James Hemings, the Godfather of Southern Cooking–and of American Fine Dining

If you have never heard of James Hemings, it’s not your fault. Blame it on an educational system that has historical amnesia. Just to give a hint of what James did, he introduced the following dishes to the newly minted United States: French style ice cream (the kind everyone eats now), crème brûlèe, pommes frites (french fries), and best of all, macaroni and cheese. Essentially, all the cornerstones of a healthy diet.

To put it bluntly, James Hemings was the enslaved servant of Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he was actually the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. (If you would like a complete history of the Hemings family, read Annette Gordon-Reed’s superb The Hemingses of MonticelloAn American Family.) Jefferson “inherited” the entire Hemings family upon the death of his father in law. Despite that beginning, James would become the person who was arguably the first classically trained chef from North America.

In 1784, shortly after the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson was dispatched to Paris as Minister to France, and to help Benjamin Franklin and John Adams negotiate with the French government for support of the new nation which they had helped create. The group that left for France had to be one of the strangest family groupings in American history: Jefferson, his twelve year old daughter Martha “Patsy” Jefferson, and nineteen year old James Hemings, who Jefferson referred to in one letter as “my servant.” Jefferson’s goal was for James to train as a French chef. Regardless of the goal, when James stepped foot on French soil, he was free, slavery being illegal in France.

Upon arriving in Paris, James immediately apprenticed with a caterer named Combeaux, at Thomas Jefferson’s expense. Realizing that he could claim his freedom, James made a deal with Jefferson, that his enslavement become an “apprenticeship” instead, and that he be granted his freedom after a number of years. Jefferson agreed, and additionally, paid James a salary that was more than double that of a well placed Parisian servant. James’ second apprenticeship was at the estate of the prince de Condé, Chantilly, which included a stable that could accommodate 240 horses, and had what was considered the finest kitchen and chef de cuisine in France. The apprenticeship was remarkably expensive. Jefferson paid for it anyway.

By the end of 1788 James Hemings himself was the chef de cuisine at the Jefferson residence in the Hôtel de Langeac on the Champs-Elysées, which served as a de facto American Embassy in Paris. James hired a tutor to help make him completely fluent in French, and had the pleasure of seeing his younger sister Sally arrive in Paris, as a servant and companion to Jefferson’s youngest daughter Polly. By August of 1789 James served his first famous dinner, which included a six hour long marathon discussion between Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and seven other Frenchmen, who, according to Jefferson, invited themselves over; as Lafayette told him, they would like “to ask a dinner of me.” Their topic of discussion was the ever growing French Revolution. Although, apparently, there was more drinking than eating, Jefferson considered the evening to be a great success.

Then came June 20, 1790, back in the States, and what is sometimes called the dinner table compromise, or alternately, the greatest meal in American history. The first functioning Federal government was installed, and Secretary of State Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton agreed on little. However, the question of war time debt overlapped their respective positions, as most of the states’ debts were to foreign institutions. Jefferson and Hamilton agreed that the debt the states carried and could not pay, could, in fact, cause the collapse of the new government.

Jefferson decided that this problem could best be solved over a meal prepared by James Hemings. Jefferson hosted the meal at his apartment in New York, the then seat of the government. The staff of Monticello, along with writer Charles Cerami, has made up a mock menu for the meal, based on what Jefferson typically ate (this information comes from the excellent book Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlée, by Thomas J. Craughwell):

  • Green Salad with Wine Jelly
  • Capon stuffed with truffles, artichoke (artichokes are still grown at Monticello), chestnuts, and Virginia ham. It was served with an apple brandy sauce.
  • A Top Round Beef Roast and Veal Knuckle, served with onions, carrots, bacon, and garnished with parsley and thyme
  • Small plates of confections
  • Vanilla Ice Cream inside a puff pastry

Naturally this would need five bottles of wine to go with it, concluding with a bottle of Champagne to accompany the dessert. And there it is, fusion cooking, with mostly local ingredients prepared using mostly French techniques, though the beef and veal were cooked for hours in an old American stand-by, a cast iron dutch oven. Thankfully, James Madison was also present to help tackle this feast.

The solution to the debt dilemma was this. Jefferson agreed to Hamilton’s idea that the Feds assume the states’ war debts. Jefferson, knowing that a financially stable state like Virginia would never go along with such an idea, proposed that the national capitol be moved to the South, as compensation. Madison’s job was to get the bills through Congress. Thus modern America was born, over dessert and ice cream, and multiple bottles of wine.

James Hemings returned to Monticello, and taught his brother Peter how to cook in the French fashion. Peter also became a master brewer later, and ran the brewery at Monticello. After James had successfully taught Peter the necessary cooking skills, he was finally granted his freedom in 1796, the requirements of his “apprenticeship” having been fulfilled.

One last episode remains in this story. Soon after Jefferson was inaugurated as President in 1801, he had an intermediary contact James, who was working in nearby Baltimore, and offer him the job as the first chef de cuisine at the brand new White House. James was hesitant, and Jefferson indicated that he did not want to pressure him into the job. James did return to Monticello in the fall, and ran the kitchen there for one last time. By late October, James Hemings was dead, from an apparent suicide.

After asking for confirmation of this report, Jefferson received the following reply from his acquaintance William Evans:


I received your favour of the 1st Instant, and am sorry to inform you that the report respecting James Hennings Having commited an act of Suicide is true. I made every enquiry at the time this melancholy circumstance took place, the result of which was, that he had been delirious for Some days previous to his having commited the act, and it was the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause, I am Sir

Your obedient Servant

William Evans

This strangely modern tale of substance abuse claiming a chef’s life in no ways changes the influence James Hemings had on American, and particularly Southern, cooking. In 1824 Jefferson relative Mary Randolph published the South’s first great cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. Included in the book is a recipe for ice cream (the first published in the US), and a recipe for”Macaroni,” where the other main ingredients are milk and cheese.

Where could those ideas possibly have come from?

Author: southernfusionfood

Writer, Woodworker, and Happy Eater

One thought on “James Hemings, the Godfather of Southern Cooking–and of American Fine Dining”

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