Friday, July 9, 2010

James Hemings: Thomas Jefferson's Head Chef

Before departing for his diplomatic appointment in France, Thomas Jefferson decided to bring his teenage slave James Hemings with him for the “particular purpose” of mastering the art of French cookery.

Between 1785 and 1789, James apprenticed under famous French chefs and pastry cooks and became chef de cuisine in Jefferson’s residence on the Champs-Élysées, earning roughly $48 a year. Of course, these were the tumultuous years leading up to the French Revolution and there was no slavery in France at that time, and so James could have claimed his freedom at any time, but for reasons that remain unexplained, he chose not to do so.

Instead, he returned to the United States and later became head chef at Monticello. When James petitioned for his freedom in 1793, Jefferson agreed upon the following condition:“if the said James shall go with me to Monticello…and shall continue there until he shall have taught such persons as I shall place under him for the purpose to be a good cook…he shall be thereupon made free.”

To fulfill the terms of this manumission agreement, James taught his brother Peter all the cooking techniques he had learned in France. Three years later, James became a free man.

No one knows exactly what became of James after that, but we do know one thing: After Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he asked James to be his head chef in Washington, D.C. James declined this post, however, and a Frenchman by the name of Honoré Julien was head chef at the President’s House during most of Jefferson’s administration.

FAST FACT: Manumission is a fancy legal term for the freeing of a slave. In the United States, manumission of slaves was achieved by a variety of means, including state-ordered manumission and through private manumission agreements, like the agreement between Thomas and James.