The Southern Cooks in the President’s Kitchen

Meet three hidden culinary figures who fed America’s First Families

Southern cooks have shaped the way the nation eats for generations—from such influential cookbook authors as Mary Randolph and Edna Lewis to entrepreneurs like Harland Sanders and Patricia “Sister Schubert” Barnes. So it’s no surprise that they’ve also been running the highest kitchen in the land from the very beginning.

Author Adrian Miller.

“French food was always the world’s best food—the food of entertaining,” says Adrian Miller, a former presidential advisor who wrote the book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families. “Americans would say, early on, that ours was better. Southerners especially.” Despite their hard-earned success, many of the presidents’ cooks never got their due. Here are three who Miller believes deserve more recognition.

Cooked for: George Washington 

“A lot of the enslaved cooks are completely lost to history. Hercules is a fascinating figure, in part just because we actually know a little bit about him. Washington installed him in the Mount Vernon kitchen around 1770. Hercules eventually became the chef at the President’s House in Philadelphia. People wrote about his food, conveying an overall impression that he was a great and memorable cook. Evidently, he had a really bad temper—I think he’d get along with Gordon Ramsay. Hercules ran away on the president’s sixty-fifth birthday. But we do know of one sighting in 1800: Colonel Richard Varick, the mayor of New York City, saw him walking down the street and immediately wrote to Martha Washington. George had died by then. Varick asked if he should try to capture the chef and send him back. She declined to pursue that.”

photo: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala, Florence

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington’s Cook, circa 1795-97

Laura “Dollie” Johnson
Cooked for: Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland

“Up-and-coming politician Teddy Roosevelt supposedly tried Dollie Johnson’s cooking while he was traveling through Kentucky, and loved the meal so much that he recommended her to his friend Benjamin Harrison. We’re talking 1890. This was an African-American woman from Lexington, Kentucky, who had to be wooed to cook at the White House. She had bargaining power, and she became very well known after she was hired. She was known for making homey dishes. Steak and basic vegetables. She was also one of the few cooks who left the White House and went on to commercial success: Trading on her reputation, she opened a restaurant in Lexington.”

photo: Courtesy Library of Congress

Dollie Johnson in the White House kitchen, circa 1890.

Zephyr Wright
Cooked for: Lyndon Baines Johnson

“Zephyr Wright cooked for the Johnson family long before they went to the White House. She’s often credited with helping his political rise, because her cooking made an invite to his house a hot ticket. She was a culinary artist and also a family confidante. Johnson used her experiences with Jim Crow to persuade members of Congress to support the Civil Rights Act. Traveling with the family from Texas to D.C., she hadn’t been allowed to use the same bathrooms or eat at the same restaurants as they did. It’s a shame the president’s cook has to go through this, Johnson said. When he signed the bill, he presented her with one of the pens and said she deserved it as much as anyone. Southern food was her specialty. Peach cobblers. Hash. And she did not take any mess. LBJ would show up late at night and demand dinner right away. She’d fire back, ‘Go sit in the kitchen until I fix you something.’ He would do just that.”