When natural hair company Eden Body Works sponsored the family and I to attend Blogging While Brown last year, we spent a teeny bit of time changing our plans a bit. Sure, there’s panels and parties to attend, but… we’re nerds. And we like spelunking.
Most importantly, since we brought both Sala and Sushi along… we needed to walk our dogs. Badly.
Walking away from the Omni Independence Park, we ran into something known as The President’s House… where Ed spotted the following:
This… is where I was reminded of the amazing story of Hercules, the enslaved chef of George Washington.
Last year, for President’s Day, Gilt Taste chose to highlight not a president, but the President’s loyal – well, as loyal as a slave could be – servant… who also was an epic cook.
The following is an excerpt from the essay written by Ramin Ganeshram, titled George Washington’s Celebrity Chef:
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.”
I think this story is immensely valuable for three reasons:
So much of the talk surrounding the history of slaves in the United States paints them as mentally infantile, incapable of any thinking task, unable to lead and built to follow. In Hercules’ case – an untold story, mind you – a white chef was dismissed and Hercules was given his job. In an environment where Blacks were considered property, mules, workhorses… Hercules was given the responsibility of leading a kitchen staff that didn’t consist solely of enslaved negroes. He led whites, paid or enslaved, and had expectations of them that they were to meet. They were, according to Washington’s step grandson, his “underlings.” That is unbelievably major.
Hercules fed your first President hoecakes with honey. Your ancestors ate hoecakes with honey. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that soul food isn’t American food; that soul food isn’t an inherent part of American culinary culture or American culture, period; or that food in this country, cooked in its original state, didn’t come from the combination of Native Americans and Blacks.
Also, think about all the times you’ve seen documentaries on your Presidents. Think of all the times you heard about “quail,” “duck,” or “[insert stereotypically non-soul food dish]” and ask yourself, “who was cooking all of that?” Washington had Hercules, Jefferson had James Hemings… surely, they weren’t the only two with Black chefs and, if they did have white head chefs, the question should then become were all the kitchen hands white, as well? Highly doubted.
Sometimes, we should look less at those expected to be racists – ergo, those living in the 18th and 19th century, when slavery was legal and a de jure system that people lived in whether they liked it or not – and look more at the people we expect to be impartial… ergo, the writers of the history books. Leaving out the reality that my first President ate hoecakes, a traditional soul food dish… is some bullsh– uh… moving right along, though.
Hercules sold his scraps, made twice the average American salary, and outfitted himself in a top hat and tails. When slaves were allowed to sell wares they’d made or scraps they’d left over in that day and age, their money was expected to be handed over to the mistress of the house. Hercules kept his, and was walking around looking better than the average slaveowner. That, also, is amazing.
The article takes great care to mention that Hercules left his shift at night to enjoy Philly… “through the front door.” There are reports and stories of business owners who weren’t even allowed to enter or exit through their own front door. To have the ability to leave… through the front door… of the President’s house, no less, indicates the level of respect that was had for him. This is also why I speak of his loyalty; if the Washington household is comfortable enough with you leaving – through the front door – and you continue to leave – through the front door – and actually return the next day? Ch… listen. I woulda been gone.
The story of Hercules losing his job is heartbreaking… but how exciting is it to read that he “decided his own fate?” In an environment where so many accept “3/5ths of a personhood” as being “how it is,” a man who was allowed to own a top hat and tails who found himself in hard labor… “decided his own fate.” In a larger context, I’m curious as to how that “top hat and tails” life contributed to his will for freedom. If you’ve never seen what freedom looks like, how do you know its something worth fighting for, something worth dying for?
The last bit of the excerpt, about his young daughter, tears me up inside. What is life like in a day and age where you are forced to choose between freedom and family? What is it like when, once faced with the choice, you choose freedom? What does it say about the 18th century where the children you left behind are happy that you left them, because freedom is that essential?
The weight of that… to be glad that your father left you because “for now he is free,” is overwhelming. The fact that I can’t understand that “gladness,” and the fact that my inability to understand actually looks like a “privilege” in today’s society… I don’t know to think whether I take that for granted, or what. But… whew.
Epic, epic story. Thank you, Gilt, for allowing Ganeshram to tell it.
That is an awesome story. Thank you so much for sharing it!
As a history major and my natural love for knowing peoples “stories”, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Thank you.
It is important that we look at our own views about history. I tell people all the time, don’t put your modern concepts on historical situations. It’s not just historical writers, it’s all of us.
I could go on but I think your story points out how we ourselves have internalized certain beliefs about ourselves and our place here.
Besides I love me some soul food. BTW Erika have you seen that documentary on Soul Food that played on PBS in January?
Great piece! This was well worth the read.
Thank you for reading my story and supporting it. Hercules is abiding passion of mine–a fellow writer friend calls him my “18th century boyfriend.” LOL. This time next year–in time for President’s day– my children’s picture book about Hercules “A Cake for George Washington” will be published by Scholastic. I hope you will keep an eye out for it and share it with the kids in your lives.
Black Civil War history/Black ancestry nerd here.
The history geek in me is so impressed about this story that Ima have to share it with my Mother.
Thanks for sharing it with us, ladies.
Thank you for this story I appreciate all you do
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