JAMES HEMINGS: GHOST IN AMERICA’S KITCHEN SLAVE AND CULINARY FOUNDING FATHER
Foodies as well as fans of history and comfort food should really know the name James Hemings. A former slave of Thomas Jefferson, Hemings is considered the Founding Father of American culinary and is best known for creating the version of mac and cheese for Americans’ taste, as well as introducing French fries, meringue, firm ice cream, and whipped ice cream to America.
A master chef, patriot, slave, and finally a free man, Hemings is the subject of a new documentary—James Hemings: Ghost in America’s Kitchen—that attempts to tell perhaps the greatest American story never told—following the profound life of the first American to train as a chef in France, though at 8-years-old he was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson.
If you've ever eaten macaroni and cheese, French fries, crème brulée or ice cream you've enjoyed the contributions of America's unknown culinary founding father, James Hemings. Hemings was not only an older brother to Sally Hemings, who gave birth to six of Thomas Jefferson’s children, but also a half-sibling of Jefferson's wife Martha Jefferson, with whom he shared John Wayles as father.
When Jefferson was appointed Minister to France he selected, among others, James Hemings to accompany him to Paris. There, Hemings trained to be a French chef – the first American to do so. And in an era where enslaved people were purposefully kept illiterate, Chef Hemings learned to read, write and speak in both English and French.
Through Interviews with food historians, celebrated chefs, experts on race and the African American diaspora, Chef Ashbell McElveen and filmmaker Anthony Werhun explore the life, contributions, and erasure of James Hemings.
“Growing up a black kid, the son of cooks in the segregated south, I had no idea that American cuisine was crafted by someone who looked like me,” said Chef Ashbell McElveen. “James Hemings is the most overlooked revolutionary figure in American history, and it’s time for his story to be told.”
While the story of Hemings is fascinating and is history that every American show be made aware of, the documentary’s pacing is lacking. I found myself often bored but nevertheless this is important history and is worth watching for that alone. The life of James Hemings is something that should be celebrated and never forgotten.