64. Emeline Jones. Today, George Crum is usually given credit for inventing potato chips. He probably didn’t, but it’s good to remember him for other reasons. But a hundred years ago, another prominent chef, Emeline Jones (c.1832-1912) was credited with their invention. She probably didn’t invent them either, but hers is also a story worth remembering.
In a 1912 obituary that appeared in the New York Age and other African American newspapers, Jones was described as “the originator of the Saratoga chips, which became a staple article of food at the various business resorts.”
Indeed, Jones had been there. She spent at least one season as a chef at Moon’s Lake House, on Saratoga Lake, the place where the so-called Saratoga chips were born, c.1850. She had been hired by Hiram Thomas, whom we will discuss in the next part of this little series. So it seems likely that Jones did actually cook the chips, which were served at the restaurant. However, as we saw in our feature on George Crum, the chips were around by 1849, and at that time, Jones was living in Baltimore.
But that’s where the real story gets more interesting.
Jones was born enslaved, either in Maryland or Virginia, but appears to have been freed before the general emancipation. In the 1860 Census for Baltimore, an Emeline Johns appears as a free mulatto. We’re assuming that’s our Emeline Jones. She worked in Baltimore and Washington, then made her way north to the New York area, including a stint in Long Branch, New Jersey.
By the 1880s, she had settled in Manhattan, where she built up a formidable catering business. Her obituary lists a number of prominent New York chefs who had trained under her. It is said that Presidents Arthur and Cleveland, both of New York, were so fond of her cooking that both had offered her a big salary to come to Washington and be the White House chef, but she turned down their offers.
Jones was famous for her terrapin stews. In the days before emancipation, turtles were so abundant all along the Atlantic coast that they were considered a food for the enslaved. Terrapins favor the brackish water of coastal marshes, so they were easier to capture than sea turtles, and thus became a valuable protein source for the enslaved in coastal areas.
So how did a dish associated with the enslaved become the food of the rich and famous? In the first place, terrapins (as well as snappers and other turtles) were over-harvested, and went from being abundant to scarce. Among the various turtles, terrapins were the most highly-prized. The great French chef, Escoffier, declared the terrapin to be the king of the turtles.
Escoffier, checking out something. Let’s pretend it’s terrapin.
By the 1890s, the scarcity of these terrapins pushed the price of a bowl of terrapin soup to the equivalent of $135 in current dollars.
In the second place, preparing a terrapin was both difficult and time-consuming. The turtles had to be kept alive until the moment of preparation. Thus, the cook’s first job was to kill the turtles. Terrapins are comparatively small: the females are heavier, usually weighing a pound or so; the males, about two-thirds of that, so for any sort of feast, several would need to be prepared. Some cooks would throw the live turtles into boiling water first, and then proceed to butcher them, starting with the head. Others would behead and bleed them out first, then boil them before butchering. The butchering itself was demanding. Guts such the gall bladder had to be identified and removed carefully, without puncturing it.
As a result, preparing terrapin dishes was left to the professionals, which meant that only the rich could afford to eat them. And that was where Emeline Jones made her mark in the world of New York City haute cuisine.
A 1904 banquet at the Hotel Astor, featuring terrapin and canvasback duck, another expensive delicacy.
Here’s the moral of the story. There’s a curious passage in Emeline Jones’ 1912 obituary, reflecting on her prime years in New York City in the 1880s:
“Mrs. Jones’ assistants were kept busy filling orders. Colored cooks and caterers did most of the work in those times…. There was a tradition at that time before the advent of French and Italian cooks that colored cooks were the best.”
Today, many seem to think that African American chefs have to stick to the skilled preparation of traditional southern/soul dishes, or perhaps Caribbean or African dishes. In 2016, out of some 340 people named for James Beard awards, only two or perhaps three appeared to be African American. Young chefs find it difficult to break in to the broader world of cuisines.
One of those 2016 nominees, Eduardo Jones, talked about his experience “On Being Black in the Kitchen.” Others have sensed various degrees of racism in hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. Nicole Taylor identifies institutional racism as a factor. As African Americans in other lines of business have found too often, black chefs don’t have the same access to capital as their white counterparts when it comes to opening their own restaurants.
But the stories of chefs like Emeline Jones and George Crum, catering to the most sophisticated palates in New York City, remind us that skilled chefs can cook whatever they feel like cooking, whether a chef’s ancestry can be traced back to Africa, Mexico, France, Italy, or anywhere else. No chef should be stereotyped or limited by their ethnic heritage.
Even if they never invent the next potato chip.