Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery

Oct 17, 2015
Originally published on May 4, 2016 11:29 am

Thomas Jefferson is known as a founding father and a founding foodie. Less well-known is the remarkable man who once fed his refined palate: James Hemings.

In the 18th century, Hemings was one of America's most accomplished chefs. He was also Jefferson's slave.

"It was a close relationship, a master-slave relationship, but different," says renowned Jefferson historian Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

Different, because the Jeffersons and Hemingses shared tangled family ties. Hemings was the son of an enslaved mulatto woman named Elizabeth Hemings and a white father, John Wayles — who was also the father of Jefferson's wife, Martha. James Hemings and his relatives became Jefferson's property as part of Martha's inheritance.

Hemings grew up as a household slave in Monticello, Jefferson's rural Virginia estate. He could read and write, and was said to be very bright. Jefferson trusted him and relied on him, says Gordon-Reed.

So when Jefferson sailed to France in 1784 to become America's trade minister, he brought the 19-year-old Hemings with him for an express purpose: to become a French-trained chef.

Paris was then the culinary capital of the world, and Hemings spent five years in the city, mastering the art of French cuisine. His training was extensive: He apprenticed with a caterer, a pastry chef and even a chef of the Prince de Conde, who was known for the splendor of his table.

"For an American to go and learn that ... was pretty incredible," says food historian Paula Marcoux, who has re-created classic French dishes of the era at Monticello, using the same types of cooking tools Hemings would have used. On a recent day in the Monticello kitchen, she was working on "snow eggs," a Hemings recipe the Jefferson family preserved through the generations: little puffs of meringue poached in milk syrup and served chilled over English custard.

She says his technique was strikingly sophisticated, and his training certainly surpassed that of other American chefs of the era.

In 1787, Hemings took over as chef de cuisine at Jefferson's stately Paris home. It was a big job: It meant he supervised other, white servants in the kitchen — something impossible to imagine happening under the strict racial strictures of slave-era Virginia.

But Paris offered an altogether different life than the one Hemings had left behind. He moved freely around the city. He had money in his pocket because Jefferson paid him wages — money he used to hire a French tutor.

And Gordon-Reed says his world was populated with free blacks — not just servants but businesspeople, respected artists and craftsmen.

"He would have seen people of his race, people who looked like him, who occupied a very different position in the world," Gordon-Reed says. That's not to say there wasn't any racism in France — "there definitely was," she says, but it operated in a different way than it did in a plantation society like Virginia.

One of the people in James Hemings' Paris world was his sister Sally – yes, that Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman believed to have born several children by Jefferson. Sally arrived in 1787 with one of Jefferson's daughters.

Paris was a city on the cusp of revolution. Talk of the rights of man filled the streets. And at some point, James and Sally Hemings learned a startling fact: Under French law, they could have sued for their freedom. But they choose not to do so.

Why not?

"Family," says Gordon-Reed. "There was a real dilemma for many enslaved people: Do you take your freedom and separate yourself from your family?"

Instead, the Hemings siblings agreed to return to America — and to slavery — with Jefferson in 1789. At the time, Gordon-Reed says, James Hemings thought he'd have another chance to pursue his freedom in Paris: The trip home was supposed to be temporary for Jefferson and James Hemings. But once back in the U.S., Jefferson became George Washington's secretary of state.

Hemings spent several more years in Jefferson's service in various cities, including New York and Philadelphia. But then, when Jefferson decided to return to Monticello in 1793, Hemings did something remarkable: He pressed Jefferson to free him.

"Of the 607 people that Jefferson owned over the course of his lifetime, there were only two that really negotiated their freedom. James Hemings was one of them," says Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello.

As part of his deal with Jefferson, James Hemings spent the next three years training his little brother, Peter, to replace him in the kitchen. Then, at 31, Hemings became a free man.

But freedom was far different for a black man in America than it had been in Paris. He was a man adrift, searching for his place in the world. He traveled a lot — so much that Jefferson worried that Hemings' journeys would "end in the moon."

Eventually, in 1801, Hemings landed in Baltimore. "He was cooking for a tavern keeper there," Stein says. "So this was a far cry from his expectation of his future."

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson had become president — and he asked Hemings to be his personal chef. Hemings refused, but he did agree to cook at Monticello one last time. That was in the summer of 1801.

A month after he left Monticello, word came: Hemings was dead, an apparent suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Stein says. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

It's impossible to know for sure how he felt; the great chef left no memoirs. But he did leave recipes — and as Marcoux whips up "snow eggs" in Monticello's historic kitchen, Hemings' dishes, and his legacy, live on.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's finish up today with a story about one of the earliest of these unheralded African-American cooks, James Hemings. In the late 18th century, Hemings was one of America's most accomplished chefs. He was also one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves. NPR's Maria Godoy reports.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Our story begins in Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's rural Virginia estate. It was in this very house that James Hemings applied his trade. And today, a rare treat - someone is actually cooking in here. Food historian Paula Marcoux is preparing a feast, classic 18th-century French dishes, as Hemings would have made them.

PAULA MARCOUX: We're making a dish that Jefferson described as rabbit cooked with small onions and bacon in a red wine sauce. I'm also getting ready to make a dish called in English snow eggs, in French œufs a la neige - eggs and snow.

GODOY: It's the Hemings recipe that the Jefferson family preserved through the generations. James Hemings grew up a slave in Jefferson's household. He could read and write and was very bright. And Jefferson trusted him, according to Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: So it was a close relationship, a master-and-slave relationship, but different.

GODOY: Different in part because James was the brother of Sally Hemings - yes, that Sally Hemings - the enslaved woman believed to have born several children by Jefferson. When Jefferson sailed to France in 1784 as America's trade minister, 19-year-old James came along, and Sally followed later. Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, says Jefferson had a plan for James.

SUSAN STEIN: Jefferson brought James Hemings with him with the express purpose of seeing that he would be trained as a French chef there.

GODOY: Hemings spent several years mastering the art of French cuisine. He trained with a caterer, a pastry chef and even the chef of a prince.

STEIN: In the course of his five years in Paris, he became an exceptionally accomplished chef.

GODOY: Eventually, he took over as chef de cuisine at Jefferson's stately Paris home. He even supervised white servants. It was another life altogether. Hemings moved freely around Paris. He had money in his pocket because Jefferson paid him wages, money he used to hire a French tutor. And Gordon-Reed says his world was populated with free blacks, not just servants but businesspeople, respected artists and craftsman.

GORDON-REED: So he would've seen people of his race, people who look like him, who occupied a very different position in the world.

GODOY: It was a world that was quickly changing. France was on the cusp of revolution. And along the way, Hemings learned that under French law, he could've sued for his freedom. Instead, he returned to America with Jefferson.

GORDON-REED: Why? Family.

GODOY: Annette Gordon-Reed.

GORDON-REED: There's a real dilemma - there was a real dilemma for many enslaved people. Do you take your freedom and separate yourself from your family, or do you settle down in a place that - well, you will have support?

GODOY: The plan for both Jefferson and Hemings was to return to France eventually. Instead, Jefferson became Secretary of State, which meant Hemings had to stay in America - and in slavery. After several more years in Jefferson's service, James Hemings pressed for his freedom. Historian Susan Stein.

STEIN: Of the 607 people that Jefferson owned over the course of his lifetime, there are only two that really negotiated their freedom. Hemings - James Hemings was one of them.

GODOY: At 31, James Hemings became a free man. But freedom was far different for a black man in America than it had been in Paris. He was a man adrift, so he traveled, a lot. Eventually, he landed in Baltimore in 1801. Historian Susan Stein.

STEIN: And he was cooking for a tavern keeper there, so this was a far cry from his expectation of his future.

GODOY: In the fall of 1801, Jefferson got word. James Hemings was dead, an apparent suicide. Gordon-Reed says memories of Paris must have haunted Hemings.

GODOY: When you think about somebody who'd had these amazing experiences and the expectations that that would raise in someone, and to come back to America and to a place where there's really no place for an individual like that.

GODOY: Back in Monticello, Paula Marcoux is just about to start a demonstration of Heming's techniques. Cooking here, she says, is a way to connect to the past

MARCOUX: There is something transformative about it, just feeling like you're in the place.

GODOY: A place where James Hemings once ruled the kitchen. Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.