From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject America’s First Connoisseur
Date May 26, 2020 12:05 AM
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[Jefferson brought James Hemings to France and gave him a
first-rate culinary education with some of Europes most illustrious
chefs. His legacy thrives today in kitchens across America.]
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PORTSIDE CULTURE

AMERICA’S FIRST CONNOISSEUR  
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Edward White
May 21, 2020
The Paris Review
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_ Jefferson brought James Hemings to France and gave him a first-rate
culinary education with some of Europe's most illustrious chefs. His
legacy thrives today in kitchens across America. _

Seth Gilliam as James Hemings, The Paris Review

 

Among his many claims to distinction, Thomas Jefferson can be regarded
as America’s first connoisseur. The term and the concept emerged
among the philosophes of eighteenth-century Paris, where Jefferson
lived between 1784 and 1789. As minister to France he gorged on French
culture. In five years, he bought more than sixty oil paintings, and
many more objets d’art. He attended countless operas, plays,
recitals, and masquerade balls. He researched the latest discoveries
in botany, zoology and horticulture, and read inveterately—poetry,
history, philosophy. In every inch of Paris he found something to stir
his senses and cultivate his expertise. “Were I to proceed to tell
you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting,
music,” he wrote a friend back in America, “I should want
words.”

Ultimately, he poured all these influences into Monticello, the
plantation he inherited from his father, which Jefferson redesigned
into a palace of his own refined tastes. More than in its domed
ceilings, its gardens, or its galleries, it was in Monticello’s
dining room that Jefferson the connoisseur reigned. Here, he shared
with his guests recipes, produce, and ideas that continue to have a
sizable effect on how and what Americans eat.

In keeping with his republican ideals, Jefferson eschewed lavish
banquets in favor of small, informal dinners where conversation flowed
as freely as the Château Haut-Brion. According to his own account,
the famous dinner table bargain of June 1790 was just such an event.
Preparing the menu for the “room where it happened” that night was
James Hemings, arguably the most accomplished chef in the United
States. He was Jefferson’s trusted protégé, his
brother-in-law—and his slave.

For nine years in Paris, New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, it was
Hemings who produced the sophisticated haute cuisine dishes with a
demotic, Southern twist that we now think of as emblematically
Jeffersonian: capon stuffed with Virginia ham; indulgent vanilla ice
cream encased in delicate choux pastry; beef stew served in a French
bouillon. And it was he who taught his fellow slaves at Monticello
everything he knew about food, transmitting his influence down the
generations, onto the tables of Virginia’s social elite.

Hemings’s talents had been nurtured by Jefferson, who took him to
France and gave him a first-rate culinary education from some of
Europe’s most illustrious chefs. Yet, every moment he spent in
Jefferson’s kitchens, he did so in servitude. His biography appears
to us only in snatched glimpses. We know little about his private life
and his interior existence, beyond what he expressed through cooking.
But his story exemplifies the strange paradoxes that have come to
define the public reputation of Thomas Jefferson, a man who, in turn,
exemplifies the strange paradoxes of his age.

James Hemings became the property of Thomas Jefferson when he was nine
years old. His mother was Elizabeth Hemings, an enslaved woman who had
six children by Captain John Wayles, her master and James’s father.
With his three wives, Wayles had a further eleven children, one of
whom, Martha, married Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day in 1772.
When Captain Wayles died the following year, the Jeffersons inherited
Elizabeth Hemings and her children, including James and his little
sister Sarah, known as Sally. They arrived at Monticello in January
1774, a few weeks after the Boston Tea Party, and a few months before
Jefferson established himself as an important voice against the
tyranny of British rule.

Martha Jefferson almost certainly knew that six of the young slaves
she had inherited were her half siblings; her husband surely knew,
too. It may have been a truth obvious to everyone but never commented
upon, the kind of gymnastic feat of self-delusion that was common on
many plantations of the era.

Throughout their lives at Monticello, the Hemingses repeatedly
received preferential treatment, were selected for high-status jobs,
and given special responsibilities. As the years passed, James appears
to have stood out to his master as a young man of particular
intelligence and strong character. When Jefferson was elected governor
of Virginia in 1779, he gave the fourteen-year-old Hemings the job of
messenger and coach driver. Two years later, it was Hemings and his
brother Robert who were tasked with guiding Martha Jefferson and her
children to safety during Benedict Arnold’s raid on Virginia. The
following year, 1782, Martha died, leaving Jefferson deeply
grief-stricken. When, at the end of the Revolutionary War, the
opportunity came to move to France, Jefferson was happy to accept.
Although Robert was head cook at Monticello, it was James, now
nineteen, whom Jefferson selected to accompany him across the ocean
and learn “the art of cookery,” to quote Jefferson, as no American
before him had.

The Paris that Hemings and Jefferson discovered was widely regarded as
the apotheosis of European civilization. For much of the preceding
century French had been Europe’s lingua franca, and French dress,
dance, and manners had dominated high society across the continent.
French cuisine was similarly envied and copied, although many notable
Parisians wondered whether the cult of food had gone too far. Rousseau
once averred that “the French are the only nation who know not how
to eat, since they must use such a vast deal of art, to render their
victuals agreeable to the palate.” His contemporary Voltaire
likewise complained about being served complex dishes such as
“sweetbreads swimming in a spicy sauce”—though one wonders how
much of that was due to the havoc played on his stomach by the forty
cups of coffee he drank each day.

Jefferson was well aware of the intellectual dimensions of cooking and
eating, and developed a philosophy of dining around it, one that
combined old-world culinary technique with an American disregard for
etiquette and hierarchy. How much Hemings knew about, or cared about,
such ideas is unknown. In the historical record he comes alive only
fitfully, and almost always refracted throughout the prism of his
master. What is obvious, however, is that he had talent and an innate
understanding of food that flourished under expert instruction.

For the first tranche of his apprenticeship, Hemings learned in the
kitchen of a successful chef named Combeaux. After that, he was placed
in the tutelage of a pâtissier, before receiving the most impressive
portion of his education at the Château de Chantilly under the
direction of the chef to Louis Joseph de Bourbon, the Prince of
Condé. Chantilly was a thunderous statement of ancien régime
magnificence, vast formal gardens outside a grand château that
contained interiors of towering ceilings, marble, crystal, and gold.
Here, the preparation and service of food was a remarkably serious
business. At a banquet in 1671, so claimed the socialite and writer
Madame de Sévigné, Chantilly’s maître d’hôtel, François
Vatel, became so distressed by the late delivery of fish that he
stabbed himself to death in shame and despair.

Hemings’s training was a palpable success. By 1788, aged twenty-one,
he was running the kitchen at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson’s
official residence on the Champs-Élysées. Hemings incorporated
indigenous American ingredients that Jefferson had started to grow in
his garden into the recipes and techniques he’d spent two years
perfecting. It was all part of Jefferson’s diplomatic mission; the
Hôtel de Langeac became a beacon of the young republic’s burgeoning
identity, and its commitment to egalitarianism. The screaming irony,
of course, was that these platefuls of democratic idealism were being
cooked by a man who was considered a slave.

Jefferson, the self-described “savage of the mountains” dove deep
into French food culture. In trips to Burgundy and Bordeaux, he toured
vineyards in a typically Jeffersonian manner. Not content with
sampling the wine, he also made close study of the science involved,
the nature of the terroir that produced the grapes of each region, and
the processes of harvesting, crushing, fermenting, and aging. He came
to see this education in viticulture as part of a project of cultural
decolonization. Before the Revolution, he said, American taste in wine
had been “artificially created by our long restraint under the
English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain.” In
this new age of liberty, he wanted American palates to stray beyond
the muscular port, sherry, and Madeira that the English downed by the
barrel. One day, he hoped, America would be self-sufficient in wine as
in all things, producing exquisite vintages that expressed the
uniqueness of the American experiment.

If living in Paris broadened the horizons of the worldly Thomas
Jefferson, Hemings must have felt as though he had slipped into a
parallel universe. A world away from the slave society of Virginia, he
was allowed to travel around the city on his own and construct a
private life that didn’t necessarily run along the rigid racial
lines of home. Jefferson paid him a wage, a good deal of which he
spent on improving his French. The effect this had on how a young man,
born into slavery, thought of himself, must have been seismic. In
Virginia, members of his family became equally skilled; his younger
brother John, for example, was an excellent carpenter. But his
apprenticeship in French cuisine at the apex of Parisian society had
made James Hemings not a cook but a _chef_, more virtuoso artist than
master craftsman. As Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the great chronicler of
late-eighteenth-century Paris observed in 1788, “it is almost to the
point today where chefs will assume the title of culinary artist …
they are pampered, they are humored, they are appeased when they are
angry, and all the other servants of the household are generally
sacrificed to them.”

Except, of course, Hemings could never be fully pampered, humored, or
appeased. Despite the opportunities and freedoms that Jefferson gave
him, he remained a slave. Technically, manumission—release from
slavery—was within his reach every day of his five years in Paris,
even though racism was rife in France. In the 1770s and 1780s, a raft
of laws had been introduced that required black people to carry
identification papers, banned them from using the titles Sieur or
Dame, and prohibited interracial marriage. The Police des Noirs of
1777 went as far as requiring detainment and deportation of all people
of color who entered France from abroad, or who were living in the
country illegally. But, such was the spirit of the times, few of these
laws were ever enforced, especially not in Paris, where the notion was
vigorously upheld in the courts that slavery was inimical to France
and Frenchness. At some point during his time in the city, Hemings was
sure to have learned that he could have easily secured his freedom in
the Parisian courts, as many enslaved people from the French colonies
had done. Quite why he chose not to, we can’t know. Most likely it
was the pull of family; to pursue an emancipated life, he would have
to remain thousands of miles from enslaved relatives he would never
see again. By 1787, there was also an extra complication to consider:
his fourteen-year-old sister, Sally, who accompanied Jefferson’s
daughter Polly when she moved to Paris at her father’s instruction.
It is now widely accepted that Jefferson began a sexual relationship
with Sally—his late wife’s little sister—toward the end of their
stay in France, resulting in the first of six children.

The account left by Sally’s son Madison suggests that she was
pregnant when she, her brother, and the Jeffersons left France in late
1789, the country in the throes of revolution. Jefferson had been a
role model to many of the revolutionaries, and heavily influenced
Lafayette’s _Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen_, a
document that inspired slave uprisings in the French colonies. James
Hemings would never see Paris again, though the city must have stayed
with him for the rest of his days.

When Jefferson relocated to Philadelphia in 1791, to serve as
Secretary of State, Hemings went with him. He served as chef and
valet, and also oversaw the mammoth task of unpacking the twenty-seven
wagonloads of items that Jefferson had accrued overseas. In
Philadelphia, Jefferson and Hemings each had ways of keeping the
memory of Paris alive. Jefferson had his furniture, paintings, and
books. Hemings had the familiar illusion of independence; the wage
that Jefferson continued to pay him, and the relative freedom he could
enjoy in the City of Brotherly Love. Both men, of course, also had
Hemings’s cooking.

In December 1793, Jefferson moved back to Virginia, where he began the
work of shaping Monticello into the place it is now, an American
expression of the Enlightenment—a museum, in fact, to Jefferson’s
idea of himself. The renovations included an overhaul of James
Hemings’s kitchen. A new stew stove was installed to complement the
top-of-the-range, heat-sensitive copper utensils that Hemings had
purchased in Paris. A list of these utensils is the only surviving
example of Hemings’s handwriting. It’s a surprisingly eloquent
document, showing its author to be as much of a connoisseur as the
legendary man for whom he cooked. Jefferson’s sphere of expertise
wasn’t the kitchen—that was Hemings’s space—but the dining
table, which at Monticello and, in time, the White House became a site
of pleasure and education. Guests were inducted into the uncharted
territory of fine wine; some even had their first taste of ice cream
or macaroni and cheese, a dish unknown to Americans before
Jefferson’s return and which one confused diner described as “a
rich crust filled with trillions of onions, or shallots, which I took
it to be … tasted very strong and not agreeable.”

These innovations are routinely described as Jefferson’s, yet
there’s no evidence that the man ever brewed a pot of tea, much less
mixed a vinaigrette, whipped peaks of a meringue, trussed a chicken,
or any of the other things that Hemings perfected at the Hôtel de
Langeac. Only two recipes are attributed directly to Hemings, one for
chocolate cream, the other for snow eggs. Several others, in
Jefferson’s hand, have survived—but it seems highly likely that
Hemings was involved in these, too.

As much as it may have pleased Jefferson, rural Virginia was no place
for Hemings, a young man who just a few years earlier had got a
tantalizing taste of freedom in the cultural capital of the world.
When he asked for his manumission, Jefferson acceded, but only on the
condition that he stay at Monticello for as long as it took to train
his brother Peter to be the new chef. Within two years Peter could
cook in the style that Jefferson valued, one which seemed so fitting
to the project of Monticello—“half-French, half-Virginian,” as
one of Jefferson’s guests put it. In 1796, Hemings was handed $30
and his liberty. At the age of thirty-one, he was free for the first
time.

The details of what Hemings did after leaving Monticello are very
sketchy. He sought work in Philadelphia and may have traveled back to
Europe for a time. But prospects for a black man, even one of such
accomplishment, were dreadfully limited. He drank and drifted. His
last known job was at a tavern in Baltimore, where his skills were
surely not being put to full use.

When Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800, he wanted
Hemings to run the White House kitchen. He reached out via a mutual
acquaintance in a manner that suggested he assumed his former slave
would come running straight away. Through a third party, Hemings told
Jefferson that he wouldn’t consider the offer unless Jefferson
contacted him directly and made a formal offer. As the historian
Annette Gordon-Reed outlines “Hemings had been trained in Paris …
He was special … Now that he was legally free, he would have from
Jefferson the dignity he deserved.” In the knotted dynamics of this
strangest of relationships, Jefferson’s own pride prevented him from
making a direct request, and Hemings was overlooked for the post. Not
long after, Jefferson received the news that Hemings had taken his own
life, aged thirty-six.

Unable to hire Hemings, Jefferson went for the next best thing, a
French chef named Honoré Julien. The kitchen staff was supplemented
with two young slaves from Monticello, Edith and Frances, the first of
many black female chefs at the White House, the best-known being
Zephyr Wright who cooked for LBJ in the sixties. Edith became a
fantastic chef. Through her, Virginian flavors—sweet potato,
black-eyed peas, okra—kept their presence at Jefferson’s table.
But, like Hemings before her, Edith’s brilliance was tethered to her
legal status. When Jefferson’s presidency ended, she ran the
Monticello kitchen until his death in 1826, and eventually gained her
freedom in 1837, at which point she relocated to the free state of
Ohio with her husband, Joseph Fossett, nephew of James Hemings. When
their first son was born, they named him James, too, likely in honor
of the boy’s uncle, a man who ghosts through the archives of the
written word, but whose legacy is alive in kitchens across America.

 

_Read earlier installments of “Off Menu.”_
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_Edward White is the author of _The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and
the Birth of Modern America_. He is currently working on a book about
Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for _The Paris Review Daily_ was
“The Lives of Others
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