In this exclusive interview, food historian Adrian Miller talks about soul food and the diverse food cultures of the dynamic American South.
Acclaimed American book author and historian Adrian Miller is by all means a one of a kind storyteller.
As part of its Black History Month activities, the US Embassy in Cairo sponsored the visit of American culinary historian Adrian Miller.
Miller stopped briefly in Egypt following several days in Dubai where he was representing the United States at the US Pavilion at the 2020 World Expo.
The reception at the DCR, held a few days before President’s Day, was Miller’s first event in Cairo.
During the reception, Miller gave a presentation on the “liquid history of the US presidency” that focuses on the favorite drinks of US presidents.
During the remainder of his time in Egypt, Miller gave presentations to Egyptian audiences on the contributions of African-Americans to American cuisine, the history of Black chefs in the White House, and the history of soul food.
Soul food scholar Adrian Miller is an award-winning food writer, certified BBQ judge and expert on the diverse food cultures of the dynamic American South. In this exclusive interview, the globally acclaimed storyteller and award-winning book author talks about the liquid history of the U.S. presidency, African-American contributions to American cuisine and the concept of soul food.
“African-American contributions to American cuisine have been substantial because for several centuries African-Americans were the ones primarily delegated to do food services,” Miller said.
“The strongest place where we see these contributions is the food of the American South, this kind of food is built on native Americans and later what enslaved Africans and European immigrants built on those foundations,” he elaborated.
”West African ingredients which were brought to the United States are things like black-eyed peas, okra, hibiscus, sesame seeds, a type of rice and watermelon, but the primary influence was that regardless where the food come from, African-Americans were the ones who often made this food either in private homes, restaurants and hotels. A lot of people have the taste of African-American cooking” Miller pointed out, adding that if we go back to history, the typical White House chef is a black woman.
Before President Truman in the mid-1950s, the president was responsible for paying for all the kitchen help, so any president at that time had to be a wealthy person to do that, so rather than pay to someone, they would just bring a slave to cook in their homes and in the White House.
“So Washington did that, Jefferson did that and a lot of the early presidents did that, so early White House cooking was originally made by African-Americans,” Miller said, noting that Washington DC is technically in the south, so Southern food was the baseline food in the White House.
According to the liquid history of the US presidency, White House presidents consumed alcoholic beverages but they don’t want the public to know this fact.
“The reason that we now know what presidents used to drink is that a number of staff members in the White House wrote memoirs after they left work, revealing presidents’ favorite drinks,” Miller shared.
“One story I love to tell is that Roosevelt used to drink mint julep. The ingredients of mint julep are Bourbon whiskey, water, sugar and some mint leaves.
When Roosevelt was thinking about running as a third party candidate, his rival got a newspaper editor to say that Roosevelt drank too much.
Roosevelt sued the editor for libel, and he had to announce every single drink he had consumed in his life,” Miller revealed.
“One of the drinks he talked about was the mint julep, he added that it was made by an African-American and that he only took a sip.
A popular newspaper at the time said it was impossible to take only one sip because the drink is so good!”
While Roosevelt also loved to have a Martini, and President Eisenhower liked to drink Scotch, in the White House the drink of choice is wine. “Presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson drank a lot of wine but they drank beer too,” Miller said, but explained that the beer didn’t have the alcoholic content it has now, so it was called ‘small beer.’
”One of my favorite stories is that Harry S. Truman and his wife loved to drink Old Fashioned which consists of whiskey or bourbon, a simple syrup, sugar, water and a citrus element, usually orange but sometimes you can use lemon.
When Truman arrived at the White House he asked them to make him an Old Fashioned, but after taking the first sip he asked them to make it less sweet.
After he tried the second attempt Truman said it was horrible and that it tasted like a fruit punch.
The staff then gave the president and First Lady only bourbon and ice, and after he tasted he said yes, this is how you make Old Fashioned!” Miller revealed.
“White House memoirs have disclosed that the Kennedys liked a number of drinks such as Bloody Marys and daiquiris, made using banana, cream and rum and is a very popular drink in Florida. President Obama was known for drinking beer,” Miller told Egypt Today.
“The interesting thing is that the last few US presidents such as George W. Bush and Donald Trump don’t drink at all.”