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The Untold Stories of the White House Kitchen Cabinet

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A note from the Food52 editors:

When Adrian Miller was special assistant to President Clinton, he didn't have much exposure to the inner workings of the White House kitchens. Only towards the end of his tenure did he have privileges to the White House Mess, where he strongly recommends you get the hamburger.

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Illustration by Alex Bowman
Illustration by Alex Bowman

Once he was onto his next career as a culinary historian—and certified barbecue judge!—at work on his first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, did the narratives of the African Americans in presidential food service as chefs, personal cooks, butlers, stewards, and servers start popping up. The details were vague, the names of the people were scarce, but there were so many stories that needed to be told.

"There's been a lot of needed discussion about giving African American cooks their due for contributing to our nation's food story," Miller wrote in an email. "What better way to make that point than to highlight those who have cooked for our presidents?"

It took eight years of sifting through presidential memoirs and biographies, cookbooks, and crucially, historic newspapers to piece together the words and names of 150 African Americans who’ve played a role in feeding our presidents. You'll find them all in his newest book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, out next week.

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“African Americans held multiple roles as the White House food story unfolded,” Miller recounts. “They were culinary artists celebrated for their food, First Family confidantes, and in some cases, they were civil rights advocates who gave our presidents a much needed window on African American life.”

Below is a truncated excerpt from The President’s Kitchen Cabinet about Cornelia Mitchell, the first presidential cook in post-emancipation America, and Augustus Jackson, who invented a popular style of ice cream—but doesn’t always get his due credit.


Cornelia Mitchell was the first presidential cook to run the White House kitchen in post-emancipation America. She was a carryover employee from James Buchanan’s administration, and she lived in the White House servant quarters with her children. She was remembered fondly by a coworker for “her meals [that] were always well cooked and good enough to set before a king. . . . Cornelia was cultured and of a splendid old Southern family background. She was well educated for a colored girl of her day, and could prepare any dish from ‘old corn pone and cabbage’ so much liked by President Lincoln, to the finest dishes with lobster and terrapin. She was noted as one of the best cooks in the District.”

Mitchell handled almost all of the cooking duties for private and public events, but extra cooks and kitchen help were hired for big events. Mitchell also supplemented the presidential meals with fresh vegetables from a White House garden kept at that time. [Editor’s aside: Miller mentioned that the White House has always had a kitchen garden: “President John Adams planted a vegetable garden on the northeast side of the White House. That garden was kept for several decades, at least through Lincoln's presidency. After that references to a vegetable garden are sparse, but the White House Executive Chef kept an herb garden on the White House grounds as late as the 1970s. Though it didn't get much publicity, First Lady Hillary Clinton had her chef Walter Scheib plant a vegetable garden . . . on the White House's rooftop!”]

As the Civil War raged on, Mitchell’s kitchen operations remained rather routine. Still, there were some unexpected interruptions. The most significant was moving the White House kitchen from the basement’s Central Hall to its present location. Another interruption occurred in late August 1861, while President Lincoln was at the Old Soldiers’ Home, some unexpected dinner guests arrived—the Norway Light Infantry of Maine. According to what we would now describe as an “embedded reporter” with the infantry, the “grub” was bad for a few days, and so our heroes strolled “down town” to see what could be done. They proceeded directly to the President’s House. Without ceremony they wended their way quietly into the broad kitchen—“bowing to a tall man” on their passage—and, carefully selecting what they thought would “go round,” made the following speech to the cook: “Look, here, we’ve sworn to support the Government; for three days we’ve done it on salt junk [salt pork]; now, if you would spare us a little of this, it would put the thing along amazingly!” It is needless to say that the boys had an abundance that day.

The “tall man” in this anecdote may have been the butler Paul Brown; the unnamed cook was Cornelia Mitchell. Whatever the soldiers ate from the White House larder, I think that it’s safe to say it was not salt pork.

Jeni's Splendid Lemon Cream Ice Cream

Jeni's Splendid Lemon Cream Ice Cream by Genius Recipes

Brown Butter Cinnamon Ice Cream

Brown Butter Cinnamon Ice Cream by Jonah Ollman

Mitchell was just one person in a collection of culinary stars working in our nation’s capital during the nineteenth century. Before her were free entrepreneurs of color like the aforementioned Beverly Snow, who ran D.C.’s finest, and possibly earliest, modern restaurant in the 1830s. Another notable figure was Augustus Jackson, who cooked in the White House as late as the Andrew Jackson administration before leaving to stake his claim as an ice cream empire maker. Many now credit him with inventing an eggless ice cream “made of sweetened-and-flavored cream and nothing else.” This would eventually be called “Philadelphia-style” ice cream, as compared to the more familiar “New York–style” ice cream made with an egg-based custard.

Yet Augustus Jackson did not always get the credit he deserved. Three different ice cream origin stories floated around in American popular culture during the 1800s. The first claimed that an unnamed African American cook for Abigail Adams accidentally invented an eggless strawberry ice cream in a hurried effort to please the Adamses’ special guest: President George Washington. Another theory was that it was Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s wife) who invented this type of ice cream, also to cap off a dinner served to President Washington.

The most enduring origin story goes to Dolley Madison, the former First Lady. As the story goes, while Augustus Jackson worked for President Jackson, he simply followed the ice-cream-making directions he received from Dolley Madison, who handled White House entertainment for the widowed president. In time, Dolley Madison became synonymous with ice cream. By the 1930s, “Dolly” Madison ice cream stores started to proliferate around the country; many of these stores stayed in business for decades.

Whatever we make of the competing origins, Augustus Jackson did in fact know how to make an eggless ice cream, and he used the knowledge to run “a confectionary store in Washington, filled quart cans with custard and embedded them in tubs of ice. These he sold for $1 each. Others followed him, but he retained the reputation for making the best ice cream, and became rich as a result.” Jackson ultimately relocated his business to Philadelphia in the 1830s, perhaps because of the increasingly restrictive black codes enacted in D.C. The clear message was that D.C. whites were hostile to black success.


Reprinted with permission, in a slightly different form, from The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. Copyright © 2017 by Adrian Miller. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Bibliography
  • Eighmey, Rae Katherine. Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2013.
  • “Ice Cream as a Novelty.” New York Tribune, 15 July 1990, A8.
  • Johnson, George D. Profiles in Hue. Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris Corporation,
  • Google Books, http://bit.ly/2bNiovq. Accessed 14 August 2015.
  • Leland, Charles Godfrey. “Ana of the War.” United States Service Magazine, January 1866, 17.
  • “New York Ice-Cream.” Boston Cooking-School Magazine, March 1904, 426.
  • Pate, Kelly. “Ice Cream Stores to Close.” Denver Post, 22 February 2001, http:// extras.denverpost.com/business/biz0222a.htm. Accessed 9 May 2016.
  • Washington, John E. They Knew Lincoln. New York: E. F. Dutton, 1942.
  • “Washington Gossip—The President’s Salary—How Cheap Living Is Obtained.” Detroit Free Press, 19 January 1865, 3.