“National Soul Food Month,” sometimes called “June,” deserves a presidential proclamation.
Why? Because this cuisine, which combines the food traditions of West Africa, Western Europe and the Americas, has long been the foundation for home cooking in the White House. As former White House executive chef Henry Haller wrote in “The White House Family Cookbook”: “In the White House kitchen, soul food — like all food — was specially prepared to provide the first family with the dishes they liked most, cooked in the manner that best suited their own personal tastes.” Thanks to enslaved and free African American presidential cooks, many Southern-born presidents and executive residence staffers could always get “a taste of home” that they craved.
In recognition of this special month, here is a sampling of some great soul-food moments in presidential history.
Chitterlings: Every year since 1965, the town of Salley, S.C., has hosted the world’s largest “Chitlin Strut,” where thousands gather to eat boiled or fried chitterlings, a.k.a. chitlins, made from pig intestines. Supposedly, one can smell the event from 25 miles away. In 1975, a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative who had been dispatched to the strut returned to the White House with a gallon of frozen chitterlings specially prepared for President Gerald Ford. History is silent as to whether the president chowed down on it.
Fried chicken: This Southern classic enjoys broad bipartisan support. President Ronald Reagan and NASCAR legend Richard Petty munched on fried chicken after Petty won the Firecracker 400 race in 1984. Fried chicken’s biggest White House moment, though, came in September 1979, when Carter served it at a gospel music picnic he hosted for a 1,000 people on the South Lawn. Inquiring minds from the White House press corps wanted to know if all of that chicken was fried in the executive kitchen. White House social secretary Gretchen Poston revealed that the president had received a very large carryout order from Gino’s, a popular fried chicken place in Northeast D.C.
Greens: The most popular soul food greens are cabbage, collards, kale, mustard and turnip. Legend has it that President John Tyler used the promise of serving hog jowl and turnip greens to persuade a reluctant friend to stay a few more days with him at the White House. Speaking of turnip greens, first lady Mamie Eisenhower showed the nation her strong belief in their recuperative powers. While President Dwight D. Eisenhower convalesced at Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Colorado after a mild heart attack in 1955, Mamie made sure that he had a regular helping of turnip greens — even if it meant flying some in from the White House kitchen. Since first lady Michelle Obama planted the White House kitchen garden, soul-food greens were made available throughout much of the year.
Whether it’s legendary musician Duke Ellington joking about chitterlings with President Richard Nixon, or President Bill Clinton sitting down for a “down home” meal with April D. Ryan and other African American journalists, soul food has the power to connect. Even at the White House, all it takes is an invitation, good food and a willingness to set a welcome table.
Miller is the James Beard Award-winning 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.”