Adrian Miller's first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, published in 2013 and winner of a James Beard Award last year, covers the history and evolution of African-American cooking from its African roots to its modern incarnations in professional urban kitchens. Now Miller has just signed a deal for a second book with the University of North Carolina Press. The working title is The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Hidden History of African American Presidential Chefs, and it will trace the history of African-Americans in the presidential kitchen, from George Washington's cooks to current White House chefs. The book is slated for publication in 2017; Miller is also working on creating a documentary covering the same topic.
In the midst of planning a 1,000-seat Mardi Gras dinner at his alma mater, Stanford University, Miller took a few minutes to switch his focus from gumbo, jambalaya and king cake to his preparation on the book. With most of his research — combing the Internet and libraries for old news clippings, cookbooks and articles from White House sources— already complete, Miller says he still plans to delve deeper into first-hand accounts. "I'm planning on going to the presidential libraries and doing genealogical research for family stories and recipes that may have been handed down."
The new book will include many recipes from African-American cooks who have served the presidents, some as slaves. "Every president has had an African-American in the kitchen," Miller points out. President John Adams's chef was a black woman, as was Daisy Bonner, the head of the kitchen for Franklin Roosevelt.
In fact, one of the favorite recipes that Miller has uncovered is one of Bonner's dishes, a Southeastern specialty called Country Captain: a curried chicken dish with Indian and Caribbean influences that's popular in coastal Georgia. "FDR spent time in Warm Springs, Georgia, for treatment for his polio," explains Miller, "and she cooked this dish for him." Roosevelt was also a fan of the pig's feet that Bonner cooked.
African-Americans landed in presidential kitchens for various reasons over the decades. Originally most were slaves or family servants; eventually, family members of those who had previously worked for the White House got jobs there. But over the last thirty years or so, professional connections have been the most important factor in who gets selected, Miller notes. Military cooks also come on loan from the Armed Forces.
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The food that African-Americans have cooked for presidents has been served at family meals, banquets and even state dinners. "In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, they were pretty much eating soul food for staff meals," Miller says. Pointing to the tradition of Filipino cooks in the Navy, many of whom have been loaned to the White House (the current presidential executive chef, Cristeta Comerford, is a native of the Philippines), he continues: "And recently, Filipino chefs have been cooking soul food for the African-American staff."
According to Miller, there's little evidence of the influence that soul food has had on guests of the White House — but he's hoping to learn much more.
Although he faces a year of writing, Miller's Soul Food is still going strong. "Sales are great," he says. "It continues to be a blessing." Miller is still getting requests for appearances and book readings; you can catch him around the Denver area speaking about his books and on other food-related topics. Find a schedule of his upcoming appearances on Miller's Soul Food Scholar website.