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Book Excerpts

Presidents’ affinities for foods reveal their humanity, but alcohol has proven a dicier deal throughout history

In "The President's Kitchen Cabinet," renowned food writer Adrian Miller explores the African Americans who fed First Families, but also how different administrations handled the fraught topic of temperance

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit

The following is an excerpt from Adrian Miller’s book, “The Presidents Kitchen Cabinet.”

The piece explores what Miller found in his research: that while African American chefs cooked for every president, their stories remained largely untold.

Miller is an attorney, James Beard Award-winning food writer, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado. Miller is a former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton. Miller is the current executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches.

2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for History


In that fierce light that beats upon Kings, potentates, and Presidents, no detail of personal conduct is too trivial to escape public observation and comment. The habits of all our Presidents in respect to the use of spirituous liquors have been subjected to the keenest scrutiny, and the tide of gossip about the use and non-use of wine at the White House or by its occupant has often risen so high that all questions as to the policy of official conduct of the President seemed to be quite submerged.

“The President and the Wine Cup,” New York Times, 26 November 1899

Presidents have long recognized the value of feeding the voting public some occasional tidbits about the food they eat. Not only do their food habits humanize and personalize them, but they also give presidents the opportunity to show that they share things in common with average Americans.

Presidents could achieve the exact same goals with beverages, but they are far more tight-lipped about their drinking habits. Why? Americans have historically had a very complicated relationship with one drink category—alcoholic beverages—and they want assurance that their president is not a drunk. In fact, one finds that for many Americans, alcohol should never pass a president’s lips. Besides the belief that the president should serve as an exemplar for moral behavior, there are practical concerns that one of the most powerful people on Earth—one with access to nuclear weapons and a powerful military—should not be an alcoholic.

“The Presidents Kitchen Cabinet” by Adrian Miller.

Thus, the American public highly values sobriety from and sober judgment in its president, so much so that even presidents who only moderately drank alcohol couldn’t escape harsh judgment in the court of public opinion. Such intense public scrutiny has caused presidents to play a cat-and-mouse game with the press corps that is trying to inform the public. And time and time again, African American butlers, cooks, and stewards have also had to play this game because they are immersed in presidential drink culture, just as they are with food.

African Americans once fit the expected social order by doing the work to produce alcoholic beverages, laboring in jobs where they served such beverages to whites and also drinking alcohol themselves, under certain controlled situations. The fear in the past was that inebriated blacks, particularly in interracial social settings, were primed to commit acts of moral depravity and racially motivated violence.

In this chapter, we’ll sidle up to the presidential bar with William T. Crump, Howard Williams, Arthur Brooks, John Ficklin, Alonzo Fields, Henry Pinckney, Tom Bullock, and President Barack Obama to sip sequentially from five different presidential drinking glasses: wine, punch, eggnog, cocktails, and beer. But first, one needs to understand how social attitudes in the United States toward alcohol have changed over time.

Liquor lubricated social life during the federal period, and its elevated status was due in part to necessity and not solely to entertainment purposes. European colonists had problems with the indigenous American water supply from day one. To them, the water was just plain nasty. As an alternative, white colonists, young and old, consumed a number of wines and “small beers” (the latter had a lower alcohol content than what we typically consume today). In time, though everyone was drinking alcoholic beverages of some type, class differences emerged in consumption patterns.

American elite whites drank gin, Madeira, rum, and wines, while working-class and poorer whites consumed harder stuff, namely alcohol made from grains, like whiskey and corn liquor. Few important decisions were made or social occasions happened without alcohol. Even Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson decided where to locate the nation’s capital while drinking wine.

Author Adrian Miller. (Handout)

People of West African heritage living in the United States came from a drinking culture that featured low-alcohol beverages. For millennia, West Africans brewed mild alcoholic drinks from native grains and palm tree sap. In the Americas, slave owners purposefully hooked enslaved West Africans on drinks with a higher alcoholic content mainly as a matter of incentive and control. President Thomas Jefferson added alcoholic drinks to the food rations he issued to his White House slaves and free laborers to create the illusion that he was doing something really special for them.

As a result, the enslaved would be pacified, and free workers would be more reluctant to ask for a raise. This was consistent with the southern plantation practice of rewarding the enslaved with jugs of cheap liquor (mainly corn liquor) for large projects involving lots of hard work. Though African American drinking habits were the most ridiculed in the press and popular culture, there was growing concern in America’s burgeoning faith community about the fact that everyone, not just blacks, drank to excess.

Contemporaneous to the rise in drinking culture, or perhaps because of it, young America experienced a religious and cultural phenomenon called the “Great Awakening.” The increased religiosity sparked in the 1730s, and the momentum kept growing with each passing decade. By the late 1800s, these religious change agents had grown a movement large enough that they could flex their political muscle and push for temperance—the prohibition of alcohol. The ascent of the temperance movement had consequences for political candidates, especially those running for president. It took time, but by the 1850s, serious presidential candidates felt obligated to declare their stand on temperance. If they favored temperance, they were described as “dry”; if they were against temperance, they were described as “wet.” The temperance movement set its sights on the president because participants believed that he should set the moral example.

Temperance advocates were alarmed by the example William Henry Harrison set in 1840 with what historians call the “first national presidential election campaign.” President Martin Van Buren was portrayed by his political enemies as an elitist who sipped champagne. Harrison sharply contrasted himself for voters by projecting the humble image of himself living in a log cabin and drinking hard cider. Harrison cruised to victory that Election Day.

Lest you think that the question of a “wet” or “dry” White House went the way of the dodo once Prohibition ended, think again. There was much press about what the White House drinking policy would be after teetotaler and unabashed Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter was elected. A Washington Post writer described it this way: “Still unclear is the answer to the question of whether the White House of Jimmy Carter will be wet or dry, or somewhere in between with the low proof compromise of wine only. It has floated to the top of the current sea of speculation about the Carter style, like slices of fruit in a punch bowl, because of Mrs. Carter’s indication that she may serve only wine, as she did in the Georgia Statehouse.”

When temperance advocates failed in getting “dry” candidates elected, they readjusted their strategy. If they couldn’t change a president’s private drinking habits, perhaps it was possible to keep presidents from serving alcohol when they entertained guests. Yet many temperance advocates begrudgingly eased their criticism of serving wine, since there are numerous biblical references that permit its use. The next target involved
White House renovations, so to speak—getting rid of the White House wine cellar.

President Jefferson, a noted oenophile, created the White House wine cellar by purchasing “some bottled wine by the case, but more often it arrived in barrels. They were stored under lock and key, first in the White House basement and later in a wine cellar which Jefferson dug on the grounds. The first Presidential wine cellar also served as an icehouse and was usually referred to by that more democratic name. A contemporary report described it as round, about 16 feet deep, lined with bricks and topped with a wooden shed.”

The first location for the wine cellar was under what is presently the West Wing, and it was stocked with Madeira and Spanish dessert wines, including Pacaret. After Jefferson vacated the White House, the wine cellar was on the move. In a modern article on wine in the White House, the New York Times reported, “By then [1834], the wine cellar had been brought into the White House. It was just beneath the State Dining Room. According to one report, racks for bottles and barrels were built along the walls behind heavy wooden doors and there was room for not only wine but hard liquor and beer.” Though there are periodic accounts of wine being served, we don’t really hear much about the wine cellar until the time of Rutherford B. Hayes, who was an alleged teetotaler.

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The high point for temperance advocates, and the low point for D.C. drunkards, came during the Hayes administration. At some point during his presidency, President Hayes entertained Wagon manufacturing magnate Clem Studebaker. Studebaker requested something to drink, and President Hayes directed White House steward William T. Crump to take Studebaker down to the White House cellar. Along the way, Studebaker daydreamed about what he might drink, his mind ultimately settling on presidential brandy. When they reached the wine cellar, Crump yelled out to an African American cook nearby, “ ‘Miranda? Miranda! Where’s that jug of buttermilk?’ ‘It broke me all up’ said the wagon-maker. ‘I fancy that I can taste that executive brandy yet.’ ”

President Calvin Coolidge was the only other president to make a show of having no alcohol in the wine cellar, and he stocked it with “his cigars, fruit, raisins, candy, nuts, etc., which were sent to him from time to time by admirers. When he had among his guests at the White House personal friends of long standing, he had the habit of solemnly escorting them to the wine cellar, allowing the ponderous outer door to be opened by the colored porter, then with his own private key, opened the wine chamber, where he would select some little treat and hand it to his guests.”

Despite the earlier anecdote, President Hayes was dodgy about his true commitment to temperance, and the advocates kept the pressure on him. As one newspaper editorial inquired, “But what is to be Mr. Hayes’s policy on the liquor question, now that his Southern policy may be considered settled? We think we have the key to it in that White House dinner and the Presidential apologies that have followed it. It will be one of attempted compromise, adopted in the expectation of winning the favor of both temperance and anti-temperance people. We do not think Mr. Hayes is capable of pursuing any other policy on any question.”

The press did report several instances where President Hayes was known to either request or actually drink alcohol. By the end of his term, one newspaper even speculated that Hayes banned liquor in the White House only because he didn’t want to pay for it and enjoyed drinking at others’ expense.

First Lady Lucy Hayes was not squishy at all on the temperance topic, and the first clue is that her nickname was “Lemonade Lucy.” Accordingly, the “within-the-White-House-temperance-movement” started off swimmingly. President Hayes banned all intoxicating beverages from official White House functions and declined to host any state dinners in order to “avoid the wine question.” Hayes diluted his stance because his secretary of state, William Evarts, persuaded him that foreign dignitaries were used to having wine with their meals.

To deny them this pleasure would prove too difficult a hardship and make a poor impression internationally. In the end, President Hayes proved a lost cause to the temperance folks, and Mrs. Hayes could never do enough to please them. She eventually had her name stripped from a temperance society named in her honor merely because she and the president were passengers on a steamboat that served claret. As we’ll see later, the conflicting versions of the infamous state dinner where White House steward William Crump either served or did not serve alcohol certainly didn’t help the Hayeses’ case.

President Chester Arthur, however, was an unabashed wine enthusiast who took office and restored the wine cellar to its Jeffersonian glory. The Wheeling Register of Ohio reported:

This place has been enlarged and cleaned out, only to be filled up again however. Before the cellar was too damp to keep wine in long. It would be apt to become spoiled. This may account for the frequent calls General Arthur made upon it, probably not wishing to see any of the wine destroyed.

The cellar has been refilled and in its present shape I am told by people who profess to be well posted about such things, that wine will keep there for years and the longer it is kept the better is will become. “There is one thing Arthur does understand,” said a Congressman this morning, “if he is faulty in statesmanship, and that is wine. You can’t fool him.”

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— Interview: “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet” author Adrian Miller


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