The Secret History of America’s Favorite Comfort Food
Thomas Jefferson, his daughter Martha and servant James Hemings prepare for a housewarming party at Jefferson new Paris residence the Hotel de Langeac. The year is 1787.
A voice from the kitchen calls, “Chef.”
Hemings, a twenty-two year old mulatto man dress in a crisp white uniform, sits behind a desk writing into a black leather purchase log. He looks up and walks ten paces toward the chef de partie.
“Plus de vanille, chef.”
Hemings retrieves a wooden spoon from the top pocket of his pristine jacket, dips it into the hot pot of a sweet smelling creamy sauce. In one quick motion the spoon disappears down the chef’s throat. Three years earlier Hemings was a nineteen-year-old slave accompanying Jefferson to France after he was appointed minister plenipotentiary. On the night of the dinner party Hemings is the head chef of Hotel de Langeac commanding a French staff of fourteen in the preparation of the night’s dinner.
“Mary Randolph was responsible for the greatest culinary theft in history.”
The senior chef hesitantly asks, “Bon gout?”
Hemings, who three years ago didn’t speak French, responses with a smile, “Oui.”
Hemings was the first American and African trained in the culinary arts at the Chateau de Chantilly. Hemings learned each step of the French preparation of food. In United States, cooking was done in a hearth where the food, or the person, could be burned over the open pit. In France, food was roasted in a coal burning stove where taste and safety was a priority.
Jefferson was a foodie, and he enjoyed all the food Hemings learned at the Chateau in Paris: meringues, creme brulee, French style- creme Chantilly (whipped cream), french fries, ice cream and pates au fromage (macaroni noodles with parmesan cheese). Food was Hemings ticket to freedom.
Years later after spending so much time traveling the world, Hemings became the household manager, chief cook and valet for Jefferson back in United States. In 1793, Jefferson made an agreement with Hemings upon returning to the slave state of Virginia, if he would trained his younger brother Peter in French cuisine, he would be free.
From 1793 to 1796 in the diminutive slave kitchen at Monticello, Hemings made an inventory of kitchen utensils in beautiful English and French script while he taught his younger sibling the art of French cuisine. On February 5, 1796 Jefferson fulfilled his promise. Thirty-one year old James Hemings was free.
Jefferson delight for mac and cheese cooked by Hemings became a recipe in 1824 groundbreaking cookbook, The Virginia Housewife from Mary Randolph a member of Jefferson’s extended family. The recipe of macaroni found on page eighty-four includes little detail on making the dish. The pasta maker and recipe arrived in United States in 1789, thirty-five years before The Virginia Housewife was published.
“It is a real travesty that James Hemings after more than 225 years in obscurity has not been given proper credit for not just inventing dishes, but bringing them to America, introducing America to these different taste,” says Chef Ashbell Mcelveen founder and CEO of the James Hemings Foundation. “Mary Randolph was responsible for the greatest culinary theft in history.”
Before Randolph’s heist was introduced to the kitchens of white Virginians, the receipt and others became part of the cooking traditions in the slave kitchens of the south. “Hemings was also Jefferson’s valet,” McElveen notes. “And when Jefferson was in the dining hall having dinner, the valets were in the kitchen. This is the great part of how words of recipes and techniques got around, the connection to the kitchen and the whole oral tradition that we got from Africa.”
Who would have thought, a bilingual slave, trained at France’s premier 18th century cooking school could be the reason why Americans love french fries, whipped cream, ice cream and mac and cheese.
So, when you sit down next Sunday over a steaming glass bowl of mac and cheese, holding hands with your cousin as your uncle prays for every “person who touched the food we’re about to eat,” remember our culinary ancestor.
Thank you James Hemings.