‘Soul Food Scholar’ shares knowledge of black chefs and presidents

‘Soul Food Scholar’ shares knowledge of black chefs and presidents
October 26
07:00 2017

Adrian Miller, a former special presidential assistant and self-proclaimed “Soul Food Scholar,” gave a lesson in culinary history on foods prepared for presidents by African-Americans at Sweet Potatoes restaurant on Sunday.

About 50 attendees were served a multi-course meal prepared using recipes found in Miller’s book “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families.” Miller narrated each course with stories about the people who prepared the food and the presidents who enjoyed each dish.

“African-Americans have been there in the presidential kitchen from day one,” said Miller.
Miller has a long, eventful career himself that involved working in the White House, which he said was an “honor.”  A graduate of Stanford University and Georgetown University Law School, he was disillusioned with being a lawyer when a friend of his in the White House called offering a position. Miller accepted and became a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and deputy director of One America, which was a Clinton initiative to encourage discussion of racial issues. One America held meetings for faith leaders and corporate CEOs to talk about issues of diversity. It’s guide for racial dialog can still be found online.

He said there have been many “missed opportunities” for racial dialog since and there’s been no other coordinated effort from national government leaders on the issue. He said Obama spoke eloquently on race, but wanted to largely leave racial dialog to others. He said Clinton was also gifted on racial issues, but has focused his work elsewhere since leaving office.
“Because political leaders are hesitant to step into that space, that leaves fewer and fewer places in our society to do this,” he said.

After the Clinton administration ended, Miller worked at the Bell Policy Center, a progressive think tank in Colorado. When Democratic Bill Ritter, Jr. became the state’s governor, Miller worked as his deputy legal director and eventually served as his senior policy analyst.

Miller found himself between jobs again after Ritter’s single term ended. He decided to pursue his passion by researching and writing his first book. Miller had previously read John Edgerton’s “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History” and asked the author via email if there was a book on soul food. Edgerton told him a tribute to African American’s achievements in cookery had to yet to be written.

Over the next two years, Miller read 500 cookbooks, ate at 150 soul food restaurants in 15 states, read a lot of newspaper and magazine articles and did many interviews. The result was “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” which features both recipes and the history behind them. It won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.

“It seemed like a good vehicle to explore the African American story, told in a different way,” he said.

Miller said he was drawn to soul food because it’s often looked down on as unhealthy and as lowly “slave food.”
“I saw all these other cuisines being celebrated and I said, ‘Why can’t my food be celebrated, my tradition?’” he said.

He said he discovered that soul food’s healthiness depends on how it’s prepared. He said that white people of a similar class ate very similar food in the South, they just didn’t eat it with their black brethren due to segregation. Some foods have surprising social mobility, like chitterlings, which European royalty ate in the 1600s.

Today, Miller serves as the first African-American and the first layperson to be executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, a coalition of congregations working toward social justice. He also travels around the country doing presentations on his second book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” like the one he gave at Sweet Potatoes. Miller, who gave the presentation to a diverse audience, said food can bring people together.

“I think for a lot of people in this country, we get to know other people through food first,” he said.

Some of the courses in Sunday’s event included green pea soup, loved by both George Washington and Laura Bush; macaroni and cheese, which was a favorite of many presidents; and punch from Barack Obama’s inauguration. There was also a salmon dish, which was originally made by Kiana Farkash for a Kids’ State Dinner healthy recipe competition hosted by Michelle Obama. Others featured in the stories Miller told included Samuel Fraunces, a biracial man who was steward of Washington’s residences; Dolly Johnson, who cooked for President Benjamin Harrison; and Hercules, a slave who cooked for Washington before he escaped in 1797.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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