James Hemings was the first American and Black American to train as a chef in France. Hemings was the older brother of Sally Hemings, who was a slave/mistress to Thomas Jefferson. Both were said to be half siblings to Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Hemings, born in 1765, was enslaved at 8 years of age to Thomas Jefferson through an inheritance…uggh, ok. He was taken to France by Jefferson in 1784, to train as a chef at Jefferson’s behest.
While in France, acting as Jefferson’s chef de cuisine, Hemings served his creations (that included French fries) to European aristocrats, writers and scientists whom Jefferson invited to dine. Jefferson returned to America, bringing Hemings as well as his recipes and foods. Hemings introduced America to: crème brulée, meringues, French-style whipped cream, European-style pasta and cheese- that Hemings called ‘macaroni pie’ (which evolved into what we Americans call macaroni and cheese today). And yes, Hemings even brought us ice cream! 🍟🥘🍦🍨
Jefferson eventually freed him, when they were living in Pennsylvania, where slavery was not permitted. Perhaps Heming’s most famous meal is the one he served to bitter enemies, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (June 20, 1790), that reconciled their relationship. In 1801, now the President, Jefferson offered Hemings a position at the White House, but because he did not bother to put the terms of employment in writing, Hemings declined. Later employed as a cook in a tavern in Baltimore, Hemings tragically committed suicide at age 36, likely, it has been said, suffering from alcoholism.
Thus, in honor of Black History Month when you step outside in your sensible corporate heels for a quick lunchtime ice-cream break this spring, think of James Hemings.
To read more about this President & his chef’s recipes, check out these wonderful books:
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