Digging up memories of James Hemings, the French-trained chef who died in Baltimore – Baltimore Sun

We know little about James Hemings, the French-trained chef who died in Baltimore in 1801. We do know that, like his more famous sister, Sally, spent most of her life in slavery to Thomas Jefferson. We know he was working in a downtown restaurant the last year of his life.

And we know that just before he died, he turned down a job at the White House.

Historians find few mentions of Hemings in the extensive personal archives of the third American president.

The chef is “a really fascinating figure,” said Lauren F. Klein, an associate professor at Emory University. “These glimpses into his life make what we don’t know about him all the more compelling.”

Born into slavery, Hemings and his family held higher positions than other enslaved workers at Monticello. He was also Jefferson’s brother-in-law, having the same father as Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Many slavers raped women they considered their property, a pattern that Jefferson would also follow.

In 1784 Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France. Under the impetus of the future president, he studied “the art of cooking” for three years with the best chefs in the house of haute cuisine.

The experience of living in France must have been eye-opening for Hemings, Klein said. Slavery had been abolished in France earlier; Hemings received a salary, the money he spent on French lessons.

Returning to the United States at the start of the French Revolution, Hemings introduced the cooks of Monticello and beyond to what he had learned in France. Klein said he was almost certainly the unrecognized figure behind the meal served at the 1790 Dinner Table Bargain, an event made famous by the musical “Hamilton.”

A 1793 document shows that Jefferson promised Hemings his freedom on the condition that he train his replacement in the kitchen. “Hemings basically has to trade his culinary knowledge for his human freedom,” Klein said.

Hemings became free in 1796, according to a deed of freedom signed by Jefferson. Before leaving Monticello, he compiled a careful inventory of kitchen utensils in the plantation kitchen, including copper cooking tools from France.

Hemings’ influence was felt for generations after he left Monticello, Klein said, pointing out that his recipe for a dessert called “snow eggs,” or Snow Eggs in French, is found in Jefferson’s granddaughter’s family cookbook. The recipe is signed “James, cook at Monticello”.

Klein called it “proof that his legacy was important in this family. [Jefferson’s] grandchildren were still talking about his food.

In a 1797 letter, Jefferson wrote that he had seen James in Philadelphia: “He tells me that his next trip will be to Spain. I fear his travels will end in the moon.

It’s unclear why Hemings chose Baltimore or exactly when he moved here. But the city and surrounding state was home to one of the largest free black populations in the United States. Additionally, the town was relatively close to Monticello, where much of Hemings’ family remained and where he returned to work on occasion as a paid servant.

In 1801, Jefferson wanted to hire Hemings again, this time to work at the White House. For a foodie president who viewed the kitchen as a key tool of diplomacy, the role of White House chef would have been a particularly crucial position.

Jefferson wrote to William Evans, an innkeeper from Baltimore. Evans, who owned the city’s Indian Queen Hotel at Hanover and Baltimore streets, “knew everyone,” Klein said. His hostel was near another hotel, the Columbian, where Hemings was working at the time.

Hemings responded through Evans that he couldn’t walk away from his current job in Baltimore. Evans added that he approached Hemings a second time. This time, wrote Evans, “the answer he sent back to me was that he would not go so far as to [sic] you should write to himself.

“There are a few different interpretations” to that response, Klein said. One, she said, is a power play.

“As a free man… [Hemings] wanted respect for direct communication from the president-elect,” she said. “He knew exactly what he deserved. Now that he was no longer dependent on Jefferson, he wasn’t afraid to demand it.”

Jefferson did not bother to write Hemings directly, a fact that Klein says reflects his own blind spots on slavery. He can’t understand that, for James, “closeness to the president didn’t matter if he was free,” she said.

Later that year, Jefferson wrote to Evans again. He had heard a terrible rumor—according to Klein, probably through enslaved plantation personnel—that Hemings was dead. Was it true?

Evans replied that it was. Hemings died by suicide and was said to be drinking heavily at the time of his death.

Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law “the tragic end of James Hemings”. Hemings was only 36 years old.

In his Station North studio, Baltimore artist SHAN Wallace imagines different endings for James Hemings.

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In a series of collages made for the Baltimore Museum of Art, Wallace depicts the chef in modern attire, sipping a soda in a restaurant he runs while two women chat nearby. Around his neck is a gold chain, the reward for a lifetime of hard work.

In another work, Wallace imagines Hemings to be an invisible cook inside a church, preparing a meal.

“I don’t want his life to end in Baltimore,” Wallace said.

On the show, she said, “he has a lot more agency and community among Baltimore people.”

Wallace isn’t the only artist to have drawn inspiration from Hemings’ life. In New York, a new installation at the Museum of Food and Drink pays homage to the culinary contributions of African Americans, including Hemings, who, according to his website, “introduced the United States to copper cookware, the stove stew and dishes such as European macaroni and cheese and fries.

Jessica B. Harris wrote about Hemings in her book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” recently adapted into a Netflix series.

Decades later, after the Civil War ended, another member of the Hemings family would move to Baltimore. His name was Fountain Hughes. According to an obituary in The Afro, Hughes, died in Baltimore in 1957 at the remarkable age of 109.