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Meet James and Peter Hemings, America's first black celebrity chefs

"Peter Hemings was 24-years-old when his older brother, James, taught him how to cook in the French style he learned while serving Jefferson in Paris,” said Gayle Jessup White.
Image: Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Va., in 1943.
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, Va., in 1943.John Collier / Buyenlarge / Getty Images file

Each time you eat a handful of french fries, say a thank you to James Hemings. And if you wash them down with a cold beer, say a toast to his younger brother, Peter.

Born into slavery before the Revolutionary War, the brothers — whose sister, Sally Hemings, was Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress (yes, an oxymoron) – were, at the end of the 18th century, two of the young nation’s pre-eminent chefs, with Peter going on to become the country’s first master brewer.

"Peter Hemings was 24-years-old when his older brother, James, taught him how to cook in the French style he learned while serving Jefferson in Paris,” said Gayle Jessup White, public relations and community engagement officer for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation who traces her lineage back to both Sally Hemings and Jefferson (she is the great-granddaughter of one of his great-great grandsons). “It was part of a deal James Hemings negotiated with Jefferson. If he taught someone else how to cook, he would be freed. That someone was Peter."

That ever growing cooking industry in the United States is now a billion-dollar business, headlined by superstar chefs, Michelin-grade restaurants serving eclectic cuisines, thousands of cook books, endless cable and network shows devoted to fans of good, bad, professional and amateur cooks – food porn, if you will – which until the past decade rarely included black chefs and only begrudgingly or dismissively admitted the seminal role African Americans played in creating the American Kitchen.

"Monticello’s Granger/Hemings kitchen is sacred ground to me,” Jessup White told NBC News. “It’s where two men, one my great-great-great grandfather, the other my four-times great uncle, trained together, knowing that when it was over, one would be free while the other remained enslaved. That to me is the ultimate in love and sacrifice."

Image: A digital rendering of what the Granger-Hemings kitchen at Monticello looked like, c. 1800.
A digital rendering of what the Granger-Hemings kitchen at Monticello looked like, c. 1800.Digital rendering by RenderSphere, LLC / Courtesy of Monticello

Jefferson was appointed United States Minister to France in 1784, and James Hemings, as his cook, learned the art of French cooking there as a teenager, and brought those skills back to America with him.

“It became the foundation for a combined art in Virginia,” Jessup White said. “He was known more for his French cookery, but those cooks who followed him, Edith Hern Fossett and Fanny Gillette Hern, perfected it, but James started it.”

Fossett and Hern both cooked for Jefferson until his death in 1826, joining other African American slaves who did the majority of cooking in the Southern Colonies and were, at times, credited for their skills, but usually in a backhanded way.

“James Hemings is a pivotal figure because he’s one of the earliest examples of an American chef given classical French training and then fusing that with the dishes of Virginia,” said Adrian Miller, a culinary historian and author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” which garnered a James Beard Foundation Book Award in 2014.

The Hemings brothers are important, Miller said, “because they show African American contributions to American cuisine that’s counter to the typical narrative you often heard about black cooks before the 20th century, that black people were natural cooks, so what that did was it took away some of the dimensions of professional training and how they were dedicated to a craft.”

Image: The stew stove base in the Granger-Hemings kitchen at Monticello.
The stew stove base in the Granger-Hemings kitchen at Monticello.Courtesy of Monticello

Miller’s second book, “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas,” says James Hemings and Washington’s cook, Hercules “Uncle Harkless” Posey, were what would centuries later be referred to as “celebrity” chefs.

“In the sense that people knew who they were,” added Miller, “and wrote about eating their food. And they worked for very famous men.”

Not only did they work for famous men, they were related to them. The story of the Hemings/Jefferson clan is a complicated and uniquely American -- one of race, history, memory and belonging, as explored in the historian Annette Gordon-Reed’s first book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,”which she followed up on a decade later in 2008, with “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Leni Sorensen, a culinary historian and owner of Indigo House, a Virginia farm where she raises animals and grows crops that end up as part of her chef’s table dinners and cooking classes, told NBC News that everyone knew of the intimate relationship between Jefferson and the Hemings at the time and this allowed themto be elevated among their enslaved brethren.

“All of his family were professional house domestics,” Sorenson said, referring to James Hemings. “If you were to be hired as a butler or a nurse maid, you were of that elite class. Of course, it was under the umbrella of enslavement, but it increases their monetary value within the Slavocracy.

“You couldn’t depend on the white folks for whom you butlered, house-maided, valeted or cooked to give you confirmation of your worth. You had to find it somewhere within yourselves and within your community. We don’t know what James thought of Jefferson, but he started out at 10 years old catching song birds for him and polishing his shoes.”

“The most interesting thing about James and Peter is that teacher/mentor position that James gets to have with Peter,” Sorenson said. “James had to make his bones in those European kitchens. He’s not the raisin in the rice pudding, because there were certainly Africans from French colonies there. But he appears to be the only African American, and he’s a rural African American, he wasn’t raised in the urban settings.”

“Obviously he was literate. We have a beautiful one-page inventory written in his hand, it’s the only thing we have in his hand, written in English and French at Monticello, right when he left, after he was there with Peter.”

In 1801, James Hemings died in Baltimore,at 36, and historians have no consensus on how: There are those who think he took his own life; others say he may have died from the plethora of diseases for which they were no readily available vaccines or cures at the time; and there are those, like Miller, who say “he drank himself” to death.

“Freedom didn’t give James Hemings the happiness he was seeking,” said Jessup White, who notes that James was set free in 1796. “It’s a tragic story, but he did leave with us a legacy.”

That legacy begins with his younger brother, who lived to age of 64, and cooked for Jefferson when he became president, learned brewing and took charge of brewing and malting at Monticello after Jefferson left office.

The insidiousness of chattel slavery, though, was still part of his life. When Jefferson died, Peter, then in his 50s, was sold on the West Lawn of the Monticello estate and purchased by one of his nephews and lived as a free man.

“Americans don’t know this history, and it’s not definitely widely celebrated,” Jessup White said. “That’s part of what we do at Monticello, to get this history out. It’s essential that Americans know how much the enslaved and blacks and people who were not considered citizens, who were not considered human, people who look like me and people who have brown skin, contributed to America’s success. Too many black people have been written out of history, and we have to reclaim our history, our American history.”