10 Questions: This Denver lawyer serves up culinary history with a side of social justice
Adrian E. Miller has a lot on his plate this month. As the author of The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, his schedule is chock-full of speaking engagements and appearances—after all, February marks Presidents Day and Black History Month. Miller relishes the opportunity to illuminate these important contributions, history nearly lost to disinterest, disrespect and discrimination. It’s something this Georgetown University-trained lawyer and former politico regularly uses food writing to do, from his first book on soul food to his current book project about African-American contributions to the art of barbecue.
I have a lot to ask you about—your legal career, your work with the Clinton administration, your segue from law and politics to food writing. But first, am I the only one who has a hard time putting Denver and soul food together?
I always tell people: I immediately lose street cred on the subject when they find out I’m from Denver. I am a Denver native, but my parents are from the South. My mom is from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and my dad is from Helena, Arkansas. I grew up eating soul food, and barbecue was our special occasion food from Memorial Day all the way through Labor Day.
So maybe the better question is: How did you end up becoming a lawyer?
I decided I wanted to be a lawyer at an early age because I was fascinated by politics. I wanted to be president of the United States, so I figured a great route to that would be to become a lawyer. Over time, my interest in being president waned, but I still wanted to make the world a better place, and I thought law would make this possible. I kept trying to meld my legal career to my civil rights beliefs and trying to figure out a way to advance the interests of people of color in our society.
It sounds like your White House gig was a perfect fit. Tell me about that and how you got the position.
I got the position the old-fashioned way: I knew somebody. A law school friend of mine from Georgetown called me out of the blue and said, “I am working in the White House, and do you have any friends who might be interested in working on the president’s Initiative for One America?” The basic idea behind the initiative was that if we all just got together, had a conversation and listened, we might realize we have more in common than actually divides us. I became head of the search committee, but only my name went on the list! I moved back to D.C. in 1999. A lot of people thought I was crazy—I was basically uprooting myself and getting half of my law firm salary, but how many times do you get a chance to work in the White House?
When Clinton’s term ended and the program basically ended, how did you leap into food writing?
I was unemployed and watching way too much daytime television. I thought, “I should read something.” I went to the bookstore and saw this book called Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History by John Egerton. In that book, he wrote that the tribute to African-American cookery has yet to be written. I reached out to him via email and asked him: “You wrote this 10 years ago; do you still think it’s true?” He emailed back and said yes.
So you decided to write it?
Yes, and Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time became a love letter to African-American cooks across the nation. It was while researching that book that these African-Americans who cooked for presidents started popping up in my research. I decided to write the next book about how these fascinating people were celebrated culinary artists, first-family confidants and civil rights advocates.
Were there instances where public policy influence came from the kitchen?
Yes, and the best example is Lyndon Johnson with his longtime cook, Zephyr Wright. The Johnsons would drive back and forth from their Texas ranch to the White House, and while they were driving through the Jim Crow South, Wright suffered so many indignities that she stopped traveling with them and stayed in D.C. When President Johnson personally lobbied for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he used the experiences of Zephyr Wright to convince members of Congress to support the bill. When he signed the bill, he actually gave her one of the pens and said, “You deserve this more than anyone else.”
Do you have a favorite story?
The Zephyr Wright story is my favorite, but this one always gets a lot of laughs: The Trumans loved to have a drink called an Old-Fashioned before having dinner in the White House. A longtime White House butler named Alonzo Fields was in charge of making drinks for the Trumans, and on their first night, he makes them an Old-Fashioned. Bess Truman takes one sip and says, “Can you make this a little drier? We aren’t used to our Old-Fashioneds being so sweet.” So the next time the Trumans ask for the drink, Fields reworks the recipe. Bess Truman takes a sip and says, “This is terrible!” The next time, Fields is a little annoyed, so he just serves them two splashes of straight bourbon on ice. Bess Truman takes one sip and says, “Now that’s how we like our Old-Fashioneds!”
How did you discover all these great stories?
It was not the easiest thing to do. I went to several presidential libraries and looked in the archives. I read every presidential biography and autobiography I could, and I have every single presidential cookbook ever published. But the bulk of my research came from old newspapers. These newspapers chronicled daily life, but they infrequently gave the cook’s full name, or they’d just indicate “colored cook” or “Negro cook.” The information was all scattered around, and I had to look at several sources to piece it all together.
You’ve become a successful food writer—your first book won a James Beard Award, and the second has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Was it difficult to break into publishing?
It was an interesting and humbling experience. I shopped my first book around to 22 publishers, and 20 said no. With the second book, there wasn’t that much interest in it, and I am getting mild interest so far in the third book on barbecue. I joke with my friends that if ever I am feeling too good about myself, I will submit a proposal to a commercial publisher. That will bring me back down to earth.
Obviously you love food and food history, but do you like to cook? Can you cook?
I am not professionally trained, but I have skills.
This article was published in the February 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "Kitchen Service: This Denver lawyer serves up culinary history with a side of social justice."