Little-known African-American chefs fed presidents more than just food

Our national palate owes a vast debt to African-American cooks and chefs who’ve largely been whitewashed from the history books, but a growing number of scholars, bloggers and authors are bringing new attention to those hidden hands.

Adrian Miller, author of the new book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, dissects the social and political considerations that saw African-American contributions minimized or outright ignored as they fed the First Family, from George Washington to our first black president, Barack Obama.

“Black hands — enslaved and free — wove the fabric of social life in the nation’s capital, and black people, widely considered by whites as inherently bred for servitude, were integral to cementing a white family’s social status as an elite household. Our presidential families were no exception,” Miller writes. “Many presidents went out of their way to reassure the public that they loved the homey dishes prepared by their African-American cooks, though they rarely dignified these cooks by referring to them by their full names.”

For hundreds of years, slave-owning white families depended upon African-Americans to grow, prepare and serve their food. Washington himself brought slaves to the executive kitchen (he was the only president to not live in the White House, as he died before the federal government formally moved from Philadelphia) and complained bitterly when his cook ran away after a decade of servitude. Washington spent a year trying to track down Hercules, also known as Uncle Harkless, referring in a letter to a friend about the “inconvenience” his family suffered at his slave’s freedom.

Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook, James Hemings, trained in France while Jefferson was working there on behalf of the United States in the late 1780s. James Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s African-American slave mistress, then returned with the soon-to-be president and helped introduce the country to that most American of dishes: macaroni and cheese. Hemings, whom Jefferson ultimately freed, ran a cooking school at Monticello.

Historians believe Hemings was in the kitchen on the day in 1790 when Jefferson and longtime enemy Alexander Hamilton settled how to pay for the Revolutionary War and decided to site the nation’s capital permanently in what would become the District of Columbia. On the menu that momentous mid-June day?  A fest made in Heming’s signature half-Virginian-half-French style: capon stuffed with Virginia ham, chestnut puree, artichoke bottoms and truffles, served with a Calvados sauce, and beef à la mode made with French-style beef bouillon instead of gravy.

“Because of the social dynamics of the time, people wouldn’t even think of crediting the cook,” Miller says in an interview in Denver, where he returned after working in the Clinton White House on the President’s Initiative for One America, an outgrowth of the President’s Initiative on Race. Miller is also the author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, which won a James Beard Foundation book award. He is a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge and former Southern Foodways Alliance board member.

Washington D.C.-based Michael Twitty, who runs the Afroculinaria blog, posits that the legacy of those African-American slave cooks lives on in product brands like Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima. Those products serve as a visible reminder of the “faithful black servant who cooks so well,” he said.

“For three centuries, that’s what black people were: servile, submissive and ‘naturally gifted’ at certain things,” Twitty said. “Enslaved cooks of the South … they were famous in their own right, in their own worlds. But they were never going to attain anything more than a certain amount of limited respect.”


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