December 2015 Uncategorized

From High on the Hog, by Jessica Harris ’68

The President’s Chef

Hercules was brought to New York when his master, George Washington, was displeased with the presidential fare there, and in 1790, when the capital moved to Philadelphia, Hercules moved there with Washington. He won accolades and was noted for his exacting efficiency and the flawless working of his kitchen at 190 High Street. Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, called him “as highly accomplished and [as] proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.” Another observer was more eloquent:

Iron discipline, woe to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the table … or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver … His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same time.

Hercules’ duties extended beyond simply cooking; he also oversaw the smooth running of Washington’s kitchens, which at one point contained a German cook and two French ones. He managed their work. No recipes attributed to Hercules have been found, but he certainly must have been adept at preparing the steak and kidney pie and trifle that were known to be among Washington’s favorite dishes. Hercules was charged not only with overseeing all family meals, from preparation to the service, but also with personally preparing the more formal Thursday dinners and congressional repasts. The latter were served up to the founding fathers with style and aplomb atop white linen and accompanied by glittering crystal, fine porcelain, and highly polished silver.

Butler of the Smart Set

In the North, with no slaves to staff midsize or bachelor households, a public butler, often a free person of color, was frequently engaged by those too small or too frugal to have their own servants. Unlike a private butler employed by a single family, a public butler organized meals and waited on a number of different households. Robert Bogle created the role of the caterer from that of the public butler, although the term “caterer” did not come into wide usage until the mid-19th century. Bogle worked as a butler and also as an undertaker. On occasion, he could be found presiding over a funeral during the day and a party later that evening with equal aplomb. Bogle also functioned as a waiter, and possibly purveyed meals, and provided staff as required for household events. From these multiple occupations and with his diverse talents, Bogle became the first of Philadelphia’s major black caterers. Soon black caterers became the norm in the city. They formed a union that was, in the words of sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, “as remarkable a trade guild as ever ruled a medieval city. [The caterers] took complete leadership of a bewildered group of Negroes, and led them steadily to a degree of affluence, culture, and respect such as has probably never been surpassed in the history of the Negro in America.” Bogle opened a catering establishment on Eighth Street in Philadelphia. According to Du Bois, he was “the butler of the smart set, and his taste and eye and palate set the fashion for the day.”

The First Cookbook

In 2000, Michigan antiquarian book dealer Jan Longone acquired a slim volume that changed the trajectory of the study of African-American food history. Longone found what seems to be the sole surviving copy of a book by Malinda Russell, a free woman of color. The book, A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen, was published in 1866 in Paw Paw, Michigan.

Malinda Russell proclaims herself to be a free woman of color on the back cover of her cookbook, no doubt to set herself apart from the recently emancipated. However, the life that she details in her introduction lets readers know that while freedom was essential, in itself it was no guarantor of financial or physical comfort. Her life exemplified many of the hazards of westward migration. Born to a free woman who died while she was young, Russell tried to migrate to Liberia at the age of 19 but was duped out of her savings and forced to make her way in the world. She turned to cooking to earn a living. She made her way through Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, working at various jobs. She worked as a nurse, a laundress, owner of a boardinghouse, a cook, a baker, and a caterer. She was married and widowed and became the mother of a disabled child. A tireless worker, she managed to accumulate another nest egg, but it too was stolen from her. Russell left the South, “flying a flag of truce out of the Southern borders, being attacked several times by the enemy,” and made her way to Paw Paw, Michigan, where she again tried to recoup her funds. The cookbook that has become known as the first African-American cookbook was, at its inception, one western migrant’s innovative way of trying to earn some cash.