Book Captures Hearth of White House Kitchen

By Subramaniam, Arthi | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 4, 2018 | Go to article overview

Book Captures Hearth of White House Kitchen


Subramaniam, Arthi, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Ever since the days of George Washington, presidential foodways have been one of joy and pain, indulgence and deprivation, and in the middle of it all there has usually been an African-American who has been invariably a cook.

The cook/chef not only bonded with the first family by preparing comforting foods but also by using the kitchen position to be an advocate for civil rights and race relations, a trusted confidante and even a close friend, says food historian Adrian Miller in his well-woven book, "The President's Kitchen Cabinet" (UNC Press; February 2017).

The book is richly peppered with anecdotes from the presidents and the cooks and other staff who served the leaders, and Mr. Miller collected the interesting narratives by researching cookbooks and biographies, visiting presidential libraries and talking to trusted aides over eight years.

In turn, we get an insight to how cooks brought civil right issues to the forefront in a White House that was based on an old English gentry style, learn about the small antiquated kitchen that they called workplace and find out about the lengths presidents would go to satisfy their cravings.

For instance, circa 1912, President William Howard Taft was on his way to his native Ohio by train when he made an urgent request - a midnight snack, as in a filet mignon, in the dining car. However, the train didn't have a dining car, so he insisted on having it make an unscheduled stop in Harrisburg to have one attached. "I am the president of the United States, and I want a diner [car] attached to this train at Harrisburg. I want it well stocked with food, including filet mignon," he is known to have said. "What's the use of being president if you can't have a train with a diner on it?"

Then there were presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, who "would appear to forget that food and drink were needful for his existence" when Mrs. Lincoln was away from home, and Herbert Hoover, who was always so anxious to get back to work that he hardly took time to eat. In her memoir, White House maid Lillian Rogers Parks writes that "he could eat a full-course dinner in eight minutes flat."

Each chapter in "Kitchen Cabinet" ends with recipes that are connected to a story in the chapter. The Minted Green Pea Soup with leeks and fresh mint is among them, and it was a favorite food for President George Washington and first lady Laura Bush and is now regularly served at the restaurant at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas.

"I tried to pick different kinds of recipes and spread them over the different administrations," says Mr. Miller. He will be at the Waterworks Market District store near Aspinwall at 4 p.m. Friday and will make recipes from "Kitchen Cabinet" during a cooking demonstration.

He writes that few presidents enjoyed cooking as much as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who even installed a state-of-the-art grill on the White House rooftop. Ike had a good relationship with his valet John Moaney, who had a reputation for making meals "that tasted like home" and prepared the daily breakfast. The two would team up to make chili, fried fish and pancakes, but it was Ike's beef-laden vegetable stew thickened with a flour-water slurry that lingered in Ms. Parks' memory. "He used to let the beef for his soup simmer in the kitchen next to my workroom for hours and hours until we would all be drooling," she writes.

President Thomas Jefferson is credited for introducing European foods into American cuisine, and this included macaroni and the Snow Eggs (meringues made with orange flower or rose water and served with a wine-based custard) that his enslaved cook, James Hemings, perfected. …

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