Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs Hercules, a slave of George Washington, and James Hemings, owned by Thomas Jefferson, began a long connection of presidents and their African-American cooks. And President Lyndon Johnson's black cook may have influenced his work on civil rights reform.
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Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs

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Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs

Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs

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Our series Hidden Kitchens today explores the lives of two men who fed the founding fathers. Both were slaves, the first of several African-American cooks to serve U.S. presidents.

The Kitchen Sisters, Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, visit the president's kitchen and some of the chefs who've cooked there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILLIAM SEALE (Author, "The President's House"): Well, now we're on tape. So can you describe your initial employment here the first day, or how you met LBJ?

Ms. ZEPHYR WRIGHT (President Johnson's Former Cook): The first night that I met President Johnson, he was late as usual. He was always late for meals. Now, there had been times that he'd get on the phone himself and call me and ask me how long would it take me to get something ready for the whole Cabinet. And sometimes he'd walk in with them, and you didn't even know he was coming. And I've seen times that I've fixed a meal in 10 minutes for 25 or 30 people.

Mr. SEALE: Is that right?

Ms. WRIGHT: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SEALE: You can't even consider the history of the White House without realizing that the common denominator of White House life is the dinner table. My name is William Seale. I've written several books on the history of the White House. George Washington took office; he wasn't a king. He was a combination of head of state and prime minister. It had never happened before. It was very delicate with him how to proceed from the diplomatic tradition. So food became very important. And he had a slave chef named Hercules.

Ms. SHARRON CONRAD (Historian of African-American Cuisine): It was Hercules who really began this long connection between presidents and African-American cooks.

My name is Sharron Conrad, historian in African-American cuisine.

Hercules traveled with Washington to Philadelphia. Philadelphia was the U.S. capital prior to Washington, D.C.

Mr. JOE RANDALL (Founder, African American Chefs Hall of Fame): As we know, George Washington had wooden teeth. Even with those hand-carved teeth, he enjoyed good cuisine. My name is Joe Randall. I founded the African-American Chefs Hall of Fame. Wherever George Washington was, at the capital or in his home, he wanted Hercules's cooking.

Mr. WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER (Food historian, author): Hercules was commander of the kitchen. He did everything, all the souffles. He had about eight assistants. He was very grand in Philadelphia, going down the street and people following him, watching him as he went to the market. Philadelphia was the largest open-air market in the world during its day and age. The boats came in from Cuba three days a week, so there were bananas and pineapples. And if you had the money, you could get practically anything you wanted.

I am William Woys Weaver, food historian and author.

Ms. JESSICA HARRIS (Historian): Hercules was noted for being a dandy. He walked through the streets of Philadelphia dressed impeccably in a velvet waistcoat with a gold-headed cane.

I'm Jessica Harris, historian of African-Americans and food.

There is even a portrait that is alleged to have been made of him. He is this large, cinnamon-colored man in immaculate chef's whites with a kerchief tied around his neck and a toque.

Mr. RANDALL: Martha Washington's great cake: take 40 eggs, divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to a froth. Four pounds of butter…

Ms. HARRIS: When Washington was getting ready to leave Philadelphia to return to Mount Vernon, Hercules goes missing. Hercules escapes. Washington searched for him assiduously, offered rewards, and he was never found.

A French visitor to Mount Vernon asked one of Hercules's daughters how she felt about her father running away. She replied, I miss my father, but I know that he is free, and so I am happy for him.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HARRIS: Many of us have heard of Sally Hemings and her alleged relationship with Jefferson, which is increasingly becoming not alleged but a matter of DNA fact. But most of us don't know about her brother. James Hemings was also a slave to Thomas Jefferson.

Ms. CONRAD: When he was appointed minister to France in 1784, Jefferson decided that he was going to take 19-year-old James Hemings with him to Paris to apprentice in the art of cookery.

Ms. HARRIS: He went from the hearth cooking that was the good, solid country cooking of Monticello to cooking on a potager, a stew-hole stove. He learned the art of saucing things.

Mr. RANDALL: James Hemings chocolate creams: Put on your milk, one quart to two squares of chocolate. Lay napkin in a bowl. Put three gizzards in the napkin and pass the cream through the…

Ms. HARRIS: It was a time of great upheaval in Paris. As the society was democratizing itself, so was the food. We see the development of restaurants -restaure, to restore. Food coming out of the chateau, coming out of the royal kitchens, becoming more democratic at the same time the royal family is falling. James Hemings was there to see and witness and these changes.

Ms. CONRAD: There was no slavery in Paris at that time. James could have taken advantage of that by claiming his freedom, but that did not happen.

Ms. HARRIS: Hemings returns to Monticello with Jefferson, and he petitions for his freedom. Jefferson insists that Hemings must wait long enough to train another.

Ms. CONRAD: After three years of teaching his brother, Peter Hemings, the art of French cookery, James was freed.

Ms. HARRIS: We're not really sure what happens to him after that. He was asked to return to cook when Jefferson was in the White House but beyond that, we don't know.

Mr. RANDALL: Shrimp curry, ala Zephyr Wright: two pounds raw shrimp, shelled and deveined.

Mr. SEALE: Do you remember anything in particular about the last days?

Ms. WRIGHT: Those last days in the White House, Mr. Johnson said, are you going with us to Texas? And I said no, that I would be staying here. He said that it won't be the same without you. And whenever he came to Washington, he'd always call me.

Mr. SEALE: Would he?

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Zephyr Wright cooked for President Johnson and Ladybird Johnson for 27 years. Hidden Kitchens is produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McGee. You can read recipes from the president's kitchen and hear more stories about African-American cooks to the president at npr.org.

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