“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of the nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe.”
- Anthony Bourdain
The complete story of America’s culinary roots, and of America itself, cannot be
truly understood without revealing the incredible contributions of America’s Founding Foodies. These African American kitchen pioneers are ghosts of American history who await discovery. Modern culinary oracle, Chef Ashbell McElveen, will reveal the greatest American stories that have not been told. The hidden history of America’s Founding Foodies begins with James Hemings at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation.
America’s Founding Foodies are...
Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Weapon, James Hemings
If there was a Mount Rushmore of founding foodies, James Hemings would be front and center. Being the older brother of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings, James was technically also Jefferson’s brother-in-law, but his African blood made him Jefferson’s bound servant. Despite his humble origins, it was James Hemings who introduced such familiar and iconic dishes as macaroni & cheese, meringue, whipped cream, fusion pasta, and French fries to America’s palate, prepared on the precursor of the modern stove, also a Hemings innovation.
In 1784, James Hemings was a slave on a Virginia plantation. Jefferson traveled to Paris that year to conduct trade talks, bringing Hemings as his valet and chef. The talented and charming Hemings enrolled in cooking school, learned French, shared a mistress with Ben Franklin, spared Jefferson a mugging by French Revolutionaries, and by 1789 was a master French chef, the founding father of American fine dining.
While in Paris, where slavery was illegal and frowned upon by America’s largest creditors, Hemings kept his enslavement a secret, sparing the American delegation dire political consequence. He made one of the greatest patriotic sacrifices this country has ever known; willingly forfeiting his freedom to save the reputation of the fledgling United States. The reward for his courage was a return to slavery in Virginia, and the blotting of his name from history, courtesy of his master, Thomas Jefferson. Powerful men throughout history have understood that elite food is a weapon, and Jefferson was no different. Upon returning to the United States, Hemings’ culinary skills gave Jefferson a distinct homefield advantage in political negotiations that took place at his table. Despite his countless contributions, James Hemings is a lost American icon.
The First Celebrity Chef, Hercules Washington
Hercules Washington was the first celebrity chef in America. Hercules and James Hemings brought Virginia plantation cooking to Urban Philadelphia, the foundation of fine dining in America. Hercules Washington was to George Washington as James Hemings was to Thomas Jefferson…indispensable. Hercules was more than just a servant and cook, he was a persona that was known by rich and poor alike. Every Wednesday Hercules made supper for the entire Congress at the President’s House. After supper he dressed up in crisp white linen, a red jacket, and highly polished black boots to sell the leftovers from George Washington's table to eager colonial foodies on Market Street in Philadelphia. This process was called selling the 'slops' which included furs and animal fat rendered by cooking. Hercules would literally serve American royalty and commoners with the same ingredients, on the same evening.
After a falling out with Washington, Hercules ran away for his freedom on George's birthday. This deeply troubled Washington, as Hercules had a dangerously intimate knowledge of the President’s personal life. Hercules’ connection with common colonial folk made it possible to elude the President, and despite George’s best efforts, Hercules would never been heard from again. Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
The disappearance of Hercules would bring an end to his celebrity status, but he set the table for modern social media foodies and TV chefs during his years of prominence.
From Slavery to Luxury, Rufus Estes
Freed after the Civil War, Estes trained as a cook and worked as a chef in private railroad cars. His dedication to craft led to powerful connections, and he soon found himself preparing meals for titans of industry and even American presidents.
Rufus would settle in as the lead caterer to executives with the U.S. Steel Corporation, the first billion-dollar company in the world. His food was so loved that many pressured him to document his recipes, which he did. “Good Things to Eat as Recommended by Rufus” is the earliest known cookbook by a black railway chef.
America’s most successful corporations spend big money on chefs and dining accommodations for their employees. There is a correlation between a happy stomach, happy employee, and a happy bottom line. Rufus Estes’ understanding of this truth allowed him to break new ground in the culinary arena and transcend the supposed limitations of his humble beginnings.
Setting the Bar, Robert Bogle and the Philadelphia Black Caterers
The outlook for a black man in 18thcentury Philadelphia was not encouraging. Riots, economic troubles and the tide of prejudice drove many African Americans from the city. However, amidst this turmoil an unlikely and remarkable trade guild arose to prominence. The Philadelphia Black Caterers, led by Robert Bogle, would guide bewildered men from disarray to affluence. Bogle looked to transform the “negro cook and waiter” into the public caterer and restauranteur, and he succeeded.
Bogle and his Guild of Caterers would become a fixture in high society, gaining the respect of the public and amassing a fortune in the process. Given this incredible lineage, it is troubling that modern Philadelphia executive chefs lack diversity.
Still Hungry? The Foodie Family Tree Continues.
In addition to Hemings, Hercules, Estes and Bogle, there are dozens of other incredible stories waiting to be uncovered. An entire lineage of African American culinary influence awaits discovery.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
- George Orwell
The Show’s Recipe
Each unscripted episode begins and ends at the table. Starting in the present, we explore a specific food or food-related custom, incorporating celebrity chefs and culinary social media influencers wherever appropriate to show that today’s kitchen celebs are descendants of pioneering African American chefs. Once the modern food or custom has been explored, we work backwards to trace its roots to one of America’s Founding Foodies. Chef Ashbell and another modern foodie influencers will recreate the featured dish or custom as it would have existed in early America and compare to a modern presentation. Science hides behind our fascination with food and dining culture. Culinary historians and psychologists will illustrate that food is much more than nutrition, it is a driving force in the history of mankind. America’s Founding Foodies is a celebration of unknown heroes, food and the driving cultural forces that comprise the United States. A wiser America starts in the kitchen.
Treatment by Ashbell McElveen and Anthony Werhun