The Forgotten History of Black Chefs
Therese Nelson, a dear friend and chef, and I are talking in her Harlem apartment. It’s crowded with cookbooks stacked to the ceiling. Therese is a passionate creative and learner, and we share a love of black culinary history. She runs a site and Facebook page that celebrate just that. For Therese, and many chefs of color, the classroom was not the place where they learned about themselves and the culinary past of the African American people.
“Culinary schools, just like regular school growing up, don’t really teach you your history. You never heard about James Hemings or Hercules or Malinda Russell or Abby Fisher or anybody like that in any of your classes. Or Africa, or that the Caribbean or Brazil have anything to do with Africa, let alone the United States. Here I am trying to be an authentic American chef, which necessitates exploring my African heritage, and we didn’t get that in culinary school, and a lot of students still don’t.”
James Hemings. Currently championed by our fellow friends chef Ashbell McElveen and culinary historian and sommelier Tonya Hopkins through the newly founded James Hemings Foundation, James Hemings is the household name that should have been that never was. “When I was growing up, I remember all these books talking about what Jefferson did for the American table, and he did make contributions, but he outsourced a lot of his learning to the people who worked on his plantations as his cooks. James Hemings, Edith Fossett, Fanny Hern; they have French training, but then there are these African and Native American ingredients and flavors, and all of it — England, West Africa, and indigenous food — is getting mixed up in their hands. And the thing is, it’s not just them. It’s generations of black cooks like Solomon Northup’s wife — she’s illiterate but she’s conversant in haute cuisine. A lot of fine restaurants have a pedigree of having black chefs, cooks, whatever you want to call them, powering their kitchens. Delmonico’s, Gage and Tollner, North and South, we were there,” says Tonya.
Indeed we were. James Hemings (1765–1801) was a “bright mulatto” from Albemarle County, Virginia, who died at his own hand in Baltimore at the age of thirty-six. He is the brother of Sally Hemings, who will go down in history as the mother of Jefferson’s African American children. From the same region that would later produce the indomitable Edna Lewis, the author of the Taste of Country Cooking, known as “the South’s Julia Child,” James Hemings saw the birth of the United States and was, without much exaggeration, its most accomplished and educated chef. Accompanying his slaveholder to Paris when he is nineteen, James is officially free the minute he hits French soil during Jefferson’s ambassadorship. However, his whole world is atop the mountain known as Monticello, including his mother and siblings. The mountain was a complicated place. His late young mistress was his half sister, Martha; long before Paris, blood and culture lines had already been crossed.
James, “at great cost” to Jefferson, is tutored in French and goes to work in some of the best kitchens Paris and Versailles have to offer. He suffers through being yelled at in a language he gradually gains fluency in and acquires skills that are being snuffed out as America is handed the complete reins of racial chattel slavery — he is multilingual, he is traveled, he can read, and he can write. Jefferson gives him a salary and extra money. He looks every bit the part of a talented chef. He is a cook worthy not only of a plantation kitchen, but of French royalty itself. Many of the foods that Jefferson is credited with introducing to the American diet are in fact learned and translated under James’s hand. They worked in concert with each other to develop the kitchen that Jefferson wanted, the reward upon training his brother Peter being James’s emancipation. On February 5, 1796, a black man received his freedom and became an American professional chef.
“James’s story and Edna Lewis’s story and everybody in between 1776 and 1976 — these early black cookbook authors and famous chefs and enslaved chefs and free men and women of color who owned taverns and catered in Philadelphia and Washington those are our ancestors,” Therese says. “We need to know where we come from.” Therese’s own roots are in Newark, New Jersey. She is the second generation born up North to a family with roots in Latta, South Carolina. “We went down for reunions every summer. My grandmother talked about not being able to go to school until the tobacco harvest was over, but I never really heard them talk much about segregation, and just about nothing from slavery time. Put all of that together from not learning my history at school, and only knowing a little bit from home, and I felt fraudulent because I didn’t know my roots, I didn’t know where to start.” She looks at me intently. “We need a blueprint as individuals and as a people. We live in a puzzle where the pieces don’t even fit together. We need a path so we can put it all together again.”
My Southern credentials once came from rattling off “home places” in my presentations as if I had been to all of them, seen the counties and creeks and courthouses. Some I had, some I had not. Phenix City and Seale, Alabama; Prospect, Virginia; Lancaster, South Carolina; Halifax County, North Carolina; Athens, Georgia; Tennessee; Mississippi; New Orleans . . . the list kept getting longer and longer as I added up all the spots and stops that led to me — crumbling kitchens, rotting auction blocks, graveyards iced in asphalt. With each deterioration, I was becoming someone fading from who I was and where I came from, just in time for the rest of the world to catch amnesia with me. I began to have the urge to see the places, imagine the ancestors whose lives I could barely know otherwise, and taste the food.
My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient, so wherever I find it, I hoard it. I tell stories about people using food, I swap memories with people and create out of that conversation mnemonic feasts with this fallible, subjective mental evidence. Sometimes they are people long gone, whose immortality is expressed in the pulp of trees also long gone and in our electronic ether. Other times they are people who converse with me as I cook as the enslaved once cooked, testifying to people and places that only come alive again when they are remembered. In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that — resurrection.
Before I officially began the journey to dig deeper into my food and family roots and routes, I was racking up an internal encyclopedia about other people and how food affected their lives as proxy for the stories in my own bloodline and body. This made for really uncomfortable armor. It never really fit me right. These were other people’s tales and paths — not my own. I began to wonder if I ever really would be able to locate myself in the human experience. What good is it to learn the flow of human history and to speak of the dead if their stories don’t speak to you? What of food history and facts and figures and flashpoints? What good is your own position as a culinary historian if you can’t find yourself in the narrative of your food’s story, if you don’t know who you are?
From the book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty. Copyright © 2017 by Michael W. Twitty. Published by arrangement with Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
As posted on Eater