In 1948, Budweiser ran an ad with an illustration of former President Thomas Jefferson serving a plate of pasta to two unknown members. In the ad, Jefferson smiles as he lifts and delicately twirls spaghetti; The caption reads, “Our third president was our first spaghetti maker.”
That’s wrong, of course: first, he probably never cooked dinner himself, considering he enslaved 600 people, some of whom worked in the house’s kitchen and are mysteriously missing from the picture. And though he brought a spaghetti maker to the States, his love for macaroni was better documented — including in other more recent ads in history.
Most telling, however, is the omission of his enslaved chef, James Hemings, who was the mastermind behind many of America’s most popular dishes, including macaroni and cheese, but also ice cream, french fries, whipped cream and more. Its obliteration is part of a theme that has permeated written history itself.
In Amazon Prime’s new documentary, James Hemings: Ghost in America’s Kitchen, voice chef Ashbell McElveen invites Jacques Pepin and other culinary experts to grapple with Hemings’ distinction as the first American to be trained as a master chef while also being brother-in-law and enslaved property of Thomas Jefferson for most of his short 36-year life.
Throughout the documentary, audiences are confronted with these dichotomies, particularly how many dishes we call staples in this country are not attributed to the man who literally brought them to this country from France.
“I started putting pieces together as a culinary historian because there were limitations of what Jefferson and other white historians had written down,” McElveen tells TODAY Food, adding that he examined the oral record to find snippets of truth about Hemings’ Reality has been mentioned by African Americans like Isaac Jefferson and others.
“For me, it was like sitting in a black hair salon on a Saturday morning,” McElveen says as he dives into the transcript. “You heard all these things, all these stories and everything was discussed. It had nothing but the ring of truth. I began to search further.”
What most history books have recorded about James Hemings is that he was born in 1765 to Elizabeth Hemings, a black slave, and John Wayles, a white slave owner. At the age of 9, James Hemings was brought to Monticello along with several of his siblings and his mother as part of the inheritance of Martha Wayles Jefferson, Wayles’ daughter and Thomas Jefferson’s wife, when Wayles died. (This made James Hemings the enslaved half-brother of Thomas Jefferson.)
In his teens, Hemings worked as a servant on horseback, but it was a trip with Jefferson to Paris in 1784, where he was trained in the art of French cooking, that set him on the path to becoming a master of fine dining.
McElveen says Heming’s first apprenticeship in France was with caterer and restaurateur Monsieur Combeaux for two years. After working in the kitchens at Combeaux, Hemings trained in French confectionery and apprenticed to several pastry chefs, including one who worked in the Chateau Chantilly, the household of the Prince de Condé.
“He was an extraordinarily bright young man who was absolutely literate,” McElveen says, emphasizing the rarity of an enslaved person who could read or write. While in Paris, Hemings paid a French tutor with his earned wages (because he was legally free in France and therefore had to be paid) to become bilingual in French and English, which was also probably a first for an enslaved person.
“I literally grew up in the same training tradition that hasn’t changed over the years, and it took me eight years to achieve what it seems Hemings accomplished in less than two years,” says McElveen.
While it’s true that Jefferson used haute cuisine to impress his constituents during his years as politician and president, it was Hemings who prepared the food and adapted the recipes he learned in France for an American palette.
By 1789, Hemings had returned to the States with the Jefferson family, his many skills and tools of French cooking. Jefferson was appointed the first secretary of state in 1790, and during this period he employed Hemings as cook and servant, where he impressed guests of the Jefferson household with dishes such as snow eggs, a pudding-like dessert that bears a striking resemblance to the ice cream recipe outlined in the Jefferson Papers was found, and one for “macaroni cake,” a tweaked version of the French bechamel-based dish we now know in the States as macaroni and cheese.
During the first year, Jefferson hosted a dinner colloquially known as the Dinner Table Bargain. On the evening of June 20, 1790, Jefferson hosted a dinner to bring together Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who were essentially at odds over where the nation’s capital would be located.
After a meal and much discussion, everyone on the banks of the Potomac River, now known as Washington, DC, agreed. Who do you think cooked the dinner that literally brought a nation together?
Returning to Monticello in 1794, Jefferson promised to free Hemings if he would train another enslaved person to cook as he did, and Hemings trained his brother Peter Hemings for the job.
There is evidence in historical records that Hemings changed the concept of cooking in America through Monticello’s kitchen, with kitchen inventory that included ice cream molds, copper pots and more.
Hemings finally left Monticello with $30 and his freedom in 1796, and worked in Philadelphia and possibly Europe for five years before settling in Baltimore—but Jefferson wasn’t done with him.
“Jefferson was first elected president by Congress, not by the people,” says McElveen, adding that Hemings was working in Baltimore when Jefferson sent him to become White House chef in 1800.
“He refused to come, as he was called, as the slaves were often told, ‘Come here.’ James said, ‘Listen, if Jefferson would be so kind as to write the two lines of the appointment or invitation, he would work for him,’ says McElveen, adding that Jefferson ultimately declined to write that letter. “For him, writing a letter to a black man was recognizing him as a man, not as property. But James Hemings stood his ground and stood up to the most powerful white man in his universe: the President of the United States.”
Hemings never reached the culinary heights to which his skills would likely have taken him, and died just a year later at the age of 36. His contributions were quickly paved, as were the contributions of many enslaved people throughout history.
“In the culinary history of this country, the original historical contributions of African Americans to American culinary history have been deliberately highlighted. To me, that’s culinary theft,” says McElveen, adding that “The Virginia Housewife,” a famous cookbook by Jefferson’s son-in-law’s sister, is a prime example of what McElveen calls probable historical theft of ideas.
“Mary Randolph Jefferson has many French recipes in the cookbook and they are all attributed to Jefferson’s daughter or even to herself,” he says. “None of them had ever been to France or even cooked in the kitchen. So it’s beyond the imagination to believe something like that.”
This Thanksgiving, before you indulge in a heaping bowl of macaroni and cheese or scoop some ice cream onto your pumpkin pie, McElveen asks us all to remember the long journey through history it took to get to our tables.
“His macaroni and cheese recipe, which went from an enslaved kitchen in Monticello around the world and became a global food, just like french fries – not from his country of origin, but from the enslaved people in Monticello,” McElveen emphasizes his commitment to Combating the erasure of African American contributions to fine dining in the United States
“It’s not just a Thanksgiving dinner,” says McElveen. “We should all thank this incredible person who helped create fine dining in America.”