Skip to content

A Word with the Soul Food Scholar

Ruth Tobias | Season 1 Episode 5

People | Heart to Table

Exploring African American Culinary Traditions with Adrian Miller

Do any Google search for topics related to the history of Black American cuisine, and you’re bound to see one name come up again and again, in article after article, whether as a quoted source or as the bylined author: Adrian Miller. Since winning a James Beard Foundation award for his very first book, “Soul Food: The Surprising History of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” in 2014, Miller has been recognized as a foremost expert in Black foodways — a reputation he only bolstered with the release of “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas” in 2017, to be followed this spring by “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

Adrian Miller

And yet you’d never guess from his biography prior to publication that illustrious culinary scholarship would come to define his resume. For that matter, neither would he. (Heck, even today, he holds a day job, namely executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches.) Growing up in Denver, Colorado — which, he jokes, “immediately loses me all street cred on the subject of Southern food” — he went on to get a degree in international relations from Stanford and a law degree from Georgetown; from there, he took a position on the Clinton administration’s One America task force, with every intention of returning to his home state to launch a U.S. Senate campaign.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Capitol: unemployment. Well, that’s not the funny part. Faced with a slow job market back in Denver, he explains, “I was watching a lot of daytime television and thought, ‘I should read something.’ So, I went to the bookstore, and I found this book on the history of Southern food, ‘Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History.’ And in it, the author, John Egerton, wrote that the tribute to Black achievement in cooking had yet to be written.”

As Miller explains in this episode of the Heart to Table podcast, Egerton’s book was already 14 years old by the time Miller picked it up in 2001. “The next year or so, I was just trying to track down if somebody had already done that. And you know, to my surprise, nobody … really [had],” he recalls. A fire was lit — and “with no qualifications at all, except for eating a lot of soul food and cooking it some, [I] started the journey.”

Putting years of research into “Soul Food,” Miller “went from wondering if I could write even one book to having enough information to write five,” he says — including “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” which warrants special celebration in February, marking as it does not only Black History Month but also Presidents Day. Today, he says with his usual deadpan candor, “I’m killing myself, because if I had just known about this while I was in the White House, I had top-secret clearance — I could’ve have gotten a lot of scoops.” But the copious material he did uncover led him to one key insight: Food is one of society’s great integrators, bringing diverse peoples together like few other elements of culture can. As Miller puts it, “The White House has [offered], in terms of the kitchen staff, multiracial and [multi]class representation from the beginning. In the earliest kitchen with President George Washington, you had enslaved people working alongside indentured servants, free African Americans and free whites.”

That’s not, of course, to suggest that it was always a space of equality. For starters, says Miller, “The road to the White House kitchen was pretty much accidental for most of [American] history. The [staffers] were just people who were already cooking for that person who became president in [his] private life.” The fact that they happened to be mostly Black meant that their trip down that road was as compulsory as it was unexpected. Miller tells the story of Frances Hern and Edith Fossett, enslaved sous chefs to Thomas Jefferson who “were forced to stay at the White House all year long. And if you’ve ever been to D.C., you know it’s made out of reclaimed swampland, so in the 19th century, there were reports of White House workers getting tropical diseases” when their basement living quarters were flooded due to seasonal storms. What’s more, “We have reports of the husbands of these enslaved women escaping [Jefferson’s plantation and heading to D.C.] … just to be with their wives, but Jefferson would always intercept them and send them back to Monticello. So, it just brings into sharp relief the human tragedy part of this. We put such a pristine veneer on the presidency, but there’s this other side that’s pretty tragic.”

… it also brings to light the resilience — and ultimately, no small amount of pride — of the Black cooks, butlers and stewards who, over generations, managed the enormous pressures of not only pleasing the palates of the most powerful people in the world …

Granted, it also brings to light the resilience — and ultimately, no small amount of pride — of the Black cooks, butlers and stewards who, over generations, managed the enormous pressures of not only pleasing the palates of the most powerful people in the world but meeting their nutritional needs while even, at times, protecting their egos. Take the kitchen staff of President William Howard Taft. As Miller recounts, “Taft was really into apple pie, but [he] was a hefty guy. One of the longest-running cat-and-mouse games in presidential history is the president usually arriving in office in not-so-great health, and it’s a stressful job, so they crave comfort food — but then you’ve got the first lady and the White House physician trying to keep the president on a diet.” Because neither happened to be accompanying him on a particular train ride from D.C. to Ohio, “when Taft was rolling out from the train station … he went to the person in charge of food and ordered an apple pie, and there was none available.” Or so they told him. “What he found out was that his staffers were basically hiding it from him. He played along with it, but eventually he got a slice.”

Or take Alonzo Fields, who served as a butler under four administrations. “In White House history, the butlers are usually the ones in charge of the drinks,” Miller explains. On Harry and Bess Truman’s first night in the White House, “[They] asked for an old fashioned, and so he makes it like he had been for presidents before, right? … [But] the next morning, First Lady Truman said, ‘Fields, can you make our old fashioneds less sweet? We’re just not used to having them that way.’ He’s like, ‘All right.’ He reconfigures the recipe; the next time they have one, Bess Truman takes a sip and says, ‘These are horrible. They taste like fruit punch.’ Now, Fields has an attitude, so the [third] time they ask for an old fashioned, he just gives [them] straight bourbon and two ice cubes. And Bess Truman takes one sip, looks at him, and says, ‘Now that’s how you make an old fashioned.’”

Be they comical or horrific, frustrating or inspiring, such personal anecdotes of the Black cooks and workers who have shaped American cuisine as we know it ground all three of Miller’s books — and one can only hope, works yet to come. Asked about topics he hopes to delve into in the future, he says, “The story of [19th century] African American street vendors is a cool story to tell. They … were such pictureqesue characters,” selling everything from pepper pot in Philadelphia to the rice fritters known in New Orleans as “calas.” “In Gordonsville, Virginia, there was a whole core of Black women who were known for selling fried chicken and pancakes at the train station. There was no dining car, so these women would just walk up and down the platform with these beautiful baskets of food; passengers would pay and then just reach out of their window to get it.”

Warming to the subject, he adds, “The cool thing is that I have the sheet music [and lyrics] for their street cries, so somebody who can read sheet music can replicate what somebody in the 1800s was hearing every morning. To put it to the universe, I’m hoping I can sign up Beyoncé and her pals for a companion musical piece.”

Given Miller’s accomplishments to date, we have no doubt the universe is listening.

From The White House Kitchen

Here’s the chili recipe that got President Lyndon Johnson in a lot of hot water back in 1964. Why? Because it’s beanless, and most Americans are used to having some type of beans in their chili. Johnson’s communications team did their best to reassure the voting public that their president indeed liked beans . . . just not in his chili. The chili is named after the river that ran alongside his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady, wrote in her memoir that this recipe was the second most requested recipe from the federal government in 1964.

You may vary the heat level or taste by changing the amount or type of chile powder used. Adrian recommends 3 tablespoons of cayenne chile powder and 3 tablespoons of ancho chile powder. Please note that absolutely no beans were harmed in the creation of this chili con carne.

Pedernales River Chili provided by Adrian Miller

  • Hands-On Time

    30 minutes
  • Total Time

    2 hours
  • Serves

    12
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 4 pounds chili meat (coarsely-ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck or substitute Jennie-O® lean ground turkey)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 1 1/2 cups canned whole tomatoes
  • 6 teaspoons chili powder, or more, if needed
  • 1 teaspoon comino seeds or cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground oregano
  • 2 to 6 generous dashes liquid hot sauce

Instructions

In large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat, heat oil. Crumble turkey into saucepan. Add onion and garlic. Cook 14 to 16 minutes, stirring occasionally. Always cook to well-done, 165°F as measured by a meat thermometer. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer; cook 1 hour. Serves 12.

More Stories From The Heart To Table Podcast

The people, the food and the communities that inspire us.
This story is part of the Heart to Table collection.
Learn More