Credit: Copyright Thomas Jefferson Foundation
NEW ORLEANS —James Hemings was one of the most masterful chefs in the young United Sates. He trained in aristocratic kitchens in France and introduced crème brûlée, meringues and macaroni and cheese into American cooking. He was also enslaved by Thomas Jefferson.
There is little material record of Hemings’ life beyond a few surviving recipes for desserts like “snow eggs” and a written 1796 inventory of utensils from the kitchen at Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello. But archaeologists at Monticello recently uncovered the remains of the stoves where Hemings prepared dishes for the future president and his guests.
“His trajectory was pretty extraordinary,” Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology at Monticello, told Live Science, adding that the discovery of the stoves is one of the “really rare instances where we can associate a workspace and artifact with a particular enslaved individual whose name we know.”
The stoves were unearthed last year in a cellar at Monticello’s South Pavilion, the first brick building constructed on the estate, where Jefferson and his wife, Martha, lived while the main mansion was under construction. The excavations took place as part of a larger project to restore the estate to the way it would have looked during Jefferson’s lifetime, including the places where hundreds of enslaved people lived and worked.
The cellar had been off-limits to archaeologists for over a half century because it had been repurposed as visitor bathrooms; the managers of Monticello had feared that hordes of tourists would come to the site for the Bicentennial events of 1975 and 1976, Neiman said.
“That was, in retrospect, a boneheaded decision,” Neiman said.
Once the bathroom was demolished, archaeologists had to dig through 3 feet (1 meter) of dirt from the kitchen yard that was used to bring up the floor level of the cellar when it was converted to a washhouse in 1809. They found thousands of artifacts in this fill, including animal bones, toothbrushes, broken ceramics, fragments of glass bottles and beads, said Crystal Ptacek, a field research manager at Monticello, who presented the discovery here at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology last week.
And, finally, underneath the dirt, the team found the original brick floor of the kitchen where enslaved cooks working in the cellar would have made food to be delivered to the Jeffersons in the top story. The remains of a fireplace and the foundations of four stew stoves were also intact.
“It was one of those surreal experiences,” Ptacek said.
Those four foundational compartments of the stew stoves would have been the clean-out, where the ash would have fallen. The actual stoves would have been about waist-high, Ptacek said. Each stove would have had a small hole for hot coals from the fireplace. An iron trivet would have gone above the coals to hold pans. Stew stoves were essential for making dishes that required slow heating and multiple pans. The setup was the equivalent of a modern stovetop, but it was uncommon in North America at the time because it required special training to use.
Stew stoves first became popular in 17th-century France, Neiman said. Previously, during the Renaissance, the cuisine of the rich in Europe involved heavy use of spices imported from far-flung parts of the world. But that changed when spice prices plummetedafter European powers took control of resources and trade routes during colonial expansion across the Atlantic and into Asia. [How the Spice Trade Changed the World]
“All the sudden, highly spiced foods are no longer the way you signal you’re wealthy,” Neiman said.
The new type of cuisine perfected by French aristocrats as a form of status competition was extremely labor intensive. Their “sumptuous multicourse meals,” Neiman, said, involved fresh veggies, fresh meats and slowly heated sauces based on cream, butter and eggs, without a lot of spice so that the natural flavors of the food could shine through.
Jefferson had an affinity for French cooking, and he likely first encountered stew stoves during his education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He was a frequent guest at the colonial governor’s palace in Williamsburg, which was one of the few places to have stew stoves at the time.
But Jefferson must have become much more familiar with this style of cooking when he served as the U.S. minister to France from 1784 to 1789. As soon as Jefferson took this diplomatic position, he wrote to his future secretary that he wanted to take then-19-year-old Hemings to France “for a particular purpose,” which turned out to be having him trained in the art of French cooking. The archaeologists at Monticello think the stew stoves were likely part of a kitchen upgrade Jefferson made when he returned from Paris.
Hemings trained under a pastry chef, a caterer and the chef of the Prince de Condé before becoming the chef at Jefferson’s private residence in Paris. Hemings was technically a free man on French soil. He was paid small wages and used part of his earnings to hire a French tutor. Why Hemings did not initiate the legal process to gain his freedom in France is a subject of debate among historians; staying in France would have cut Hemings off from the rest of his family in Virginia.
Hemings returned to Virginia enslaved, but he did strike a deal with Jefferson to gain his freedom. The chef passed on his training in French cooking to his brother Peter before he left Monticello a free man at age 31 in 1796. Hemings came back to run the kitchen at Monticello for the summer of 1801, the year Jefferson became president. Weeks after he left, Hemings died from an apparent suicide in Baltimore. Throughout his lifetime, Jefferson owned more than 600 people, and freed only two of them.
In her 2008 book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (W. W. Norton & Co.), American historian Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that it’s impossible to put ourselves in the mindset of James Hemings, a man “born into a society that allows his half sister and her husband to hold him as a slave.” Hemings was among several enslaved half siblings of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. (Martha’s father, John Wayles, had six children with his mixed-race slave Betty Hemings.) James’ younger sister Sally Hemings is thought to be the mother of several of Jefferson’s children. (She also accompanied Jefferson in Paris.) [6 Civil War Myths Busted]
“The connections between these two men are so divorced from anything resembling what could be recognized today as ‘normal’ human relations that they can be recovered only in the imagination and, even then, only with great difficulty,” Gordon-Reed wrote of James Hemings and Jefferson.
A new exhibition at the South Pavilion is set to open over the summer so that visitors can see the archaeological remains of the original kitchen and the artifacts that have been found during excavations.