Thursday, May 26, 2011

Presidential Slave Chefs

This article from NPR talks about black cooks in the White House. The main focus of this article is Hercules, the Washington's cook, and James Hemings, Jefferson's, but it also mentions others, like Lyndon Johnson's. I'm going to share the part on Hercules here, but you can find the rest at the link above:
Hercules, Washington's slave chef, may have been trained by Martha Washington. It was Martha who brought slaves into Washington's home when the two married. Martha was known for her table and for her "Great Cake" (40 eggs, four pounds of butter, four pounds of sugar, five pounds of flour, five pounds of fruit, a half-pint of wine and some fresh brandy).

"A lot of it was touch and go in those kitchens," Seale says. "Just imagine putting a cake in a pot with a bigger pot around it with coals in it and knowing when to take it out. Of course, there were no thermometers; the old cooks had to know that. They had to have an eye for that."

Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, remembered Hercules as "highly accomplished and proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States." Seale called him "the commander of the kitchen. He did everything, all the souffles, almond pudding, trifles, fricassee chicken, kidney, etc."

Hercules had eight assistants — stewards, butlers, undercooks, waiters. He cooked in a huge fireplace — hearth cooking. The fireplace was full of a series of iron pots, hooks and cranes to lift and move the kettles. The job was long and hard, especially in the hot summer. The cooks and kitchen crew had to build the fire, burn it down, gauge the temperature by hand and gather fuel to keep the long-burning fires fed.

Hercules is described as being immaculate and impeccable. Harris, the historian, says he was noted for being a "dandy." He walked through the streets of Philadelphia in a velvet waistcoat and a gold-handled cane. He probably got the money to buy his clothes by selling leftovers and kitchen waste, a privilege sometimes given those in special positions.

Hercules was well known around town and people would follow him as he walked through the market.

"Philadelphia had one of the largest open-air markets in the world," says William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author. "The boats came in from Cuba three days a week, so there were bananas and pineapples, and if you had the money, you could get practically anything you wanted. George Washington loved an apple that came in the fall; it's known as Washington's favorite. Big yellow apple, it's now unfortunately extinct. He would send his people out in the market and buy every apple out there. And the other Philadelphians in their diaries and letters grumbled about this president who's hoarding these wonderful dessert apples."

When Washington was getting ready to leave Philadelphia to return to Mt. Vernon, Hercules escaped. Washington sent out search parties and offered rewards. Hercules was never found.

Harris says, "A French visitor to Mt. Vernon asked one of Hercules' daughters how she felt about her father running away. She replied, 'I miss my father, but I know that he is free and so I am happy for him.'"

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