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Retro Baltimore

Unearthing memories of James Hemings, the French-trained chef who died in Baltimore

We know only a little about James Hemings, the French-trained chef who died in Baltimore in 1801. We know that, like his more famous sister, Sally, spent the majority of his life enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. We know he was working at a restaurant downtown the last year he was alive.

And we know that just before he died, he refused a job at the White House.

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Historians find a few mentions of Hemings within the vast personal archive of the third U.S. president.

The chef is “a really fascinating figure,” said Lauren F. Klein, an associate professor at Emory University. “These glimpses of his life make what we don’t know about him all the more compelling.”

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Born into slavery, Hemings and his family held higher positions than other enslaved workers at Monticello. He also was Jefferson’s brother-in-law, having the same father as Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Many enslavers raped women that they considered their property, a pattern that Jefferson, too, would follow.

In 1784, Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France. At the future president’s urging, he studied “the art of cookery” for three years with the finest chefs in the home of haute cuisine.

The experience of living in France must have been eye-opening for Hemings, Klein said. Slavery had been abolished in France earlier; Hemings was paid a salary, money he spent on French lessons.

Returning to the United States as the French Revolution started, Hemings introduced cooks at Monticello and beyond to what he had learned in France. Klein said he was almost certainly the unacknowledged figure behind the meal served in the 1790 Dinner Table Bargain, an event made famous in the musical “Hamilton.”

A 1793 document shows that Jefferson promised Hemings his freedom on the condition that he train his replacement in the kitchen. “Hemings needs to essentially trade his culinary knowledge for his human liberty,” Klein said.

Hemings became free in 1796, according to a deed of manumission signed by Jefferson. Before leaving Monticello, he wrote down a painstaking inventory of kitchen utensils at the plantation’s kitchen, including copper baking tools from France.

Hemings’ influence was felt for generations after he left Monticello, said Klein, pointing out that his recipe for a dessert called “snow eggs,” or Oeufs à la neige in French, is found in Jefferson’s granddaughter’s family cookbook. The recipe is signed “James, a cook at Monticello.”

Klein called that “evidence that his legacy was large in this family. [Jefferson’s] grandchildren were still talking about his food.”

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In a 1797 letter, Jefferson wrote that he’d seen James in Philadelphia: “He tells me his next trip will be to Spain. I am afraid his journeys will end in the moon.”

It’s not clear why Hemings chose Baltimore or exactly when he moved here. But the city and surrounding state were home to one of the largest free Black populations in the U.S. Additionally, the city was relatively close to Monticello, where much of Hemings’ family remained and where he returned to work as a paid servant on occasion.

By 1801, Jefferson wanted to hire Hemings again, this time to work at the White House. For a foodie president who considered cuisine to be a key tool of diplomacy, the role of White House chef would have been a particularly crucial position.

Jefferson wrote to William Evans, a Baltimore innkeeper. Evans, who owned the city’s Indian Queen Hotel at Hanover and Baltimore streets, “knew everyone,” Klein said. His inn was near another hotel, the Columbian, where Hemings worked at the time.

Hemings responded through Evans that he couldn’t get away from his current job in Baltimore. Evans added that he had approached Hemings a second time. This time, Evans wrote, “the answer he returned me, was, that he would not go untill [sic] you should write to himself.”

“There’s a couple of different interpretations” to this response, Klein said. One, she said, is as a power play.

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“As a free man ... [Hemings] wanted the respect of direct communication from the president-elect,” she said. “He knew exactly what he deserved. Now that he was no longer dependent on Jefferson, he wasn’t afraid to demand it. "

Jefferson didn’t bother to write Hemings directly, a fact that Klein thinks reflects his own blind spots about slavery. He can’t possibly understand that, for James, “proximity to the president did not matter if he was free,” she said.

Later that year, Jefferson wrote Evans again. He had heard an awful rumor — Klein said likely through enslaved plantation staff — that Hemings had died. Was it true?

Evans responded that it was. Hemings died by suicide, and was reported to have been drinking heavily around the time of his death.

Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law of “the tragical end of James Hemings.” Hemings was just 36.

Inside her Station North studio, Baltimore artist SHAN Wallace imagines different endings for James Hemings.

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In a series of collages made for the Baltimore Museum of Art, Wallace depicts the chef in modern-day dress, sipping a soda at a carryout that he runs as two women chat nearby. Around his neck is a gold chain, a reward for a life of hard work.

In another artwork, Wallace imagines Hemings is an unseen cook inside a church, preparing a repast.

“I don’t want his life to end in Baltimore,” Wallace said.

Within the series, she said, “he has a lot more agency and community amongst people in Baltimore.”

Wallace isn’t the only artist to find inspiration in Hemings’ life. In New York City, a new installation at the Museum of Food and Drink honors the culinary contributions of African Americans, including Hemings, who, according to its website, “introduced the U.S. to copper cookware, the stew stove, and dishes such as European-style macaroni and cheese and French fries.”

Jessica B. Harris wrote about Hemings in her book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” recently adapted into a Netflix series.

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Decades later, following the end of the Civil War, another member of the Hemings family would move to Baltimore. His name was Fountain Hughes. According a death notice in The Afro, Hughes, died in Baltimore in 1957 at the remarkable age of 109.


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