Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery : The Salt James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's chef, had skills surpassing any other American cook of his era. Training in Paris, he glimpsed a world where black men were free — and respected. Then he came home.
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Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery

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Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery

Behind The Founding Foodie, A French-Trained Chef Bound By Slavery

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's finish up today with a story about one of the earliest of these unheralded African-American cooks, James Hemings. In the late 18th century, Hemings was one of America's most accomplished chefs. He was also one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves. NPR's Maria Godoy reports.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Our story begins in Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's rural Virginia estate. It was in this very house that James Hemings applied his trade. And today, a rare treat - someone is actually cooking in here. Food historian Paula Marcoux is preparing a feast, classic 18th-century French dishes, as Hemings would have made them.

PAULA MARCOUX: We're making a dish that Jefferson described as rabbit cooked with small onions and bacon in a red wine sauce. I'm also getting ready to make a dish called in English snow eggs, in French œufs a la neige - eggs and snow.

GODOY: It's the Hemings recipe that the Jefferson family preserved through the generations. James Hemings grew up a slave in Jefferson's household. He could read and write and was very bright. And Jefferson trusted him, according to Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: So it was a close relationship, a master-and-slave relationship, but different.

GODOY: Different in part because James was the brother of Sally Hemings - yes, that Sally Hemings - the enslaved woman believed to have born several children by Jefferson. When Jefferson sailed to France in 1784 as America's trade minister, 19-year-old James came along, and Sally followed later. Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, says Jefferson had a plan for James.

SUSAN STEIN: Jefferson brought James Hemings with him with the express purpose of seeing that he would be trained as a French chef there.

GODOY: Hemings spent several years mastering the art of French cuisine. He trained with a caterer, a pastry chef and even the chef of a prince.

STEIN: In the course of his five years in Paris, he became an exceptionally accomplished chef.

GODOY: Eventually, he took over as chef de cuisine at Jefferson's stately Paris home. He even supervised white servants. It was another life altogether. Hemings moved freely around Paris. He had money in his pocket because Jefferson paid him wages, money he used to hire a French tutor. And Gordon-Reed says his world was populated with free blacks, not just servants but businesspeople, respected artists and craftsman.

GORDON-REED: So he would've seen people of his race, people who look like him, who occupied a very different position in the world.

GODOY: It was a world that was quickly changing. France was on the cusp of revolution. And along the way, Hemings learned that under French law, he could've sued for his freedom. Instead, he returned to America with Jefferson.

GORDON-REED: Why? Family.

GODOY: Annette Gordon-Reed.

GORDON-REED: There's a real dilemma - there was a real dilemma for many enslaved people. Do you take your freedom and separate yourself from your family, or do you settle down in a place that - well, you will have support?

GODOY: The plan for both Jefferson and Hemings was to return to France eventually. Instead, Jefferson became Secretary of State, which meant Hemings had to stay in America - and in slavery. After several more years in Jefferson's service, James Hemings pressed for his freedom. Historian Susan Stein.

STEIN: Of the 607 people that Jefferson owned over the course of his lifetime, there are only two that really negotiated their freedom. Hemings - James Hemings was one of them.

GODOY: At 31, James Hemings became a free man. But freedom was far different for a black man in America than it had been in Paris. He was a man adrift, so he traveled, a lot. Eventually, he landed in Baltimore in 1801. Historian Susan Stein.

STEIN: And he was cooking for a tavern keeper there, so this was a far cry from his expectation of his future.

GODOY: In the fall of 1801, Jefferson got word. James Hemings was dead, an apparent suicide. Gordon-Reed says memories of Paris must have haunted Hemings.

GODOY: When you think about somebody who'd had these amazing experiences and the expectations that that would raise in someone, and to come back to America and to a place where there's really no place for an individual like that.

GODOY: Back in Monticello, Paula Marcoux is just about to start a demonstration of Heming's techniques. Cooking here, she says, is a way to connect to the past

MARCOUX: There is something transformative about it, just feeling like you're in the place.

GODOY: A place where James Hemings once ruled the kitchen. Maria Godoy, NPR News.

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