James Hemings: Father of American Cuisine

James Hemings: Father of American Cuisine

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.

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(We talk more about Hemings and Jefferson in Episode 09 of our podcast: Waffles Built America.)

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

kichen inventory, written by Hemings

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.

monticello kitchen
kitchen at Monticello

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.


Pay it No Mind: How Marsha P. Johnson Started a Movement

Pay it No Mind: How Marsha P. Johnson Started a Movement

Marsha P. Johnson Photo

Aimee, Melissa and Kate spoke briefly about the history of Pride on our latest episode. We mentioned a few times that the history would be brief, because although two of us identify as LGBTQIA+ members, we know that we aren’t the best people to tell this story. Why? Well, because our perspective is informed by lives of privilege in this arena. That privilege (and a bit of booze) led us to neglect a very important piece of the history of Pride–Marsha P. Johnson.

The Revolutionary

Marsha P. Johnson was there on June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. Many eye witnesses identify her as one of the first to fight back. Many recognize her as spearheading the uprising that we now commemorate with Pride celebrations across the country.

The Mother

Before Stonewall, Johnson moved to Greenwich Village in New York City at the cusp of adulthood. Like many LGBTQIA+ youths, life was rough. Her childhood was marred with reprimands for how she dressed and behaved. Once out on her own, she found herself homeless and worked as a sex worker to make ends meet. Soon after she found ballroom culture and drag. Making her own costumes, she founded her own house, becoming a drag mother, and helping homeless and struggling youth. She even toured the world with a drag group called Hot Peaches.

The Activist

Marsha P. Johnson also founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) to further help LGBTQIA+ youth. Melissa mentioned briefly during our episode how even within the queer community trans people (and especially trans people of color) were forced into the fringes of the movement. As Gay and Lesbian rights started to gain traction, cis and white people took control of leadership. After Stonewall, Johnson (along with Sylvia Rivera) founded STAR to help provide services and empower homeless LGBTQIA people in New York, Chicago, California, and even in England.

In addition to founding STAR, she also joined the Gay Liberation Front and worked with ACT UP an AIDS-focused charity.

The Artist

In addition to all of the amazing work she did to empower her community, she also acted as a muse for artist Andy Warhol. As a drag performer, her career lasted for over twenty years. She toured with Hot Peaches from 1972 on. She also performed with numerous other drag troupes from the 1970s on.

The Woman

Marsha P. Johnson’s life was one of her own making. In her short time on this planet she spearheaded a civil rights movement, founded a non-profit, helped countless young people. Her life came to an end in 1992. Although the police officially ruled the death a suicide at the time, many in her community believed she was murdered. Her body was found in the Hudson River off the West Village Piers on July 6. Marsha was only 46. Twenty-five years after her death, Victoria Cruz re-opened the case, which remains unsolved.

The year in which Marsha died was the worst at the time for anti-LGBT violence. Violence against trans women of color is on the rise again.

Her legacy lives on with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Read more about them here. Marsha often said that the “P” in her name stood for “Pay It No Mind.” There is no better way to pay tribute to this amazing woman than to donate to an organization that aims to “elevate, support, and nourish the voices of black trans people.”

Want to learn more?

In 2018 The NY Times published a obituary of Marsha P. Johnson and her impact on the LGBTQIA+ movement. You can read it here.

Out Magazine has a wonderful retrospective on her life and legacy. You can read it here.

Netflix released a documentary about this revolutionary lady. Check out the trailer below.