We're back! Well, sort of. It's Black History Month, so we're bringing you this special bonus episode celebrating one of the MANY African American food legends, Zephyr Wright. Zephyr was chef to Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson for over 25 years, including in the White House. She was known for her exquisite Southern cuisine, most famously her Texas Red Chili, or Pedernales River Chili. But in addition to her contributions to food, her unique access to the Johnsons gave her the opportunity to champion civil rights in a direct and personal way, and she might even be the person who convinced LBJ to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plus, Lia gives us a little history of chili in Texas and the Chili Queens of San Antonio who put it on the map.
For more great content about the stories & foods we talk about on the show (plus a peek BTS) connect with us at @FoodDayPod on Instagram & Twitter, join our Facebook Group & check out our webpage. Access the transcript here.
Explore more from the show!
Learn more about Zephyr's life and legacy on this episode of the History Chicks!
Read more about The history of the San Antonio Chili Queens!
We're supposed to be taking a break, but we're not...
No, we're back.
We're back. Hi Guys, did you miss us? We really missed you.
We missed you.
No, we had a whole bunch of stuff that we wanted to talk to you about and tell you about that we're doing... And celebrate Black History Month with you.
Alright Lia, what the h*** are we up to?
It's a lot of fun stuff going on behind the scenes as we're getting ready for season two. One of the things we're really excited about is we are launching an email list, so when you head over to Yumday.co/podcast, there is a place for you to drop your email, send it to us so that way we can keep notified of when our new seasons out, when we have fun, new exclusive content or mini episodes like this, and as a fun little bonus for the people that do sign up for email list once a month, Anna and I are going to do a giveaway. Oprah..Oprah style!
Free stuff. What are we giving away to the people, Lia?
Well Anna, we are giving away snacks! A snack pack!
You know how we always tell you to snack it up? We're gonna help you out with a giveaway.
Snack it up. So please sign up, join our email list, and that entry for a chance to win some delicious snacks from women and bipoc founded food brands.
Love it. From Yumday, from the Yumday snack shop.
And yeah, these will be some really excellent snacks, they're gonna be so good, so wholesome. It will blow your mind.
Can I enter or is that selfish of me? It's probably selfish of me.
You didn't read the fine print, Anna?
I'm probably gonna be making the newsletter, so...
You get your own special snacks.
Thanks, Lia. I know somebody at Yumday. And that person is you. So yeah, we've got an email list, every month we're gonna do a giveaway. So definitely sign up for that. And when you're on the website, when you're at Yumday.co/podcast, you might see a little button that says “buy me a coffee.” And uh, Yeah, it's a donate button. So we are an independent show, we are very proud to be an independent show, we are a women created, women of color created and driven show, and we plan to stay that way. But you know, making the show ain't free... And we don't have the Gimlet money lying around, you know what I'm saying.
That Wondery money.
The Crooked media guys are not gonna look our way. So as we gear up for all these great things that we wanna do and producing season two for you, we love your support. So you can click on that button, you can donate enough for a cup of coffee or more, you can do one time, you can make it recurring, but it'll help us offset some of the costs of production for season two and everything else that we wanna bring you, so... Check that out.
Yes, and... Because Anna and I are just so cool. We're on Clubhouse guys.
I don't know if you've heard of it.
Yeah. It's a very exclusive drop-in audio chats on Clubhouse.
Yeah, if you've said to yourself, “Man, being on Zoom calls all day long, just isn't enough for me. I wish there was a recreational…” I'm really not selling it right now. Anyway, Clubhouse is fun. So follow me and Lia, and we're gonna do some rooms...
Yeah. That's...really exciting stuff is happening there, and we're gonna be one of those really exciting things.
Yeah, we are. I mean like, we were joking, but it's actually a really fascinating and exciting platform, and we're gonna do some rooms where we can do some meet and greets with our listeners and some question and answer stuff, we'll probably do some talkback on our future episodes and things like that. So definitely follow us. Just hang out with those guys. You already love our voices.
To sum up, got our email list, we've got our Buy me a Coffee button, follow us on Clubhouse, And you know what, the best way to stay in touch with us is on Instagram at Food Day pod, it's where we will announce all of these things, the live events, the giveaways and stuff, and we also do a lot of fun things with like poles and pictures of Lia and I eating snacks and the background info on the stories that we tell in these podcasts, so definitely connect to us Instagram @Fooddaypod So we can all stay together.
Now, we can do 100 episodes at least about Black contributions to America and cuisine and culture, right Lia.
Oh, totally, yes. I mean, we could talk about Abby Fisher, who was born into slavery, but once she was freed, became a chef, the first African-American to published a cookbook in 1881, and won medals at food fairs all over the country for her pickled and preserved foods and opened her own food production and catering company in San Francisco.
We could also talk about James Hemings, who some people call the founding father of American cuisine. He was the White House chef/ brother-in-law/ enslaved worker of Thomas Jefferson, and Hemings trained at the best culinary institutes in France, and long before Julia Child, he became a master chef and brought his learnings and French style back to the White House, which was then emulated all across the country, he's basically the reason why we put butter on everything and have French Fries...
Well, there's also Maria Russell who in 2019, became the first Black woman to run a Michelin star kitchen.
Or Leah Chase, the queen of Creole food, who founded the world famous Dooky Chase Restaurant in New Orleans and has cooked for presidents... Clinton, Obama and W. Bush.
But, today we're gonna talk about Zephyr Wright. Zephyr was the chef for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson for over 25 years, including in the White House. And created some of the most beloved Southern recipes, like parganas River chili or Texas River chili.
But in addition to her delicious contributions to food, her unique access to the Johnsons gave her the opportunity to champion civil rights in a direct and personal way, and she might be the person who convinced LBJ to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So, should we talk about Chili?
Yeah, let's talk about chili. Well, first of all, I wanna mention that National Chili Day is the fourth Thursday of February.
So happy National chilly day, Lia.
Yeah, Happy National Chili Day, everyone. And that day was created back in 2006 by a man named Rich Kelly, who was the Corporate Manager of the Hard Times Cafe in Arlington, Virginia. Now, the Hard Times Cafe is a chili parlor in the DC area that's been around since the 1980s, so they're pretty well known for all of their chilly dishes. And in 2005, USA Today named the Hard Times Cafe is one of the 10 best places in the country to get chili, so there you go.
Another field trip?
Oh, totally. But when it comes to chili, I kept thinking like, do we really know where it comes from? Because there's a lot of different stories, and there's no doubt that for centuries, people have been raising or stewing meats with a mix of spices for a long time.
But food historians did say that they believe the recipe originated in the 1730s in San Antonio, so my backyard basically, but it was within a very specific community in San Antonio that was populated by people from the Canary Islands. So the canarians made this stew of meat, garlic, chilies, onions and cumin. But it is still a little bit different than the Tex Mex style chili that we think of today. And other historians still say that the Tex Mex chili, which is more like the popular chili con carne that we get, was introduced in the 1860s by a group of women called the Chili Queens.
That's amazing. That sounds like a girl group from the 70s, the Chili Queens.
It totally does.
I would buy all of their LPs.
I would be putting that on my little turntable dancing to the Chili Queens.
Yes, their hair would be so big.
Well, these chilly queens were Mexican women who had chili stands in the San Antonio area. And so, according to some of these historians, they were basically carrying on this tradition of the open air markets and food stalls in Mexico in the San Antonio area, and they serve food there at the military plaza, so they were providing food and meals to soldiers and eventually the plaza was kind of just a social place, and so they were serving the Chili Con Carne, the tamales and beans.
So these chilly queens, they were business women with their own stands and carts, they were creating the chili that was their own family recipes, and I mean, they were entrepreneurs, this was their job and they were making it work and you know what was interesting, you know how we’ve talked about this like World's Fair?
Yes, the Chicago World's Fair.
Well, at that same 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, the Chili Queens introduced San Antonio chili there at their own stand.
God, I really think the 1893 World's Fair is one of the seminal culinary events in North American history. I mean, you got your popcorn, you got your Cracker Jacks. You got your Peanut butter.
Right. And you got Chili.
And you got chili.
Now here is an interesting fact. At that time in the 1890s, the Chili Queens were introducing chili to the rest of the world. At the World's Fair in Chicago, the women had actually gotten banned from setting up their chili stands in the plaza. At the Elmo plaza.
What did they do? Is there a chili scandal?
Well, the San Antonio City Fathers, considered the Chili Queens and their stands and carts to be an eyesore. Didn't look good because they wanted the plaza to be more of a place for business and politics and, I mean, /white people.
White people. White people. Let's be real. They were called the San Antonio fathers? Like they were that patriarchal?
The city fathers.
The city fathers.
Yeah. So the Chili Queens had to move around from plaza to Plaza, and then unfortunately the 1930s, the Health Department just began to shut down the stand, so there's a lot of history there that people are right now still trying to find out and discover about the Chili Queens and what they've done, and it's cool that the University of Texas has a group of people that have been going through archives and finding photographs of the Chili Queens and figuring out more of the history behind them and what they did. So that's where we believe the chili con-carne popularity originated from, and chili con carne became the official dish of Texas in 1977.
I love that.
Thanks, Chili Queens.
You guys are all in on chili. Committed to chili.
We really are. When I moved here to Texas, I decided I needed to get my first bowl of Texas red chili in the very official way, so I went down to the Texas chili parlor in Austin last year and ate myself a big bowl of red.
Aw man, I want chili so bad right now. And some corn bread. (Lia
What makes it a chilli parlor? Just that they only sell chili? Just a chili specialty shop? .
It's a chili specialty shop. It’s kind of It's very hipster. When you think about it. It's like, This is the chilli parlor. And actually this chili parlor is kind of hipster Austin in a sense too. I mean, it was featured in a Quentin Tarantino movie, so there's that.
Oh my God. Were they eating the chili or do they use the chili as like for make up and hair or make-up as brains during what I'm assuming is a rabid fire fight...in the chili parlor.
Yeah. You know, that's a good point. The Texas red could have been the blood.
I mean, maybe both.
Probably, probably both.
I could just see somebody's eating a bowl of chili, somebody's throwing it on the wall, gun noises. It's the magic of Hollywood, people.
So now that we know and tell what's in Texas chili? Because it's a bit controversial.
Yeah, so Texas chili, there's no beans and no tomatoes, it's just beef, and then a mix of chili paste, so from different chillies. But that's it. So if you're eating chili with beans, chili that is made with tomato sauce, that's not Texas chili, that's not Texas red.
Get out of Texas.
Take your beans!
We're gonna talk about one Chili Queen, and that is Zephyr Wright. Zephyr Wright was born in 1915 in Marshall, Texas, which is all the way in eastern Texas, just across the border from Shreveport, Louisiana. She was a top student, grade A student. She graduated from high school, she was super impressive. And she went to Wiley College there in Marshall, which is one of the America's oldest historically Black colleges, it's still open, to study home economics, and meanwhile, a family called the Johnsons lived about 350 miles away on a dude ranch in Stonewall, Texas. There was Lady Bird Johnson and her husband Lyndon B. Johnson, who at that point was a US representative in congress. And in 1942, the Johnson's housekeeper left the family, and Lady Bird went to Wiley college and asked if there was anyone that they recommended. You know they didn't wanna just get anybody, it was a rising politician, they had a lot of sensitive people there, the Lyndon was very invested in his food, let's just say he's very particular, so she went and asked for their most highly recommend the student and they sent Zephyr. So, her interview lasted for 20 minutes and she was with a family for 27 years.
Wow. When, you know, you know.
So, I want Zephyr’s interview tips basically. She should have written - I would have downloaded her ebook. What are her interview tips? Zephyr was part of the Johnson family for 27 years, and in those 27 years, Lyndon B. Johnsons went from being a low representative to a senator, to minority leader, to a majority leader, so he was the Chuck Shumer of his day, then to VP and then unexpectedly to President upon JFK's death. And Zephyr was there, every step of the way. The Johnsons had two daughters, Lucy and Linda, who Zephyr was second mother to. And when Zephyr married her husband, her beloved husband Sammy, the Johnsons hired him too, so that they would all stay together. So there's obviously, this is an employer-employee situation, but there was also a real bond, a real commitment in this family, so... I wish I had more that is just about Zephyr. Unfortunately, a lot of her history is just... Most of the history I could find about her was just tied to the Johnsons, which is unfortunate, and of course, means that it's coming through a white historian world view, but there was... She's still incredibly impressive, and there's a lot of amazing stuff about her that I wanted to share, but I just wanted to acknowledge that... That this is not the complete picture of Zephyr's life. She was a very skilled and very talented cook, but probably her biggest asset, was she was very flexible and she was very quick on her feet. So she could go from snacks at a cocktail Canasta party to a fancy dinner with a foreign dignitary to whatever weird down home sh** Johnson wanted in the middle of the night, right? And LBJ had... Let's see, how can we describe this in a nice way... LBJ had a big personality. Yeah, if you think of like a big... He was like 6 foot 5, ruminating, dominant, loud Texas dude. That was him, he was difficult... But it didn't phase Zephyr. And they had great chemistry and he adored her cooking. She excelled at Southern Delicacies, which the family loved, a profile of the family in Time magazine from 1963, Lady Bird quoted as saying, “Zephyr is an expert at spoon bread, homemade ice cream, and monumental Sunday breakfasts of deer sausage, home cured bacon, popovers grits, scrambled eggs, home-made peach preserves and coffee.”
I wanna get in on that. We could do that. We could eat that brunch.
Yeah, that's... I mean, you don't already have that for your Sunday breakfast.
I whip that up on a Tuesday… One of my favorite quotes was Johnson's brother Sam once wrote that her food made you wish you had two stomachs.
I love that.
And a lot of these recipes got credited to Lady Bird, like the peach ice cream and the chili... We're gonna talk about that. But, they were really Zephyrs. And the favorite dish was chili Johnson called it Pedernales River Chile, named after the river near where he grew up, but it's also called Texas Red Chili as you told us about. Okay, So LBJ had a big personality and he also had a big appetite and he liked his food heavy, he liked it greasy. He liked it fatty. He liked it Texas. He also smoked 60 cigarettes a day.
Do you just become a cigarette at that point.
There is just constant like smoke just coming out of your mouth.
Just like ash comes out of your ears. How do you have time? Honestly, I don't understand, but that's like when we see this old TV shows and people are just always have a cigarette in their hand.
Like, at the hospital.
Right, the hospital, elementary schools. Everybody got a cigarette in their hand. So, shockingly, in 1955, when he was only 47, he had a near fatal heart attack.
And the doctors advised him that he needed to change his diet, which fell on Zephyr. So because she had a Degree in Home Economics, which we've talked about in some earlier episodes included dietetics chemistry, nutrition, all these kinds of things, she had to pull out this old home ec. Textbooks and start translating these recipes... Well, first, she started making Lean Light Fair plates for LBJ and then regular meals for everyone else, but because he has such a big personality, he would just take other people's plates.
So she had to figure out how to translate some of these recipes, which made her more... I'm so impressed by that. Even more versatile. And for the chili, that meant the meat went from beef suet, which is disgusting, to venison because venison still had a strong gaminess but was lean... So, yadayadayada, LBJ runs for president, but no one likes him. So he doesn't make it. But he becomes John F. Kennedy's running mate, John F. Kennedy gets elected. And thereby, LBJ gets elected. And Jackie Kennedy in the White House loved entertaining. She loved opulence, she loved sophistication. And the hottest thing was Julia Child's cookbook had come out in 1961 when they took over, so she hired a French chef named Renee Verdon, whose meals were so fancy that pictures of the luncheons were on the cover of the New York Times.
Wow. Oh la la...
World famous... And then, of course, in November 1963, John F. Kennedy is assassinated. LBJ is...uh...gonna say coronated, oh God, going in such a dark direction the last couple of years. He was inaugurated that day. But Verdon, the French, he didn't lose his job when Johnson came in as president, so now we have Mr 16 oz PorterHouse here. And he moves into a house where the chef wants to serve him like steamed artichoke florets, and he's like, Absolutely not.
Absolutely not. So his famous rivalry started between LBJ who was super cheap and wanted his chili con carne and wanted Zephyr to run the kitchen, and this fancy pants Verdon. So Zephyr had to teach this very petulant Verdon, all the recipes that LBJ loved, and she... We're gonna talk about in a second, was never shy about pointing out disparities between how the Black staff and the white staff were being treated and her experiences during the segregation of the caste system. And so previously, she had pointed out to the Johnsons when the pay of the Black staff had fallen behind the pay of the white staff, and to their credit, they raised the pay to keep it equal. And now she went and said, Look, I know he's the head chef, but I gotta teach him all these recipes that you wanna eat...
So yeah, he may be called the head chef, but he's really kind of like my sous chef, so shouldn't I be being paid more than him? And the Johnsons were like... Yeah, probably. So they raised her pay, which... Do we think chef Renee liked that?
That this Black lady was getting paid more than him? Non, non. So two years into LBJ's term, Verdon suddenly quit. The final straw was LBJ wanted to serve ribs and garbanzo of beans at a State dinner.
Ribs and beans.
And, as women do, Zephyr picked up the slack. She never became officially head chef, but she kind of was... For as long as the Johnsons were there.
Her Red River chili was so popular that the First Lady's office had the recipe printed up on official White House stationary cards to mail out to people. That's how much people loved Zephyr's cooking. But again, because it was being sent out from the First Lady's office, it sort of got known as Lady Bird’s Texas Red Chili, but it was absolutely Zephyr's recipe. [22:40] and Zephyr's influence on the food in the White House is a big deal because she made southern food Okay. she made bringing in this food that was very American... Okay, and these traditional African-American recipes, foods into the White House, which when you think of it as the people's house, as America's house, that's totally what should be there.
And in Southern food, comfort food, soul food has and is still fighting for that kind of legitimacy or seen as elevated food as traditional - white foods, like French cooking and things like that, but she made big strides in bringing it to an official place. Another huge influence that Zephyr had on the Johnsons and on America was not just the food, but like I said, she was never shy about sharing her experiences as being a Black woman, mostly in the South in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And so the Johnson's ended up seeing first-hand how those experiences were affecting her and Sammy, and I think actually more importantly, they were inconvenienced by them, it's unfortunate that we... I think a lot of the time, until it happens to you, you don't realize it's real.
Or don't take it seriously.It's so funny 'cause I'm reading The Warmth of Other Suns, which is Isabel Wilkerson's incredible book about the great migration, so about African-Americans escaping the Jim Crow south from about 1920 to 1970. And it's incredible book, and there's so much that's baffling and shocking about it, but one of the things that sits with me the most is that the white people obviously notice that the Black people were leaving, or really escaping. And they had no idea why.
She prints all these op-eds from newspapers from Alabama and Mississippi, and they're just like, Why would they wanna leave?
I just can't imagine.
There's not slaves anymore. What else do they want? It's just crazy. The Jim Crow laws, segregation, it wasn't just water fountains,
It wasn't just segregated bathrooms, it was like if you made eye contact with a white person or didn't end a sentence with Sir or Ma'am, you could get killed. You know, people got lynched for not stepping off a sidewalk on off the curb when a white person was approaching, it was just living in terror and humiliation, and she would tell them about those experiences. So there was one time where they asked her to take Lucy and Linda to the movies and she got turned away and completely humiliated.
And brought the girls home. There was another time where Zephyr slipped on an icy sidewalk and broke her leg and the ambulance refused to come because she was Black, until Lady Bird came home and got on the phone and screamed at the hospital until they sent an ambulance, right. They - At one point, the Johnsons moved into a neighborhood and the property had something called a Covenant prohibiting BIPOC people, it wasn't just Black people. The list is really weird. It's like Syrians. Jews.
Oh my gosh, yeah.
Armenians, they just wanted to cover all the bases.
Just making sure that we got everyone.
Just making sure... Did you put Malaysian people on there? We just wanna get everybody off there, but this was totally legal, there was a covenant on this neighborhood that no one but white people could live there, and the Johnsons actually had to go to court to get an affidavit that said that they could move there and that Zephyr and Sammy could live there with them.
Oh my gosh.
But one of the biggest problems was the travel, because since LBJ represented Texas, he still had a home in Texas and would often go back there and entertain people and do work from there, so he would send Zephyr and Sammy, back and forth between Texas and DC, sometimes he'd have them take the girls and go back before them to get the house ready and things like that, which meant that Zephyr and Sammy, this Black couple were driving through the deep South. And it was incredibly hard 'cause they couldn't find it in place to stay, couldn't find places to eat. And there's this great story where a man named Leonard H. Marks, who was the director of US information agency during the Johnson administration. And he’s quoted as saying, “at one of the luncheons I attended before Johnson became president, Zephyr was serving, when Lyndon told her that he and Sammy should get ready to drive to Austin and the family would join them later, she said in front of everyone, “Senator, I'm not going to do it.” And there was silence. She said, “When Sammy and I drive to Texas, I have to go to the bathroom, like Lady Bird or the girls, and I am not allowed to go to the bathroom. I have to find a bush and squat, when it comes to eat, we can't go into restaurants, we have to eat out of a brown bag, and at night, Sammy sleeps on the front of the car with a steering wheel around his neck, and I sleep in the back. And we are not going to do it again.”
But the crazy thing is that, had that never occurred to him? Probably not.
No, probably not.
Why would I think about it? He was just thinking about what he wanted and needed. Right. So it was things like that that kept being brought up to the Johnsons. And as we know, he became a big part of the Civil Rights Movement, in private, maybe not the most enlightened guy, LBJ. But in 1964, he signed the Civil Rights Act, and Zephyr was there. Zephyr was there, if you look at the pictures, we'll post one on Instagram of Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act. She is standing right there, she's got a fabulous hat and a fabulous handbag.
She looks amazing. She's standing right there, she's two people down from Martin Luther King. And when President sign legislation, they have a bunch of pens to sort of commemorate it and hand out pens to the people who are there who contributed to it, and he gave Zephyr a pen and a witness at the signing said that when he handed Zephyr the pen he said, “You deserve this more than anybody else.”
Wow, that's incredible.
Isn't that a great story.
I love that. What a remarkable person.
Yeah, I love the story. And again, we say this over and over again, but from whatever corner women are put into, they're fighting back. We talk a lot about the big figures, the Malcolm in the Martins, and Freddy Hampton and all these people who absolutely deserve our reverence and absolutely deserve our recognition, but these smaller players, the women, the Black women, I mean, we cannot forget their influence and their power, right? And I just love this example.
This is great, so strong.
I like to think that she just blackmailed him with food, I like to think she just had leverage 'cause she was the only person that could cook the food he liked.
I mean, she really did. You know that, I mean food, we know what food does and how much power food has over people.
Yeah, so much power.
Thank you, Anna.
So that is the story of Zephyr Wright. And like we said, we could do a 1000 episodes on Black figures. We're not gonna do that now, we're gonna tell their stories as we tell all the other stories in a regular episodes, but we just couldn't let this, this go by. I mean, Black people built America and our food is no different.
Thank you for joining us for this special Black history month episode of Every Day is a Food Day. We're so glad we could share Zephyr's story with you.
Yes, we really are. And don't forget, you can always keep up with us on Instagram and Twitter at Food Day pod, you join our Facebook group, and you can also check out our website at Yumday.co/podcast.
Every Day as a Food Day is a production of Yumday and Van Valin productions. It was created, hosted by Lia Balentine and Anna Van Valin. This episode is edited by Emma Massey and our social media marketing intern is Elaine Oh. Don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. And please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts.
See you next time.