Whitney Chen’s column, “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” will return next Friday. But she still has a great 40%-off deal she’d like to tell you about below. – Ed.
Editor's Note: The story below refers to Samuel Fraunces, famed tavern owner and Hercules's culinary mentor, as a fellow person of color. His race, though, is not entirely known and is a subject of academic and historic debate.
With all due respect to James Beard and Julia Child, America’s first celebrity chef actually predated them by nearly 200 years. Hercules was lauded by the glitterati that ate at his table as an “artiste;” he was notorious in the kitchen for demanding perfection and equally notorious outside of it for his love of lavish clothing, theater and the other entertainments of high society. He knew the President well. He was, in fact, George Washington’s chef, a master of both high French culinary art and simple frontier cooking—and he was a slave.
Born sometime in the mid 1700s, Hercules’s origins otherwise remain unclear. He may have been purchased either as a child by Washington or inherited by Martha Washington from the estate of her previous husband. Other accounts have him as a possible ferryman, owned by a landowner who lost him when he a forfeited on a loan from our first President.
However murky his early years, his success and esteem as a chef is clear. Hercules first worked at Mt. Vernon, receiving his training from other slave cooks and then from New York city tavern owner Samuel Fraunces, a free man of color who aided Washington’s espionage activities during the revolution. In 1790, the Washingtons moved him to the President’s House in Philadelphia. A year later, when the hired white chef John Vicar was dismissed, they had so much confidence in Hercules’s ability to cook for the statesmen who were forging our newly minted nation they decided they didn’t need anyone else.
Behind the scenes, Hercules was the Gordon Ramsay of his day, presiding over a bustling kitchen that included other slaves, paid white servants, and possibly white indentured servants. He was everywhere at once, demanding perfection and becoming enraged with staff that did
not do their utmost to follow suit. He easily performed the laborious task turning out dish after dish in an eighteenth century kitchen for the men engaged in the arduous business of building a free republic—even as he himself remained enslaved.
Years later, Washington’s step grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote about his memories of Hercules:
“Under his iron discipline woe to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or desserts, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver…there was no arrest of punishment for judgment and execution went hand in hand…”
Washington was not a gourmand. Perhaps because of his famously uncomfortable false teeth, he ate moderately, but in any case his tastes ran more towards the simple than the elaborate and courtly—one of his favorites of Hercules’s dishes were hoecakes, cornmeal pancakes with honey, food not unlike that which his slaves themselves might eat. But he understood the inestimable value of a superior cook: Then, as now, many a political negotiation and delicate turns of diplomacy were hashed out over the dinner table. The importance of a well-made roast or delicate oyster stew could not be underestimated.
For his skill, Hercules received gifts of liquor, theater tickets and the privilege of selling kitchen slops—used tea leaves, animal hides, scraps for animal feed or compost—to the tune of $200 a year. At the time, the average American’s salary was $100. He used his money to outfit himself in a top hat, velvet breeches, and a pocket watch. The Washingtons lived a lavish life and moved in high society and Hercules was surely well aware of the most rarified people—and given his status, he likely felt justified in emulating them. When he was done cooking for the evening, he left the President’s House to enjoy the entertainments of Philadelphia—through the front door. And he stepped into night as a recognized fixture of the scene.
At the time, Philadelphia was the most fashionable city in the new republic. But, for Hercules, Philadelphia surely held a different kind of temptation: freedom. He kept at least occasional company with a cadre of free black and enslaved cooks who eventually gained their freedom, among them not only Fraunces but Thomas Jefferson’s James Hemings. And simply walking out in Philadelphia would have been enough to stoke the desire for true freedom—the city had a robust community of free people of color among whom Hercules would have mixed at the city market and on his evening jaunts. Freedom was in the air; Pennsylvania was the first state to adopt a formal stance on abolition, which included the proviso that any slave of adult age living in the commonwealth for any time above six months would be granted freedom.
The Washingtons knew this, of course, and to prevent the loss of their servants, they traveled with their slaves—including Hercules—outside of the state to “reset” their six months tenure.
But Hercules ended up staying in Pennsylvania over the six month limit at least once. He made no move to leave, but the Washingtons remained fearful that he might. One night in late 1796, Hercules’ son Richmond was found stealing money from the saddlebag of a white servant, and the first couple assumed it was to fund an escape plan. Both Hercules and Richmond were sent back to Mt. Vernon in Virginia.
For Richmond, this meant back breaking work as a punishment, but for Hercules, who had no family to cook for, it simply meant doing whatever work needed to be done—gardening, painting, and the like. But it was hardly relaxing. To a man who saw himself as a culinary artist, even temporary banishment from his post must have been jarring. Even if cooking was not a passion, then his status as a chef surely at least provided the illusion of freedom when none truly existed. Having no kitchen to control, any sense of power the slave chef possessed was stripped away, and losing this may have brought the truth of his enslavement to cold light.
Hercules decided his own fate soon enough. On his master’s 65th birthday, February 22, 1797, Hercules escaped in the wee hours, leaving his son Richmond behind. Perhaps, given the boy’s “transgressions” it was too risky to bring him along. But the chef’s hunger for freedom was well understood not just by Richmond but even by Hercules’s youngest child, a girl just six years old at the time. Some months later, when asked by a visiting French diplomat about whether she was sorry her father was gone she replied that she was “very glad sir, for now he is free.”
The Washingtons made strenuous efforts to hunt him down, though they insisted that he should not be harmed. Washington placed ads in newspapers and pressed friends for help finding a cook who could truly replace Hercules. He never finished looking.
Learn more about the enslaved cooks at a new exhibit at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Hoecakes & Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington, open February 21, 2012 through August 13, 2012.
Whitney Chen says: Perfect for Presidents’ Day, Murray's American Collection is a killer package of cheese, charcuterie, and accompaniments that includes the silky double-cream Green Hill, like a souped-up Camembert. And it’s got one of my all-time favorite blues from Jasper Hill, where their heritage-breed cows get new pasture after every milking and jazz music in the barn. Not only is the whole-shebang 40% off (until 2pm on Saturday, February 18th), but shipping is only 5 cents, totaling just $72.62. Enter promo code presidents to get the discount when you're checking out.