Our First “French Chef”

9: Two hundred years before Julia Child, James Hemings (1765-1801) was America’s original “French Chef.”

He’s also a case study in just how messed up slavery was. Hemings was the son of John Wayles, who was also the father of Martha Jefferson, (i.e., Mrs. Thomas Jefferson), making him her half-brother. His mother, Betty Hemings, was half white, the daughter of a slave named Susannah and John Hemings, an English sea captain.

So James was three-fourths white. It didn’t matter. He was still born enslaved. When his father died in 1773, he, his mom, and his siblings (including Sally, with whom Jefferson later had a relationship) were inherited by Martha. When she died in 1782, Jefferson in turn inherited the family.

Sally Hemings was described by one contemporary as “mighty near white…very handsome, long straight hair down her back.” One of Jefferson’s grandsons said she was “light colored and decidedly good looking.” It seems fair to assume that brother James may have likewise appeared to be “mighty near white.”

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We don’t have portraits of James Hemings or his sister, Sally, but we do have a miniature of Sally’s daughter, Harriet Hemings, who “passed” as white.

In 1784, when Jefferson was appointed Minister to France, he took 19-year old James with him to Paris, for the “particular purpose” of learning French cooking, and apprenticed him to a leading caterer. By 1787, Hemings was ready to serve as the chef de cuisine at the Hôtel de Langeac, on the Champs-Elysées. It was Jefferson’s private residence (not a hotel), but also the place where he conducted a lot of business. The rent was 7,500 livres a year.

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In this c.1780 drawing, the Hôtel de Langeac is the smaller building on the left. It was demolished in 1842.

Hemings was paid $4 a month, which was half of what the previous cuisinière had been paid. He invested part of his salary in French lessons, and soon, he spoke French far better than his master. Jefferson was so confident in Hemings’ skill that he didn’t hesitate to invite Paris’ most fussy foodies for dinners.

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A kitchen inventory compiled by James Hemings, in his own handwriting

Slavery was illegal in France, and technically, James was a free man there. But instead of staying in France, it appears that he and Jefferson came to some agreement about his future, and in 1789 he returned with Jefferson to Monticello.

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Artist G. B. McIntosh imagines how Monticello’s kitchen might have looked in the early 19th century. Pictured on the left is enslaved Head Cook Edith Hern Fossett who managed the kitchen. In the middle kneading dough is Frances Gillette Hern (Edith’s sister-in-law). Seated is Betty Brown, and the young boy carrying muffins is Israel Gillette (Frances’ brother). Credits: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.; watercolor by G. B. McIntosh

In 1790, Jefferson took James along to Philadelphia and New York as his chef, household manager, butler, and travel companion. By then, Pennsylvania had abolished slavery, and after six months, James could have petitioned for emancipation. As we saw in an earlier post on Hercules, George Washington avoided the law by shuttling his slaves back and forth between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon. Jefferson took a different approach, and instead paid Hemings $8 a month, plus clothing and pocket money, giving him an income more than twice that of the average worker.

Meanwhile, Jefferson had Hemings prepare classic French dinners for folks like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Through Hemings, Jefferson also popularized one of his personal European favorites: macaroni & cheese.

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Jefferson’s drawing of a macaroni machine, along with directions for making pasta, c.1787.

It’s always seemed ironic that macaroni & cheese became part of the typical soul food menu, so it’s helpful, in a way, to know that James Hemings had a big role in popularizing it.

Having had tastes of freedom in Paris and Philadelphia, by 1793, Hemings was reluctant to go back home to a slave state, and asked Jefferson to free him.

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Aerial view of the Monticello estate

It would be an understatement to note that Jefferson’s attitudes on slavery were contradictory and complicated. We would like history to be different, but the bottom line is that Jefferson retained his own in-laws as his personal property. As a result, even though Hemings had experienced relative freedom, he could not entirely detach himself from his home and family, still in bondage at Monticello, including his mother, who outlived him. It’s a painful choice faced by many of the enslaved: Do I leave and live free, or do I remain a slave but keep my family?

The only slaves Jefferson ever freed were three of Betty’s children and six of her grandchildren. Jefferson agreed to emancipate James on condition that he would first train a replacement. So Hemings trained his brother Peter, and in 1796, Jefferson officially freed him. He then went back to Philadelphia, and later to Baltimore, working as a tavern chef.

When Jefferson became President in 1801, he contacted  about being his White House chef, but the two could not come to an agreement. Hemings spent the summer with Jefferson in Monticello, but returned to Baltimore in the fall. Under Virginia law, a freed slave was required to leave the state within a year. Hemings wasn’t supposed to be at Monticello at all. This legal hitch might also explain why Jefferson never freed Sally.

It was said that James was drinking heavily throughout this period, and after days of being “delirious,” he killed himself. It was a “tragical end,” as Jefferson wrote, for a bright and talented young man.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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