayes, Miller theorized that most White House cooks have been accidental.
Miller shared a number of stories and recipes from his book of African-American White House chefs and staff including President George Washington’s slave chef Hercules, President Thomas Jefferson’s French trained chef James Hemings, Presidents William H. Harrison and S. Grover Cleveland’s Kentucky native chef Laura “Dollie” Johnson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Georgia native chef Daisy Bonner, President Harry S. Truman’s White House maître ‘dee Alonzo Fields, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House valet John Moaney, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s chef Zephyr Wright, President George H.W. Bush through President Barack H. Obama Air Force One Steward Senior Master Sergeant Wanda Joell, President Clinton’s White House guest chef Patrick Clark, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s 9 year old guest chef Kiana Farkash.
Miller provided two examples from his book of African American chefs who served under President Gerald R. Ford in Air Force Steward Lee Simmons and White House Butler John Ficklin. Miller explained how Simmons would satisfy President Ford’s craving for butter pecan ice cream despite the strict prohibition from his doctor William Lukash. Simmons would “mistakenly” include butter pecan ice cream on the Air Force One meal tray and (reading from his book) stated, President Ford “ate it up before anything else on the tray and told Simmons not to tell Dr. Lukash.”
Miller shared a story of John Ficklin who acted as President Ford’s sommelier. Miller discussed how the Ford White House received a number of bad press reviews for wine. Rather than buying popular French wines, Miller explained how Ficklin preferred selecting U.S. based wines from different regions, which in fact is a popular practice today. Miller read a letter he found from his research at the Ford Archives from American Wine Institute Chairman at the time praising Ficklin for choosing American wines at official Presidential functions over popular European wines.
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum Director Elaine Didier opened the 2017 fall program series first event introducing the speaker and thanking National Archives and the Ford Presidential Foundation. Miller closed the lecture by answering questions from the audience.