‘The President’s Kitchen Cabinet’ program presented at Six and Twenty Club meeting


Ladies of the Six and Twenty Club met Friday, May 17, at the First Christian Church in Wilmington with Pat King serving as hostess.

Mary Driscoll was program leader for the day and introduced her 2024 club book, “Serendipity – a history of accidental culinary discoveries” authored by Oscar Farinetti, a noted Italian chef and founder of 37 high-end Eataly marketplace restaurants. Each chapter of the book is a stand-alone story of how some well-known foods and drinks have been accidentally discovered.

Driscoll’s program was based on the book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet,” which is the story of many African-American men and women who had a hand in presidential food preparation. Although none were the executive chef of the White House, they all played important supporting roles as assistant chefs, cooks, and stewards. Driscoll detailed the lives of four Presidential cooks.

George Washington purchased 14-year-old Hercules in 1767 at Mount Vernon. Hercules was trained under another slave, Old Doll, the plantation’s chief cook who Washington had acquired when he married Martha. Using the latest cooking equipment and technology and having an abundant larder from Mt. Vernon’s orchards and gardens, Hercules honed his cooking skills under Old Doll’s teaching. As she grew older, he eventually replaced her.

When Washington was elected President in 1789, he moved his family to Philadelphia, the capitol at that time. Hercules was 36-years-old when he arrived with the Washingtons to cook in the Executive Residence. He had eight slave assistants, including his own son, who helped him cook in a large fireplace. Hearth cooking required a lot of skill, was dangerous and backbreaking, but according to history, Hercules excelled at it.

Philadelphia had one of the largest open-air markets in the world. Boats came from Cuba three days a week, so there were usually bananas and pineapple, and if you had the money, you could get practically anything you wanted. Unfortunately, there are no known recipes attributed to Hercules that survive today and there are few descriptions of the meals he prepared for President Washington.

Because of Hercules’ special position as chef, Washington gave him the privilege of selling leftovers from the kitchen which gave him a little spending money. He is described as being an impeccable dresser and often walked through the streets of Philadelphia wearing a velvet waistcoat and carrying a gold-handled cane.

Just before President Washington arrived in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania legislature had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act. This law freed any enslaved person who stayed on Pennsylvania soil for longer than six continuous months. To skirt the law, President Washington would send all his slaves back to Mount Vernon just before the six-month period was to end. They would stay at the plantation for a few weeks and then return to Philadelphia to restart the six-month cycle again.

As Washington’s second term was coming to an end, Hercules knew that his window to escape was closing. According to Mount Vernon historical documents, Hercules made his move to escape at Mount Vernon on Feb. 22, 1797, Washington’s birthday. He must have known that all the activities surrounding the birthday festivities would distract others from noticing his escape. Although Washington searched diligently for Hercules, he was never found. Several years later he was seen in New York City; by then Washington had died and had emancipated his slaves in his will. New York City records indicate that Hercules died when he was 65-years-old.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was appointed Minister to France and left his home at Monticello and moved to France. He took his slave, 19-year-old James Hemings, with him. After they arrived in France, Hemings began an intensive three-year study of European cuisine and apprenticed with well-known French caterers and pastry chefs. James transitioned from hearth cooking to using a raised, wood-fired potager stove and perfected the art of cooking complex creams and sauces.

Hemings ultimately became the head chef at Jefferson’s Paris residence. He prepared the exquisite meals that helped build Jefferson’s reputation as a popular host in Paris. Interestingly, while in France, Jefferson developed a love for macaroni pie, which we now call macaroni and cheese. At that time, it was an exclusive dish accessible only to the wealthy because of its expensive ingredients. The macaroni first had to be imported from Italy or made using a macaroni machine. Then it was cooked in a mixture of half milk and half water. It was then layered with imported cheeses and butter, with a final layer of cheese on top. Chef Hemings added his own twist to the dish by adding a layer of cream when it became popularized in America.

There was no slavery in France at that time and under French law, Hemings could have claimed his freedom, but he didn’t. After five years, he returned to the United States with Jefferson, and brought along 86 crates of copper cookware, a macaroni maker, ice cream making equipment, a waffle iron, European wines, and olive oils.

Probably the most famous meal he ever made was the one he prepared in New York City, which was the nation’s capitol at that time, during the Compromise of 1790. That evening was the culmination of a number of dinner meetings Jefferson had hosted for political foes, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. This is the meal that was staged in the popular “Hamilton” song “The Room Where It Happened.” During this famous meal, the three compromised to accept Hamilton’s financial plan in exchange for moving the US capitol south along the Potomac River which would benefit Jefferson’s and Madison’s home region. Some say it was the evening that saved the young nation.

In 1793, Hemings petitioned Jefferson for his freedom. Jefferson consented upon one condition: if he would train a replacement. Three years later, having taught his brother Peter Hemings the cooking techniques he had learned in France, James Hemings became a free man, left Monticello and returned to Philadelphia.

When Jefferson was elected president in 1801, he invited Hemings to cook in the White House, but he refused. Hemings briefly went back to Paris, back to Monticello for a few months, then became a chef at a Baltimore tavern. Sadly, he died at the age of 36, apparently by suicide.

More than 200 years after his death, Hemings has reached somewhat of a celebrity status. Thanks to outspoken African-American culinary historians and the James Hemings Society, his story is finally being told. The Neflix series, “High on the Hog,” discusses Hemings’ training in Paris and his life at Monticello. A PBS documentary, “The Ghost in America’s Kitchen,” honors him as our “culinary founding father.”

Fast forward a century and a half later to the Johnson administration. LBJ was the last president to bring an African-American personal cook to serve on the White House kitchen staff, the remarkable Zephyr Wright. When LBJ first went to Washington as a congressman in 1942, she joined the Johnson family as their personal cook, and her husband was hired as their chauffeur. She soon became known throughout Washington for her homey southern cooking and especially for her barbecues. When Johnson was thrust into the Presidency in 1963, Mrs. Wright’s soul food was quite a contrast to the official White House Executive Chef at that time, Rene’ Verdon, the French chef who had been hired by Jacqueline Kennedy. The Johnsons and Verdon eventually had a parting of ways. In the 60’s it was unthinkable for a woman to be hired as White House Executive Chef. Instead, Swiss-born Henry Haller got the nod to cook for official functions while Mrs. Wright remained the private cook for the Johnson family in the family kitchen. Her most famous recipe was for her popular Pedernales River Chili, named after the stream running through the Johnsons’ ranch. Thousands of her chili recipe cards were distributed by mail and printed in newspapers and magazines. It was a simple and straightforward recipe, using no beans but lots of meat. LBJ preferred it made with venison.

Wright’s most lasting contribution to that era was her powerful political influence on LBJ, giving him a personal perspective on African-American life. When Johnson was a serving as a congressman, the Wrights would follow the Johnson family driving back and forth between Washington DC. and Texas. As their trip ran through the south, many gas stations, hotels and restaurants refused to provide them with basic services because of their race. In1948, when Johnson was elected to the Senate, he invited the Wrights to drive from Washington to Austin to join him at a victory celebration. Mrs. Wright refused his offer because of the racial discrimination. After he became President, LBJ signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. He invited Mrs. Wright to attend the signing ceremony in the Green Room, and when he finished, President Johnson gave her one of the signing pens saying, “You deserve this more than anyone else.”

After LBJ’s term in the White House ended, Mrs. Wright briefly retired and then became the private cook for daughter Lynda Byrd Johnson Robb’s family. Mrs. Wright never returned to Texas and died in Washington in 1987.

Wanda Joell was the first African-American female flight attendant selected to serve aboard Air Force One, serving from President George H.W. Bush to President Obama. Although it’s not an official White House position, presidential flight attendants nevertheless serve the President while he is on board.

Joell, a native of Bermuda, wanted to be a flight attendant ever since her family flew on a plane to immigrate to the United States when she was 6 years old. She never lost sight of that dream and received her training in the Air Force, eventually becoming a military flight attendant. As part of her training, she became skilled in culinary arts and learned how to prepare meals on board. First she was assigned to flights that carried members of Congress and then was promoted to Air Force Two, the vice-president’s plane. In 1990 during the George HW Bush administration, she was promoted to Air Force One, a position she held for 20 years.

The elaborate meals served aboard Air Force One are prepared inside a secure kitchen at Joint Base Andrews and then the cooking process is finished by flight attendants in the plane’s 2 galley kitchens. Sometimes the President requests something that’s not on the menu, so the flight attendants prepare it from scratch.

Joell was on duty on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 when Air Force One was in Florida with President George W. Bush. Through it all, she and her team remained calm for their passengers; But, like the rest of the world, she was worried about the country and what was going on at home. She remembers meeting President Bush in the aisle, hugging him, and telling him “God is with us” as she watched the F16 escorts on both wings, “like angels in the sky,”she said.

After 20 years of service, Wanda Joell was required to retire in 2010. She had obtained the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. Currently, she is a popular speaker in churches, schools and colleges; she is also working on her first book, “Dreams in Flight.”

Mrs. King invited members to the tea table where she served President Lincoln’s favorite gingerbread men, along with fresh fruit and chocolates.

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