Has one of Sally Hemings’s siblings been neglected by history unfairly?

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tags: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, James Hemings



Ash bell McElveen is a chef and the founder of the James Hemings Foundation.

Beyond Labels” (Food section, Jan. 27), about a new generation of black chefs, inspired and annoyed me equally, for it does not go back far enough in America’s food history. The greatest specter among the “invisible” chefs referred to in the article was James Hemings — valet, chauffeur and chef to Thomas Jefferson, who granted him his freedom 220 years ago this week.

When Jefferson went to France as President George Washington’s minister of trade, he took with him 19-year-old James, the older brother of Sally, the slave who bore some of Jefferson’s children. James and Sally were half-siblings to Jefferson’s wife, Martha.

Hemings trained under chefs at the famed Château de Chantilly, the “five-star” kitchen of 18th-century France whose culinary creations outshined those served the royal family at Versailles. Technically free in France, Hemings was paid a wage to helm the kitchen at Jefferson’s residence in Paris. There he supervised a large French-speaking staff for Jefferson’s extravagant dinners for royalty and the most discerning palates in Paris.

Hemings returned to slavery in America, bringing with him revolutionary changes to traditional colonial hearth cooking. Meringues, crème brulée, French-style crème Chantilly (whipped cream) and continental European-style macaroni and cheese can all be traced back to his training in Paris.

He was in the kitchen for the most historic dinner in early American history. On June 20, 1790, the meal — a delicious balm in his signature half-Virginian-half-French style — helped reconcile the bitter enemies Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Over lavish courses that included capon stuffed with Virginia ham, chestnut purée, artichoke bottoms and truffles, served with a Calvados sauce, and boeuf à la mode made with French-style boeuf bouillon instead of gravy, they forged an agreement to settle the young republic’s biggest problem: how to finance the Revolutionary War debt. They also decided that the national capital would be situated along the Potomac.

The roots of iconic American foods can be linked to James Hemings and his Virginia kitchen with a French accent. Black cooks, including the celebrated Edna Lewis, have always kept, even if they didn’t know its origins, some element of that tradition of fusion cooking.

James Hemings has been a ghost in America’s kitchen, overshadowed and still enslaved to the narrative that gives Thomas Jefferson credit for introducing gourmet cuisine to the nation. I dream of a day when Hemings is no longer left out of media stories on the origins of fine food in America.

I’ve started the James Hemings Foundation to celebrate not only Hemings but also the thousands of blacks who were linchpins in creating American cooking.




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