“The White House kitchen is a workplace, just like any other professional kitchen”—except, of course, that it’s much more than that, a subject that food historian Miller (Soul Food, 2013) explores with gusto.
In a modest sense, the subtitle of the book is a touch limiting, for his latest is a broad-sweeping history of American culinary culture as interpreted through a long line of presidential chefs and food workers. That lineage is primarily African-American, and so it has always been. As Miller writes, George Washington’s head chef was an enslaved man named Hercules, who, by Miller’s account, had a temperament and an ego to match the demands of the job—and even to rival his boss, “who had a very bad temper.” If the Founder was a grouch, there’s no reason why his cook shouldn’t be a martinet—successful enough, it happens, to earn an income on the side. Just so, a member of Thomas Jefferson’s kitchen staff went on to become a caterer and later a preacher and abolitionist, proof that, yesterday as today, the kitchen is a launching place for many successful ventures outside it. Miller explores the logistics of the White House, with its layers and hierarchies and kitchens for staff as well as the chief executive, of the culinary curiosities surrounding the various presidents (including the difficulty of keeping dairy products on hand when needed, as Richard Nixon would complain). Thanks to Miller’s careful research, we know that Jimmy Carter “doesn’t especially like green peas,” in first lady Rosalynn Carter’s careful words, and that his predecessor, Gerald Ford, had a fondness for butter pecan ice cream. More substantial are Miller’s notes, sometimes between the lines, on how exposure to African-American persons, their foodways, and their “professional excellence” played a part in lessening the prejudices of the nation’s chief officeholders.
For food history and presidential history buffs alike, both entertaining and illuminating.