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Black History Month: Chef James Hemings

Monticello's West Front. Photo by Jack Looney, courtesy Monticello.org

Did you know chestnuts have helped end famous quarrels between those such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, thanks to chefs such as James Hemings (1765-1801)? Per our long-time friend Dr. Sandra L. Anagnostakis, the appeal of chestnut, both for timber and nut production, has prompted importation and experimentation in the United States for many years. In 1773, Thomas Jefferson grafted European chestnut cuttings (Castanea sativa) onto American chestnuts (C. dentata) at his home, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the 18th century, Hemings was one of America’s most accomplished chefs. He was also enslaved under Jefferson. Jefferson took Hemings with him to France and he trained in the “art of cookery” while Jefferson was working there on behalf of the United States. At 19 years old, Hemings was the first ever French-trained American chef. He then returned with the soon-to-be president and introduced dishes such as: crème brulée, meringues, ice cream, french fries, and one of the most popular American dishes of all – macaroni and cheese. Hemings negotiated a contract with Jefferson by which he gained his freedom, and ran a cooking school at Monticello’s historic kitchen you can still visit today.

Historians believe Chef James Hemings was in the kitchen June 20, 1790 when Jefferson and longtime enemy Alexander Hamilton settled on how to pay for the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and decided to site the nation’s capital permanently along the Potomac in what would become the District of Columbia. On the menu that reconciled these two bitter enemies? A mouth-watering feast made in Chef Hemings’ signature half-Virginian-half-French style: capon stuffed with Virginia ham, chestnut puree, artichoke bottoms and truffles, served with a Calvados sauce, and beef à la mode made with French-style beef bouillon instead of gravy.

Micheal Twitty, author of the book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South, said “James Hemings should be a national name. Because he was the best. He wasn’t just a black chef. He wasn’t just a slave chef. He was the best chef.” He left a legacy in culinary history.

Also worthy of noting, Chef Ashbell McElveen founded The James Hemings Foundation, which is dedicated to remembering, preserving, and upholding African American contributions to American food and drink.

On the Horizon
Tom Saielli, TACF’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Coordinator is in conversation with Monticello staff about planting improved American chestnut experimental groves there. “I’m a big advocate of using American chestnut in ecological restoration projects in the future,” said Keith Nevison, Manager of Farm and Nursery Operations at Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in a recent email exchange.