Among his many claims to distinction, Thomas Jefferson can be regarded as America’s first connoisseur. The term and the concept emerged among the philosophes of eighteenth-century Paris, where Jefferson lived between 1784 and 1789. As minister to France he gorged on French culture. In five years, he bought more than sixty oil paintings, and many more objets d’art. He attended countless operas, plays, recitals, and masquerade balls. He researched the latest discoveries in botany, zoology and horticulture, and read inveterately—poetry, history, philosophy. In every inch of Paris he found something to stir his senses and cultivate his expertise. “Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music,” he wrote a friend back in America, “I should want words.”
Ultimately, he poured all these influences into Monticello, the plantation he inherited from his father, which Jefferson redesigned into a palace of his own refined tastes. More than in its domed ceilings, its gardens, or its galleries, it was in Monticello’s dining room that Jefferson the connoisseur reigned. Here, he shared with his guests recipes, produce, and ideas that continue to have a sizable effect on how and what Americans eat.
In keeping with his republican ideals, Jefferson eschewed lavish banquets in favor of small, informal dinners where conversation flowed as freely as the Château Haut-Brion. According to his own account, the famous dinner table bargain of June 1790 was just such an event. Preparing the menu for the “room where it happened” that night was James Hemings, arguably the most accomplished chef in the United States. He was Jefferson’s trusted protégé, his brother-in-law—and his slave.
For nine years in Paris, New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, it was Hemings who produced the sophisticated haute cuisine dishes with a demotic, Southern twist that we now think of as emblematically Jeffersonian: capon stuffed with Virginia ham; indulgent vanilla ice cream encased in delicate choux pastry; beef stew served in a French bouillon. And it was he who taught his fellow slaves at Monticello everything he knew about food, transmitting his influence down the generations, onto the tables of Virginia’s social elite.
Hemings’s talents had been nurtured by Jefferson, who took him to France and gave him a first-rate culinary education from some of Europe’s most illustrious chefs. Yet, every moment he spent in Jefferson’s kitchens, he did so in servitude. His biography appears to us only in snatched glimpses. We know little about his private life and his interior existence, beyond what he expressed through cooking. But his story exemplifies the strange paradoxes that have come to define the public reputation of Thomas Jefferson, a man who, in turn, exemplifies the strange paradoxes of his age.
James Hemings became the property of Thomas Jefferson when he was nine years old. His mother was Elizabeth Hemings, an enslaved woman who had six children by Captain John Wayles, her master and James’s father. With his three wives, Wayles had a further eleven children, one of whom, Martha, married Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day in 1772. When Captain Wayles died the following year, the Jeffersons inherited Elizabeth Hemings and her children, including James and his little sister Sarah, known as Sally. They arrived at Monticello in January 1774, a few weeks after the Boston Tea Party, and a few months before Jefferson established himself as an important voice against the tyranny of British rule.
Martha Jefferson almost certainly knew that six of the young slaves she had inherited were her half siblings; her husband surely knew, too. It may have been a truth obvious to everyone but never commented upon, the kind of gymnastic feat of self-delusion that was common on many plantations of the era.
Throughout their lives at Monticello, the Hemingses repeatedly received preferential treatment, were selected for high-status jobs, and given special responsibilities. As the years passed, James appears to have stood out to his master as a young man of particular intelligence and strong character. When Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia in 1779, he gave the fourteen-year-old Hemings the job of messenger and coach driver. Two years later, it was Hemings and his brother Robert who were tasked with guiding Martha Jefferson and her children to safety during Benedict Arnold’s raid on Virginia. The following year, 1782, Martha died, leaving Jefferson deeply grief-stricken. When, at the end of the Revolutionary War, the opportunity came to move to France, Jefferson was happy to accept. Although Robert was head cook at Monticello, it was James, now nineteen, whom Jefferson selected to accompany him across the ocean and learn “the art of cookery,” to quote Jefferson, as no American before him had.
The Paris that Hemings and Jefferson discovered was widely regarded as the apotheosis of European civilization. For much of the preceding century French had been Europe’s lingua franca, and French dress, dance, and manners had dominated high society across the continent. French cuisine was similarly envied and copied, although many notable Parisians wondered whether the cult of food had gone too far. Rousseau once averred that “the French are the only nation who know not how to eat, since they must use such a vast deal of art, to render their victuals agreeable to the palate.” His contemporary Voltaire likewise complained about being served complex dishes such as “sweetbreads swimming in a spicy sauce”—though one wonders how much of that was due to the havoc played on his stomach by the forty cups of coffee he drank each day.
Jefferson was well aware of the intellectual dimensions of cooking and eating, and developed a philosophy of dining around it, one that combined old-world culinary technique with an American disregard for etiquette and hierarchy. How much Hemings knew about, or cared about, such ideas is unknown. In the historical record he comes alive only fitfully, and almost always refracted throughout the prism of his master. What is obvious, however, is that he had talent and an innate understanding of food that flourished under expert instruction.
For the first tranche of his apprenticeship, Hemings learned in the kitchen of a successful chef named Combeaux. After that, he was placed in the tutelage of a pâtissier, before receiving the most impressive portion of his education at the Château de Chantilly under the direction of the chef to Louis Joseph de Bourbon, the Prince of Condé. Chantilly was a thunderous statement of ancien régime magnificence, vast formal gardens outside a grand château that contained interiors of towering ceilings, marble, crystal, and gold. Here, the preparation and service of food was a remarkably serious business. At a banquet in 1671, so claimed the socialite and writer Madame de Sévigné, Chantilly’s maître d’hôtel, François Vatel, became so distressed by the late delivery of fish that he stabbed himself to death in shame and despair.
Hemings’s training was a palpable success. By 1788, aged twenty-one, he was running the kitchen at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson’s official residence on the Champs-Élysées. Hemings incorporated indigenous American ingredients that Jefferson had started to grow in his garden into the recipes and techniques he’d spent two years perfecting. It was all part of Jefferson’s diplomatic mission; the Hôtel de Langeac became a beacon of the young republic’s burgeoning identity, and its commitment to egalitarianism. The screaming irony, of course, was that these platefuls of democratic idealism were being cooked by a man who was considered a slave.
Jefferson, the self-described “savage of the mountains” dove deep into French food culture. In trips to Burgundy and Bordeaux, he toured vineyards in a typically Jeffersonian manner. Not content with sampling the wine, he also made close study of the science involved, the nature of the terroir that produced the grapes of each region, and the processes of harvesting, crushing, fermenting, and aging. He came to see this education in viticulture as part of a project of cultural decolonization. Before the Revolution, he said, American taste in wine had been “artificially created by our long restraint under the English government to the strong wines of Portugal and Spain.” In this new age of liberty, he wanted American palates to stray beyond the muscular port, sherry, and Madeira that the English downed by the barrel. One day, he hoped, America would be self-sufficient in wine as in all things, producing exquisite vintages that expressed the uniqueness of the American experiment.
If living in Paris broadened the horizons of the worldly Thomas Jefferson, Hemings must have felt as though he had slipped into a parallel universe. A world away from the slave society of Virginia, he was allowed to travel around the city on his own and construct a private life that didn’t necessarily run along the rigid racial lines of home. Jefferson paid him a wage, a good deal of which he spent on improving his French. The effect this had on how a young man, born into slavery, thought of himself, must have been seismic. In Virginia, members of his family became equally skilled; his younger brother John, for example, was an excellent carpenter. But his apprenticeship in French cuisine at the apex of Parisian society had made James Hemings not a cook but a chef, more virtuoso artist than master craftsman. As Louis-Sébastien Mercier, the great chronicler of late-eighteenth-century Paris observed in 1788, “it is almost to the point today where chefs will assume the title of culinary artist … they are pampered, they are humored, they are appeased when they are angry, and all the other servants of the household are generally sacrificed to them.”
Except, of course, Hemings could never be fully pampered, humored, or appeased. Despite the opportunities and freedoms that Jefferson gave him, he remained a slave. Technically, manumission—release from slavery—was within his reach every day of his five years in Paris, even though racism was rife in France. In the 1770s and 1780s, a raft of laws had been introduced that required black people to carry identification papers, banned them from using the titles Sieur or Dame, and prohibited interracial marriage. The Police des Noirs of 1777 went as far as requiring detainment and deportation of all people of color who entered France from abroad, or who were living in the country illegally. But, such was the spirit of the times, few of these laws were ever enforced, especially not in Paris, where the notion was vigorously upheld in the courts that slavery was inimical to France and Frenchness. At some point during his time in the city, Hemings was sure to have learned that he could have easily secured his freedom in the Parisian courts, as many enslaved people from the French colonies had done. Quite why he chose not to, we can’t know. Most likely it was the pull of family; to pursue an emancipated life, he would have to remain thousands of miles from enslaved relatives he would never see again. By 1787, there was also an extra complication to consider: his fourteen-year-old sister, Sally, who accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Polly when she moved to Paris at her father’s instruction. It is now widely accepted that Jefferson began a sexual relationship with Sally—his late wife’s little sister—toward the end of their stay in France, resulting in the first of six children.
The account left by Sally’s son Madison suggests that she was pregnant when she, her brother, and the Jeffersons left France in late 1789, the country in the throes of revolution. Jefferson had been a role model to many of the revolutionaries, and heavily influenced Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document that inspired slave uprisings in the French colonies. James Hemings would never see Paris again, though the city must have stayed with him for the rest of his days.
When Jefferson relocated to Philadelphia in 1791, to serve as Secretary of State, Hemings went with him. He served as chef and valet, and also oversaw the mammoth task of unpacking the twenty-seven wagonloads of items that Jefferson had accrued overseas. In Philadelphia, Jefferson and Hemings each had ways of keeping the memory of Paris alive. Jefferson had his furniture, paintings, and books. Hemings had the familiar illusion of independence; the wage that Jefferson continued to pay him, and the relative freedom he could enjoy in the City of Brotherly Love. Both men, of course, also had Hemings’s cooking.
In December 1793, Jefferson moved back to Virginia, where he began the work of shaping Monticello into the place it is now, an American expression of the Enlightenment—a museum, in fact, to Jefferson’s idea of himself. The renovations included an overhaul of James Hemings’s kitchen. A new stew stove was installed to complement the top-of-the-range, heat-sensitive copper utensils that Hemings had purchased in Paris. A list of these utensils is the only surviving example of Hemings’s handwriting. It’s a surprisingly eloquent document, showing its author to be as much of a connoisseur as the legendary man for whom he cooked. Jefferson’s sphere of expertise wasn’t the kitchen—that was Hemings’s space—but the dining table, which at Monticello and, in time, the White House became a site of pleasure and education. Guests were inducted into the uncharted territory of fine wine; some even had their first taste of ice cream or macaroni and cheese, a dish unknown to Americans before Jefferson’s return and which one confused diner described as “a rich crust filled with trillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be … tasted very strong and not agreeable.”
These innovations are routinely described as Jefferson’s, yet there’s no evidence that the man ever brewed a pot of tea, much less mixed a vinaigrette, whipped peaks of a meringue, trussed a chicken, or any of the other things that Hemings perfected at the Hôtel de Langeac. Only two recipes are attributed directly to Hemings, one for chocolate cream, the other for snow eggs. Several others, in Jefferson’s hand, have survived—but it seems highly likely that Hemings was involved in these, too.
As much as it may have pleased Jefferson, rural Virginia was no place for Hemings, a young man who just a few years earlier had got a tantalizing taste of freedom in the cultural capital of the world. When he asked for his manumission, Jefferson acceded, but only on the condition that he stay at Monticello for as long as it took to train his brother Peter to be the new chef. Within two years Peter could cook in the style that Jefferson valued, one which seemed so fitting to the project of Monticello—“half-French, half-Virginian,” as one of Jefferson’s guests put it. In 1796, Hemings was handed $30 and his liberty. At the age of thirty-one, he was free for the first time.
The details of what Hemings did after leaving Monticello are very sketchy. He sought work in Philadelphia and may have traveled back to Europe for a time. But prospects for a black man, even one of such accomplishment, were dreadfully limited. He drank and drifted. His last known job was at a tavern in Baltimore, where his skills were surely not being put to full use.
When Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800, he wanted Hemings to run the White House kitchen. He reached out via a mutual acquaintance in a manner that suggested he assumed his former slave would come running straight away. Through a third party, Hemings told Jefferson that he wouldn’t consider the offer unless Jefferson contacted him directly and made a formal offer. As the historian Annette Gordon-Reed outlines “Hemings had been trained in Paris … He was special … Now that he was legally free, he would have from Jefferson the dignity he deserved.” In the knotted dynamics of this strangest of relationships, Jefferson’s own pride prevented him from making a direct request, and Hemings was overlooked for the post. Not long after, Jefferson received the news that Hemings had taken his own life, aged thirty-six.
Unable to hire Hemings, Jefferson went for the next best thing, a French chef named Honoré Julien. The kitchen staff was supplemented with two young slaves from Monticello, Edith and Frances, the first of many black female chefs at the White House, the best-known being Zephyr Wright who cooked for LBJ in the sixties. Edith became a fantastic chef. Through her, Virginian flavors—sweet potato, black-eyed peas, okra—kept their presence at Jefferson’s table. But, like Hemings before her, Edith’s brilliance was tethered to her legal status. When Jefferson’s presidency ended, she ran the Monticello kitchen until his death in 1826, and eventually gained her freedom in 1837, at which point she relocated to the free state of Ohio with her husband, Joseph Fossett, nephew of James Hemings. When their first son was born, they named him James, too, likely in honor of the boy’s uncle, a man who ghosts through the archives of the written word, but whose legacy is alive in kitchens across America.
Read earlier installments of “Off Menu.”
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. He is currently working on a book about Alfred Hitchcock. His former column for The Paris Review Daily was “The Lives of Others.”