America’s food industry continues growing in the billions with modern concepts of restaurants, retail food shops, industrial food systems, and scores of cookbooks and shows dedicated to cooking.
With superstar chefs who always bring the heat to the kitchen with brilliant cooking methods and flavors, America’s cuisine has experienced great transformation. In recent times, influential black cooks like B. Smith, Ron Duprat and Carla Hall, who have greatly influenced America’s food game, have been getting the credit they deserve.
But before these big names were James and Peter Hemings, brothers and slaves of Thomas Jefferson who are believed to be America’s first black celebrity chefs.
James, who would pass on his culinary knowledge to his younger brother Peter, prepared lavish meals for America’s founding fathers at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation.
Essentially, the two brothers worked for very famous men, having been related to them.
Born into slavery before the Revolutionary War, the brothers, along with their sister Sally (who became Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress) were members of a family sired by the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who had died in 1782.
The Hemingses were therefore related to Jefferson’s wife and this allowed them to enjoy special status in the enslaved community at Monticello. Instead of working in the fields or in the nail factory in the community, they did household chores, according to records.
When Jefferson was appointed United States Minister to France in 1784, James, who was then his enslaved cook, traveled with him to France where for five years, he learned the art of French cooking.
At the time, it was illegal for French citizens to own slaves, and anyone who visited the country with slaves ought to register them. Jefferson never registered James. Realizing he was technically a free man, James knew he could sue for his freedom under French law and stay behind.
But not wanting to be separated from his family members at Monticello back home, he struck a deal with Jefferson – that he would be granted his freedom in Virginia as soon as he taught someone else how to cook. That person would be Peter, who eventually became an equally competent chef.
“Peter Hemings was 24-years-old when his older brother, James, taught him how to cook in the French style he learned while serving Jefferson in Paris,” said Gayle Jessup White, public relations officer for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation who traces her lineage back to both Sally Hemings and Jefferson.
Peter, who was a tailor, learned macaroni and cheese and crème brûlée, among other novelties James brought back to America from France in 1794.
He would subsequently become Monticello’s principal enslaved cook, a position he occupied from 1796 until 1809.
“The most interesting thing about James and Peter is that teacher/mentor position that James gets to have with Peter,” culinary historian Leni Sorenson said.
“Obviously he [James] was literate. We have a beautiful one-page inventory written in his hand, it’s the only thing we have in his hand, written in English and French at Monticello, right when he left, after he was there with Peter.”
Training his brother as a replacement and achieving true freedom in February 1796, James ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and died there in 1801 at the age of 36.
Historians are yet to ascertain the exact cause of his death. While some say he died from diseases that had no cures at the time, others believe he took his own life.
Reports say he had at a point thought he would be hired back into the home of Jefferson to work as a paid free man. When Jefferson was elected president in 1801, James thought he would be asked to fill the role of White House chef but that didn’t materialize and it took a toll on him until his death.
He, however, left behind a legacy – his brother, Peter, cooked for Jefferson when he became president and even learned to brew. Taking charge of the brewing and malting operations at Monticello after Jefferson left office, Peter became the country’s first master brewer.
The enslaved cook, brewer, and tailor was later sold on the West Lawn of the Monticello estate after Jefferson’s death in 1826. In his 50s, Peter was purchased by one of his nephews and lived as a free man.
To culinary historian Adrian Miller, the Hemings brothers are important “because they show African American contributions to American cuisine that’s counter to the typical narrative you often heard about black cooks before the 20th century, that black people were natural cooks, so what that did was it took away some of the dimensions of professional training and how they were dedicated to a craft.”