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.
(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
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.
- Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
- Stanton, Lucia. “The Research File: From Plantation Fare to French Cuisine.” Monticello Newsletter vol. 4, no. 2 (1993): 3.
- Stanton, Lucia. “Those Who Labor for my Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000.
- Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Getting Word: The African American Families of Monticello.
- Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.
- White House History: Slavery and French Cuisine