(Editor’s note: The item was originally posted on Oct. 17, 2011.)
The legacy of the LBJ family’s Pedernales River chili has lived on long past the first family who made it famous, but the story of Zephyr Wright, the longtime Johnson family cook who created it, isn’t as well known.
The chili is simple by today’s standards: ground meat, onions, tomatoes, salt, cumin seeds, chili powder, hot sauce and two little old cloves of garlic that would blush at the number of ingredients that go in most chili pots these days, including my own.
But more than 50 years after people first started requesting the recipe from Lady Bird, the Johnson family chili recipe is still making the rounds, most recently in a new book called “ Eating With Uncle Sam ,” that was published in conjunction with a National Archives exhibit about how the government, including presidential recipes, affects the American diet. Last week, as I was writing a story about the book and its Texas ties , I realized that there was far more to this chili and the cook who created it than the recipe indicates.
Wright often cooked chili for the family on their famous Stonewall ranch, and after Johnson had a heart attack, out went the beef suet . So many people requested the chili recipe that the White House printed it up on recipe cards that could be easily mailed out, and the recipe has been printed in a number of books and newspapers in the half century since Johnson took office.
“For everyday eating, Lady Bird brought along Mrs. Zephyr Wright, the Johnsons’ cook for 21 years,” a Time magazine reporter wrote in an article in December 1963 . “Zephyr is an expert at spoon bread, homemade ice cream and monumental Sunday breakfasts of deer sausage, home-cured bacon, popovers, grits, scrambled eggs, homemade peach preserves and coffee.”
Wright is rarely credited, but her work didn’t go unnoticed and her impact on the Johnsons goes far beyond peach preserves and chili.
The top photo of Wright and Luci Johnson is from a 1965 birthday party that the family hosted for Wright, and the families were so close that some in Johnson’s administration believe that the Wright and her husband Sammy, who was the family chauffeur, directly influenced Johnson’s decision to make civil rights a priority.
In fact, Zephyr Wright was in attendance when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and when the president was done signing the bill, he gave her the pen he used.
” ‘You deserve this more than anybody else’,” Leonard H. Marks, director of the U.S. Information Agency during the Johnson administration, recalls the president telling her .
(You can hear Wright talk briefly about her days at the White House in this 2008 NPR report from the Kitchen Sisters about the complex history of presidential cooks.)
I was thinking about Wright when I cooked a batch of her chili last week for the story. She died in the 1988, but her legacy lives on through her recipes, even if her name isn’t in capital letters at the top of the page.