When Jefferson later entertained back in America, this same French cuisine dazzled his countrymen.
One interesting story in the book tells of a “business dinner” with Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The evening was an opportunity to discuss two issues that were dividing the country’s leaders: a plan for the federal government to assume states’ War of Independence debts and the establishment of the nation’s capital in a location that would become Washington, D.C. By the end of the night, the conflicts had been settled over a dinner prepared by Hemings (and reconstructed by historians).
For someone who influenced American food and who had a firsthand view of Jefferson and other luminaries of the day, Hemings left a thin record. After gaining his freedom, he went to work as a cook, first in Philadelphia and later in a Baltimore tavern. In 1801, Jefferson, now president, offered him the position of chef at the President’s House (as the White House was called at the time). Apparently interested, Hemings sent word back, asking for more details. But Jefferson never responded and hired another chef.
That summer, Jefferson returned to Monticello for an extended vacation; he invited Hemings to return and handle the cooking, which he did. When Jefferson returned to Washington, Hemings went back to his job in Baltimore. In September, Jefferson got news that Hemings, after a night of heavy drinking, had killed himself. He was 36.
Hemings, Craughwell writes, “set the standard for Jefferson; for the rest of his life, he would have either a French chef or a slave who had been trained in the art of French cuisine to serve in his kitchen.”