Episode 28

Fuelling the Presidency: African American Cooks in the White House

Zephyr Wright (left) & Laura Dollie Johnson (right) 

Zephyr Wright (left) & Laura Dollie Johnson (right) 

This week, we're exploring the unsung history of African American cooks in the White House with soul food scholar, Adrian E. Miller, 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". Join us as we uncover the history of two formidable women who put their stamp on American history through their cooking. We'll look at the life of Laura Dollie Johnson, who cooked for not just one US president, but two! Learn how her food made newspaper headlines throughout the 1880s and 1890s. And we'll explore the career of the formidable Zephyr Wright, who may have been the only person who dared to tell President Lyndon Baines Johnson to stick to his diet. Learn how her recipe for Texas chili started a national crisis about beans!

Written and Produced by Laura Carlson

Technical Direction by Mike Portt

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Special Guest: Adrian E. Miller

Courtesy of Adrian MIller

Courtesy of Adrian MIller

Adrian is a culinary historian and a certified barbecue judge who has lectured around the country on such topics as: Black Chefs in the White House, chicken and waffles, hot sauce, kosher soul food, red drinks, soda pop, and soul food. 

Adrian’s first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time was published in August 2013 & won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.


Laura Dollie Johnson's/Caroline Harrison's Deviled Almonds

Although we don't have any specific recipes attributed to Laura Dollie Johnson, we do know that Caroline Harrison (the First Lady of President Benjamin Harrison) loved deviled almonds, especially while she was in the White House. It's likely that, as head cook, Laura Johnson made these for the First Lady on occasion.

Makes 4 Servings

1/2 pounds almonds, blanched

4 tablespoons butter

Cayenne pepper to taste

Salt to taste

1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat.

2. Add the almonds and butter and sauté the almonds until they are light brown. 

3. Drain on paper towels.

4. Place the almonds in a cake pan and lightly season with cayenne and salt.

5. Serve hot. 


Zephyr Wright's Pedernales River Chili

Forget the shot heard round the world, when Wright's chili recipe, beloved by Lyndon Johnson, was released to the public, it caused a national crisis unlike the country had ever seen.

The problem?

Where were the beans?!? Although Texas chili is famously bean-less, the rest of the country took this as an indication that President Johnson (who hailed from the Lone Star State) hated legumes. In an unusual bit of spin control, Zephyr Wright was asked to go on public record to assure the American people that, yes, LBJ did like his beans (apparently his preferences tended towards limas and pintos). Just not in his chili. According to Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, Wright's recipe for Pedernales Chili, named for a river that ran by the Johnson family ranch in Texas, was one of the most requested documents in the US government at the time.

Makes 12 Servings

4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons chili powder, or more to taste

1 1/2 canned whole tomatoes

2-6 generous dashes liquid hot sauce

1 teaspoon, or to taste

2 cups hot water

1. Place the meat, onions, and garlic in large, heavy pan or Dutch oven and cook over medium heat until light in color.

2. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, hot pepper sauce, salt, and hot water and bring to a boil.

3. Lower the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, skimming off the fat as it cooks.