February 22nd, 2017
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
The Presidents’ African American Cooks
Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and an authority on soul food, will help WHS celebrate Washington’s birthday with a talk on 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.” Washington’s birthday is also the book’s publication date, and signed copies will be available for purchase.
Miller’s book discusses all the African American’s who have cooked for the nation’s presidents and some of the dishes they prepared. Some did not cook in the White House but for the president on the presidential yacht or elsewhere. Some cooked just for the family but not for dinners given for visiting dignitaries.
The author came across their names while doing research for his first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” published in 2013. “They just kept popping up,” he says. “At first, there were only a few, but as I delved into it, more showed up, about 150 in all.” It turned out that black men and women cooked for every president, he said. For some there were not even complete names, but they became the foundation of “Kitchen Cabinet.”
One of Miller’s favorite anecdotes involves Zephyr Wright, who became a cook for Lady Bird Johnson in 1942 to help pay for her college and remained until LBJ left the White House in 1969. It started with a reporter’s call to White House secretary Juanita Roberts to ask if Johnson ate beans, a food not found in his home state’s famous chile yet a staple in the diet of “plain folk.” Perhaps the reporter wanted to embarrass the president. Roberts nevertheless called Wright, and their 2 ½ minute conversation produced a laundry list of the many legumes favored by Johnson and how Wright prepared them. “It’s hilarious,” Miller says.
As a footnote, Wright herself did embarrass Johnson in front of a dining room full of political friends when he told her to get ready to drive to his Austin, Tex., home with the family’s black chauffeur to get ready for their arrival. She refused, telling the then senator she would no longer endure not being allowed to use the same bathrooms, restaurants and motels as Lady Bird and Lynda Bird due to “whites only” rules. Johnson put down his napkin and left the room, but years later, when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he gave Wright the pen, saying, “You deserve this more than anybody else.”
Born and raised in Denver, Miller is a Stanford graduate and Georgetown Law trained attorney who once served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and later as a senior policy analyst for former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. These days, however, he refers to himself as a “recovering lawyer and politician.”
He says he became interested in the history of soul food several years ago when he was between jobs and “watching too much TV”. He decided to read instead, and got a book on Southern cooking by John Egerton. I reached out to him, learned that nobody had taken on the full story of black food, and decided to dive in.” As he became more knowledgeable about the foods of African Americans, he took to the podium as a professional speaker, calling himself the Soul Food Scholar.
Miller grew up in a family with a working mom and is modest about his own cooking ability. “My first foray into cooking was breakfast for my brother and sisters – scrambled eggs, cream of wheat. As I got older, I offered to cook dinner on Saturday. In my third year of law school I watched cooking shows, and that really got me interested.” As a food writer, however, his work is five star: “Soul Food” won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.
The same year that book was published Miller was urged by a friend at the Colorado Council of Churches to apply for the job of executive director. Though a “person of faith” and lifelong member of the Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver, Miller thought he would never get the job. He applied, however, and was hired, the first African American and first layperson to hold the position.
There is a $10 donation. Limited seating, reservations are required: (203) 222-1424.