In Remembering the 'First Foodie,' Remember Who Really Cooked His Food

Thomas Jefferson was noted as a connoisseur of food and wine, but the slaves who cooked for him are all too often forgotten

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James Hemings and Edith Hern Fossett, who cooked for Jefferson at Monticello, should be recognized for their contributions to his gourmandise. 

On April 13, the 272nd anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth, I think it's pertinent to comment on Patrick Evans-Hylton's recent appreciation of our third president as "an adventurous eater and a connoisseur of good wines." The piece was quite enjoyable, save for one thing: it made no mention of the enslaved people who did the majority of cooking over the years at Monticello and at Jefferson's Paris residence, the Hôtel de Langeac: James Hemings and Edith Hern Fossett. As for Paris, where Jefferson as "foodie" really gets going, he brought Hemings (Jefferson's wife's enslaved half-brother) with him to France for the express purpose of having him trained as a French chef.

After his apprenticeships in some of the best kitchens in France, Hemings took over as chef de cuisine. We have, in his own hand, Hemings' list of the French cookware that Jefferson brought back from France. When he returned to America, Hemings was the chef in Jefferson's households in New York and Philadelphia. Hemings trained his brother Peter to be the chef at Monticello, a position he held until he became a tailor and the brewer at Monticello.

Jefferson freed James Hemings in the 1790s, and when he was elected president he asked Hemings to be the White House chef straight away. They had a tiff, and Hemings did not accept the job, which was eventually held by Honoré Julien, who had been George Washington's chef. Jefferson brought Fossett to the president's house to train under Julien. She returned to Monticello to prepare food in "the half Virginian, half French" style that visitors to the mountain noted and complimented.

This piece should have mentioned the enslaved people who prepared Jefferson's food, particularly since it included Étienne Lemaire, the maître d’hôtel, who was also in charge of “making the dessert.” Lemaire spent far less time preparing Jefferson's food than either James Hemings or Edith Fossett. They are a part of the historical record, and they should never be left out when writing about Jefferson and food.

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