Lady Bird’s Pedernales River Chili (Created by Zephyr Wright)

Credit line: From Dinner with the President by Alex Prud’homme. Copyright © 2023 by Alex Prud’homme. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson inherited the presidency, and with it his predecessor’s French chef, René Verdon. But the Johnsons didn’t like Verdon’s fancy cooking, and Verdon didn’t like their “homey” tastes for spareribs and garbanzo bean puree, and he quit. Rather than hire another French chef, the Johnsons pro-moted Zephyr Wright, the Black cook who had worked for the family for twenty- one years. The story did not make headlines, but Sam Johnson, the president’s brother, wrote that Wright’s food was so good it “made you wish you had two stomachs.” Her most celebrated recipe was for Pedernales River Chili, named after the stream running through the Johnsons’ ranch. As word spread about the chili, there were so many requests for the recipe that the White House had it printed on postcards that were mailed to the public. The cards identified the dish as “Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales Chili,” though the recipe was Wright’s.

Two notes: LBJ reportedly preferred his chili made with venison rather than beef. And I found the postcard recipe less inspiring than its backstory, so I have included a version that makes a smaller helping but, with the addi-tion of garnishings, bumps up the flavor.

— tools —

Dutch oven (a large heavy pot) with a lid
Long-handled cooking spoon
Sharp, medium-sized kitchen knife

Can opener
Measuring cup
Measuring spoons

Zephyr Wright’s Original Recipe
Serves 8 to 10
— Ingredients —
4 pounds ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
6 teaspoons chili powder (to taste)
2 pounds canned tomatoes, not drained

Salt to taste
2 cups hot water

Alex Prud’homme’s Adaptation

Serves 2 to 4
— Ingredients —
1 pound ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon ground oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 to 3 teaspoons chili powder, to taste
1 can (14½ ounces) tomatoes, roughly cut into pieces, with tomato liquid

Modest squirt (¼ to ½ teaspoon) of tomato paste

Salt and pepper to taste
½ to ¾ cup hot water

— To Garnish —
2 to 4 jots of hot sauce
¼ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Handful of finely chopped fresh parsley
Smattering of diced raw onion

— Preparation —

Brown the beef, onion, and garlic in a Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the oregano, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes, tomato paste, salt and pepper, and hot water. Bring to a boil; then lower the heat and simmer. Skim off the fat, and occasionally stir the chili. For Mrs. Johnson/Mrs. Wright’s recipe, cover and cook for about an hour. They would sometimes add 1 or 2 tablespoons of masa (Mexican corn flour) to thicken the chili and give it depth.

For my adaptation, cook for 8 to 10 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally. Then cover and simmer on low for another 30 to 35 minutes, making sure the chili doesn’t stick to the pan. If too dry, add a splash of water (or tomato juice, stock, beer, or other liquid); if too wet, uncover, raise the heat slightly, and boil off the excess.

Garnish with hot sauce, grated cheese, and parsley to taste. Some like to add a sprinkling of diced raw onion, as in the original recipe.

I like to serve chili with rice or corn bread, as the Johnsons did.