The selection for this month's meeting of my culinary history reading group is The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed our First Families. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately bought an earlier book by the same author, Adrian Miller. His book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time was also very interesting and full of insights and information that I had not been aware of before. These books are very appropriate for reading this month since February is African American History Month.
The President's Kitchen Cabinet presents a chronological study of African American cooks and kitchen workers who served in the White House, first occupied by John Adams, and the homes of Washington and Jefferson prior to the White House. Miller, in my opinion, did a wonderful job of illustrating certain aspects of American history through the specific individuals in presidential service. Using as much detail as he could find, he presents the conditions of work and the lives of the presidential cooks. Sadly, at times even their names are lost to history, and details are often scarce, but he made the best of it. We get a general picture by learning how these particular African Americans dealt with mainstream white attitudes and prejudices.
Several of the pre-Civil-War presidents brought enslaved African Americans to their kitchens. Until the Truman years, presidents had to pay their own expenses -- so the slave-owners among the early presidents were using the unpaid labor at their disposal rather than hiring employees. But even when kitchen staff were free men and women, they were far from equal to whites. Legal and conventional limitations on African American workers' potential professions and occupations meant that kitchen work was one of the few areas where they were allowed employment. For around a century and a half, kitchen employees were virtually the only black workers in the lives of US presidents: Miller describes how at times, these workers became informants that gave the president an African American point of view, and thus played a political role. Obviously, quite a bit of the historical background is painful to read, but Miller shows how the African American cooks had dignity and high principles despite the evils of American society.
|Author Adrian Miller (from amazon.com)|
I completely enjoyed the way that Miller combines personal memories, historical narratives and memoirs, published cookbooks and well-known cookbook authors, and what I see as diligent scholarship in looking up the history of these foods. He considers questions of taste, socio-economic status, and whether Soul Food is good or bad for one's health. He also describes many social contexts for Soul Food consumption, such as having the preacher as a guest at a fried-chicken Sunday dinner, or the organization and content of communal meals.
Where he can, Miller connects his chosen food topics to native foods in West Africa. However, he also connects Soul Food favorites to recipes that black workers cooked in southern kitchens: both enslaved workers and later free workers. The favorite desserts he lists (banana pudding, pound cake, and peach cobbler, particularly) all, in his view, have British origins.
Some of the foods he describes are familiar, classic choices that almost anyone associates with Soul Food: for example, fried chicken, fried fish, cornbread, candied yams, greens, and chitlins. Others were a bit of a surprise, like "the most famous dish probably unknown to you" which is roasted possum with sweet potatoes! One chapter is titled "How did Macaroni and Cheese Get So Black?" -- he's right, I had no idea that mac & cheese was a major choice on Soul Food tables. There's also a chapter on hot sauce, which I thought was more generically southern. Or red Kool-Aid, which I had no idea was so central to Soul Food, but which he shows is actually closely related to beverages consumed in West Africa.
My summary really doesn't capture the fascinating way that Miller knits all these different forms of research and experience into a readable book that's full of insights about history, food history, and good eating.