When we bite deliciously iconic American foods like mac and cheese, we rarely take the time to think about how they became “American,” and under what circumstances they were developed. Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, is an occasion to revisit how Black Americans shaped American food culture.
In the Netflix series High on the Hog, writer, editor, and thinker Stephen Satterwhite sheds light on the influence of African cooking and the African diaspora on what Americans eat today. The picture he paints shows clearly that American eating is intimately entwined with ingredients, palates, and skills of Black Americans from well before our country was even a country. The series is a must-watch for anyone interested in food or history.
In fact, it’s a good idea to binge it all at once, and then revisit each episode with more patience. The personal stories, as well as the historical insights contained within the episodes, need to be savored.
The third episode, Our Founding Chefs, looks at two enslaved men whose skill in the kitchen made them famous.
Hercules Posey cooked for George Washington for much of his life.
When Washington was required to live in Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States, he transported Posey and other enslaved workers back and forth to Virginia to avoid Pennsylvania laws that called for freedom for men and women living in the state for longer than six months. Posey was allowed to sell food from the kitchen door of Washington’s Philadelphia home, and to keep the proceeds. His food was so popular that his food sales earned him a proper cook’s salary. He was said to be a dapper dresser, and liked to walk the streets of Philadelphia.
Posey was famous for the opulence of his meals. Even a simple family supper consisted of multiple courses of meats and fish, vegetables, pickles and sauces, breads, and a variety of wine and beer. He is also reported to have had a “Gordon Ramsey-like” temper in the kitchen, with little tolerance for mistakes or dawdlers. He escaped to New York in 1797, and lived there, separated from his children, until his death in 1812.
James Hemings cooked for Thomas Jefferson
James Hemings cooked for Thomas Jefferson. His younger sister Sally, also enslaved by Jefferson, had six children with the third president of the United States. When Jefferson became the US Minister to France in 1784, both James and Sally Hemings came with him. James studied various forms of cooking with restauranteur Monsieur Combeaux, with pastry chefs, and as an apprentice in the household of the Prince de Condé. As an important figure in Jefferson’s household, he created meals for the illustrious European guests who came to Jefferson’s table. His food was famously delicious.
In 1793, Jefferson grudgingly agreed to free Hemings as long as he trained a replacement. After two years of training his brother to become a cook, James Hemings was a free man. He lived only a few years as a free man, however, before killing himself. Negotiating life in the early years of the United States cannot have been easy for Hemings, even with a command of French and English and renowned skills as a chef.
Mac and cheese and a tip from James Hemings
One of the dishes spoken about in High on the Hog is Mac and Cheese — a classic dish that is served at one time or another in every American home. Whether it’s bright orange and comes out of a box, or creamy and bubbling with fresh cheese, whether it’s served as a side dish on major holidays or just a bit of comfort food plated up with love for the kids, it’s part of a long American tradition. James Hemings seems to be one of the skilled chefs that helped make the dish a fixture of American life, and historians at Monticello note that he cooked his macaroni in a boiling pot of half-milk-half-water. The especially silky noodles that result are layered into a baking dish with cheese and lots of butter, and maybe a crack or two of black pepper.
In honor of Juneteenth, we tried Hemings’ milk-and-water boil. The tender, silky-smooth results are delicious. Unforgettable. We’ll never go back to plain old water again. Try it with your family’s version of mac and cheese.
Whenever we make this dish, we will be mindful of James Hemings, a source of this delicious tradition, whose life, and whose extended family’s life, was indelibly marked by slavery. We will be mindful of how our country continues to hear the echoes of slavery. Can the comfort foods we all love inspire us to love one and other more? Let’s try.
Story by Keith Recker / Photography by Dave Bryce
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