Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hercules: First Cook to the First President

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Susan reports:

The heart of every great household of the past was the kitchen, and its master was the cook. No matter how noble or wealthy a family might be, their reputation for hospitality rested on the skill of their cook.

General George Washington (1732-1799), first president of the new United States of America, was well aware of the importance of his cook. He brought his own cook from his home at Mt. Vernon to run the kitchen of the presidential residence in Philadelphia in 1790. Known by the single name of Hercules, he was reputed to be the very best cook in America, one who could not only produce the most elaborate dishes, but also insist on perfect order among his large staff and spotless cleanliness in his kitchen. Washington spoke proudly of the "labors of Hercules" when the first exquisite dishes were set on his table each night. Even on his days off, Hercules set himself apart, dressing with such impeccable style that he was recognized and saluted by name as he sauntered down the Philadelphia streets.

Only one thing set Hercules apart from his lofty counterparts in the great houses of Berkeley Square in London: Hercules was a slave, and President Washington owned him.

Hercules understood the difference, too, and like so many slaves, must have dreamed of freedom. In 1796, Hercules's son Richmond was caught stealing money from the household, and Washington suspected (correctly) that his cook was planning his escape. The next mention of Hercules in the Mt. Vernon records is not of him in his kitchen, but of being put to hard labor breaking clay and spreading manure with his son in the fields: a punishment clearly intended to provide a humiliating "lesson" to the proud, accomplished cook.

But Hercules's spirit must have remained strong. Soon after, on February 22, 1797 –Washington's 65th birthday – Hercules escaped, his disappearance marked down in the records by the single word "absconded."

It's likely that the president did all he could to recover Hercules after his escape. A skilled cook was an extremely valuable slave to lose. Like most plantation owners, Washington was relentless in his pursuit of what he regarded as lost property, and his agents had once hunted other escaped slaves clear to Canada.

But Hercules was never caught. While he probably escaped from Virginia back to Philadelphia and the early abolitionists who were already assisting fleeing slaves in the 18th century, no one knows for sure where he went from there. He was too well-known to remain safely in America, and most historians guess that he made his way to Europe.

There his culinary gifts could have earned him a place ruling the kitchen of some gentleman powerful enough to protect him, and considering the lavish entertainments popular in late 18th c. London, he would have been a prize indeed. It's fascinating to imagine Hercules in that multicultural world, a dandified Virginian cook in the age of William Wilberforce - and Beau Brummell.

Wherever Hercules ended up, within four years he was no longer a fugitive, but a free man. Washington died in 1799, and by the provisions of his will, he emancipated all his slaves, including Hercules. (To his considerable credit, Washington was the only one of the slaveholding Founding Fathers to do so.) Click here for more information about Hercules and his life as Washington's cook.

Above: This portrait is traditionally called a portrait of Hercules, painted in the late 18th c. by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828.) But just like the other mysteries of Hercules's own life, no one now knows for certain. . . .

4 comments:

LaDonna said...

Interesting and inspiring, too. I'm so glad he got away. Too bad no one knows what happened to him, because it sounds like his story would make a great book. I can see him fitting right in to Regency England.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Wow! The life of Hercules would make a great historical novel.

Jackie Savoy said...

I wish more of this kind of history was being taught in schools. It's not that George Washington and the rest of the white founding fathers shouldn't be taught, but it makes for a more complete picture to include men of color like Hercules. Also he wasn't content to be merely an enslaved man, but fought for his own life and destiny. There are probably many more stories like this that need to be known as part of American history. Thank you for this article.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I completely agree -- I think Hercules's story would make a great novel. His life as Washington's cook really shows the sad complexity of American slavery: while Washington clearly valued Hercules and his talent and rewarded him with power in the kitchen and more freedom than most other slaves had, he was still his master, and at the first hint that Hercules might escape, Washington punished him as if he were a child, striving to break his will. Yet later Washington freed his slaves. A great story, indeed....

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