In Episode 09 we discuss how the favorite food of Leslie Knope built America. The legendary history of waffles in America usually starts with Jefferson, but we explore the real back story and how Thomas Jefferson owes most of his culinary reputation to a slave named James Hemings (read more about him here). Aimee and Kate continue to not shut up about Hamilton and Melissa laments how not funny this episode is.
During the recording of this episode, we made The Bourbon Brunch and gagged our way through it. Break audio is “It’s almost breakfast” from Portlandia Season 8. Outro music is “What’d I Miss” from Hamilton performed by Daveed Diggs.
Listen on the link below, or on your preferred platform. Check out our research notes at the bottom of this post!
This episode, we learned so much from the James Hemings Foundation, so please consider checking them out and supporting them in any way you can.
4 oz. Bourbon Whiskey 1 tsp. Pure Maple Syrup 2 oz. Apple Cider 1 oz. Ginger Beer
Candied bacon* and mini-waffle for garnish. *Recipe to follow.
Combine all ingredients except the bubbly ginger beer in a glass. Stir to combine. Add ginger beer and garnish with bacon and toasted min-waffle.
Candied Bacon Recipe
Ingredients: Thick Cut Bacon (I used thin since that’s what I had, but thick cut would be better) 1/4 cup Light Brown Sugar 2 tbsp. Pure Maple Syrup 1/2 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
Instructions: 1. Preheat oven to 350 2. Line a baking sheet with foil and insert a wire baking rack and lay out the bacon. 3. Bake in over for 10 minutes on each side. 4. Remove from oven and brush on sugar mixture to one side. 5. Cook for 10 minutes, remove from over and flip bacon, adding sugar mixture to the other side, and bake another 10 minutes or until you reach the desired color. 6. Allow to fully cool and harden before using as a garnish.
It is often said that Jefferson was America’s first foodie. Although Jefferson’s appreciation for food was legendary, we have his cook, James Hemings, to thank for many of the dishes we identify with Jefferson today.
Hemings’ life began as tragically as it ended, but what he was able to accomplish in his thirty-six years on this planet has forever changed American cuisine, and the course of American history.
Born in 1765 into slavery, Hemings is the son of Elizabeth Hemings and the man that owned both Betty and James–John Wayles. Although little is known about their relationship, it is indisputable that a strong power dynamic existed between John Wayles, the slave owner, and Elizabeth–a woman he literally viewed as his property. Elizabeth herself was the daughter of an enslaved woman and a free English-born man, a sea captain. Elizabeth was likely born of rape, and then raped herself by the man who thought himself her owner. John Wayles would father six children by Elizabeth.
At the age of nine, John Wayles died–leaving James Hemings without a father, and relocated through inheritance. It is at this age that he was inherited by Martha Wayles, his half-sister and wife to Thomas Jefferson.
Hemings was moved to Monticello along with his mother and other siblings. By the time John became a teenager, he was serving as personal attendant to Jefferson, along with his brother Robert. They proved themselves time and time again to the wartime governor of Virginia–first in Williamsburg, and then again in Richmond when evacuating Jefferson’s wife and children from an imminent attack from Benedict Arnold.
Jefferson, impressed by the young man’s resourcefulness, allowed James Hemings to work and earn wages outside of Monticello. Earning pocket money, and learning all he could, dominated his daily life when not directly serving Jefferson. By 1784, when Jefferson is called to represent the fledgling nation in France, James Hemmings has made himself indispensable. Jefferson bring him along to train him in the art of French cooking.
Hemings studied under Monsieur Combeaux, a renowned restaurant owner and caterer once arriving on the outskirts of Paris. Once mastery was achieved here, he moved to the household of Prince de Condé to study pastry. All the while, Jefferson had set up house at Hôtel de Langeac–a place on the edge of the city that Jefferson used to hold diplomatic meetings. It was here that Hemings moved to next, earning wages as the head chef.
All the while James Hemings was studying the art of French cuisine, his sister, Sally Hemings, was also moved to France, into Jefferson’s household to serve as maid. When James was cooking, he was preparing meals for aristocrats, diplomats, and the great minds of the day.
It is as at Hôtel de Langeac that Hemings and Jefferson collaborate on their first menus. Jefferson becomes a legendary host all because of the invisible work of the man behind the scenes.
James Hemings continues to learn and grow. He hires a French tutor to learn the language–using his limited wages towards further education. It is for this reason that historians believe that Hemings would have been aware of the French law allowing for slaves (even foreign slaves) to petition French courts for Freedom. In fact, this was the second opportunity afforded to Hemings to work within legal means to pursue freedom. Historians aren’t sure why he didn’t–but it likely had to do with his family. His six siblings (including Sally who also found herself in Paris) were still enslaved by Jefferson.
Hemings leaves France with Jefferson in 1789. Now twenty-four, and trained in international cuisine, Hemings is a valuable asset to the Jefferson household, and doesn’t leave his side as the founding father relocates to New York, and later Philadelphia
It is here, in Philadelphia, as Jefferson serves as Secretary of State, that Hemings prepares dishes for the movers and thinkers of early American society. He serves things like waffles, French fries, ice cream, crème brulee to people like George Washington, the Hamiltons, the Madisons. He proves himself worthy of a promise from Jefferson at this time–a promise for freedom.
When Jefferson retires from Secretary of State, he’s planning his presidential bid. He directs Hemings to travel back to Monticello and serve as head chef in that kitchen, and he promises freedom on one condition: teach someone else to cook as well as you. Jefferson chooses the replacement–James’ brother, Peter Hemings.
James Hemings takes his two years at Monticello to train his brother all he knows, and in early 1796, Jefferson keeps his promise.
What becomes of James Hemings? He travels–possibly internationally. Jefferson keeps tabs on him after their separation. He writes to him with some frequency, and later, when Jefferson assumes the role of president, he asks Hemings to come work for him at the White House as a free man and a paid chef. Jefferson writes. Hemings is uncertain about Jefferson’s sincerity. Jefferson refuses to write again–not wanting to force the matter. The two write to each other again, eventually–but only after Jefferson has hired another cook in the White House. He offers Hemings a job in Monticello.
Hemings is only at Monticello two months before he dies, tragically. James commits suicide. Liquor is blamed (and not the institution of slavery and inherit racism that forced a life of servitude and trauma for him and his family).
James Hemings’ legacy lives on through the work of culinary historians. If not for his abilities in the kitchen, his ability to combine culinary delights from across Europe with influences from the fledgling country–we would not have the uniquely American cuisine we have today.
In Episode 08: Disgusting Salads, Depressing Times, Melissa tells us how to mix up a delightfully sweet and adorably named prohibition era cocktail, the Bee’s Knees, and manages to spill hers all over her laptop. Kate asks an intriguing food question and no one is surprised by Aimee’s response. And lastly, Aimee tells us all about the horrors that are congealed salads (aka Jell-O Salads, aka Jelly Salads, aka the stuff of nightmares), and how they were born out of necessity during the Great Depression. Listen below, or on your preferred podcasting platform!
The Bee’s Knees cocktail will be the featured cocktail on our upcoming episode “Disgusting Salads, Depressing Times” (aka Congealed Salads and the Depression). Tune in to hear the history behind this sweetly named prohibition era concoction.
2 oz. Gin (We used Tamworth Distilling’s Tamworth Garden White Mountain Gin. I chose this because the strong herbal and floral notes really push through the sweetness of this drink.)
3/4 oz. Honey Syrup (recipe below)
1/2 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously until all ingredients are combined and the shaker has become frosty. Strain into a cocktail glass.
Simple Honey Syrup Recipe
3 Parts Honey (We used NH made Ben’s Sugar Shack Honey)
1 Part Water
Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and hear on low. Continue to stir and warm until honey is fully incorporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Pour into a bottle with a tight sealing lid and store in the refrigerator.
1 pkg Lime Jell-O 1 pint hot water 3 tbsp. vinegar 1/4 tsp. salt 3/4 cup sliced stuffed olives 1/2 cup sliced sweet pickles 1/4 cup diced celery, if desired
Dissolve Jell-O in hot water. Add vinegar and salt. Chill. When slightly thickened, add remaining ingredients. Turn into small individual molds. Chill until firm. Unmold. Serve with fish or meat. Makes 12 molds. Hospitality needn’t cost you much … either money or pints. Try some of these color-and-savor combinations, all made with food easy to get nowadays. They’ll prove to you and your friends that you can still do luscious entertaining in spite of shortages and rations. Say welcome in wartime!
5 medium apples
1 ¼ cups bread crumbs
4 tablespoons of melted butter or cooking fat
¼ cup hot water
1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice
5 tablespoons dark corn syrup
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Grease a glass or ceramic baking dish and preheat oven to 350° F.
Pare the apples and cut them into thin slices. Toss the bread crumbs with the melted fat in a small bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the hot water, lemon juice, corn syrup, salt and cinnamon together.
Distribute a third of the bread crumb mixture into the bottom of the greased dish and top with half of the sliced apples and half of the liquid. Repeat with another layer of bread crumbs, apples and liquid and top with the remaining bread crumbs. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes.
1 tsp ground cinnamon ½ tsp nutmeg 4 cups water 2 cups Madeira or dry sherry 3 cups water 3 large egg whites, shells reserved 1 cup sugar 3 envelopes granulated gelatin 1 cup cold water
Pare the rind from 2 of the lemons in long pieces with a vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife. Juice the lemons and strain into a 2-quart saucepan. Add the rind, spice, and water. Bring it to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in the Madeira or sherry and let it cool.
Beat the egg whites until frothy. Crush the shells and beat them into the whites. Stir this into the wine mixture, return it to medium-low heat, and bring it slowly to a simmer. Meanwhile, wet a large piece of muslin (un-dyed plain cotton fabric), wring it out thoroughly, and line a wire strainer with it. Set this over a bowl that will just hold the strainer near its rim.
When the egg has solidified and floated to the top, push it to one side and check the clarity of the liquid. If it is clear, skim most of the egg away and ladle the liquid into the trainer. Leave it to slowly drip into the bowl. (This takes some time, so be patient and do not stir or agitate it.) The liquid that drips through the strainer should be perfectly clear.
Clean the saucepan and return the clarified liquid to it. Bring it back to a simmer over medium heat, stir in the sugar until dissolved, and simmer until the liquid is clear again. Meanwhile, put the gelatin in a large bowl and stir in the cool water. Let soften for 10 minutes and stir in the hot liquid. Continue stirring until the gelatin is completely dissolved and the liquid is somewhat cooled. To speed up the cooling process, set the bowl in an ice bath and stir constantly until it is cold but not yet beginning to jell.
Pour it into small, stemmed glasses or shallow champagne goblets, cover and chill until set, about 4 hours. Alternatively the jelly may set in a shallow pan, then be broken up with a spoon or knife, and spooned into stemmed glasses
If you’re looking for the perfect patriotic dishes for your 4th of July gathering, consider some of the comfort foods of the founding fathers and mothers of America. Like the presidential candidates of today, these men and women had strange tastes.
Comfort Food: Hoe Cakes
Everyone thinks of cherries when they think of George Washington–likely because of his infamous story of chopping down the cherry tree. Don’t let that anecdote fool you into thinking that cherries were Washington’s go-to comfort food. Instead, he preferred hoe cakes. This cross between corn bread and pancakes was the perfect comfort food for the aging president and his dentures.
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t just a father of America, he was a father of craft cocktails too. His favorite was called Milk Punch. Franklin’s knowledge of booze flowed over into what may be one of America’s first slang dictionaries, “The Drinker’s Dictionary,” making him America’s first food writer as well!
This family recipe was passed down to Martha by way of a cookbook (that still survives to this day!) This simple recipe is essentially a sort of cabbage pie–simple ingredients that likely reminded her of her upbringing.
This ten-dollar-founding-father shared a comfort food with one of our current presidential candidates: coffee. This hot-blooded politician had all sorts of philosophies on the consumption of food (when to eat, how much, etc.) but he was a famous light-weight when it came to booze–which led John Adams to make fun of him even more by calling him a “insolent coxcomb.” When Adams needed some caloric comfort, he turned to a nice cup of joe.
Comfort Food: Hoppin’ John
Dolley Madison was not only a first lady, she was also a first foodie. She served as FLOTUS when her husband took office, but she also helped out widower president Jefferson. Her culinary talents were widely known, and one of her favorite dishes was Hoppin’ John.
As Jon Jay traveled, influencing early American diplomacy abroad, he always brought with him blocks of chocolate. He even wrote home to his dad in 1790, to share that he kept his chocolate close with him, “shaving or grating it into pots of milk.” I think we can all relate to needing a cup of chocolate milk when we’re missing home.
Although Madison’s wife was the real foodie, he liked to mix local cuisine with worldly delicacies. His daily go-to were local oysters harvested just miles form his expansive home, but whenever entertaining important guests, he’d make sure that his favorite vol au vent pastries were on the menu. These puff pastries could be filled with either sweet of savory flavors.
Abigail knew how to take the local ingredients of New England and make them into something magical. A often-baked favorite in her household was Apple Pandowdy, a sweet sort of deconstructed apple pie. It was the perfect way to get you through the cold New England winters.
This early epicurean loved French foods and even commanded his enslaved cook to travel with him to learn the ways of French cooking. His go-to comfort food was warm crème brulee topped with ice cream, something he fell in love with during his time in France working to gain allies for the revolution.
Recipe here for crème brulee Jefferson’s ice cream recipe below.
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
Comfort Food: Ice Cream
Ice cream was a relatively new food in early American cuisine. Elizabeth was introduced to it by Thomas Jefferson at one of the most important dinner parties in American political history, and she later introduced George and Martha Washington to it.
John Adams preferred New England staples for his day-to-day. In fact, most of his food was as bland as his politics. When Adams really wanted to go wild and celebrate, he’d ask Abigail to fix up some Turtle Soup. He loved it so much that early Americans considered it a Fourth of July staple.
In Episode 07 Melissa tells us way too much about bourbon, and Aimee gets weird with some weenies while us in on some 4th of July traditions and food. Kate reminds us of her love for Hamilton and officially gets Hamilton sidebars banned in future episodes. Listen below, or on your favorite podcasting service.
We have some related posts up on the blog that we mention in the show below!