The following is an excerpt from “The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, From the Washingtons to the Obamas” (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
“You know, the White House is really modeled after a plantation big house.” Former White House executive chef Walter Scheib startled me when he said this in 2010. It wasn’t because of concerns over the accuracy and clarity of his statement, but because he said it to someone he really didn’t know. That’s just one of the reasons why, since his tragic death, I really miss the chance to delve more deeply with him into the complicated racial history of the presidential kitchen.
Just like the white paint that is periodically applied to the White House exterior to cover up the scorch marks left when the British set the building afire in late August 1814, the retelling of White House history frequently masks the stain of slavery. This is maddening stuff given how deeply the legacy of slavery permeates the building, its grounds and the entire city. Washington was carved out of swampland from two slaving states (Maryland and Virginia), the land was donated by planters who were enriched by tobacco slave labor, slave labor was used to construct the building, and slaveholding presidents and enslaved people lived and worked there.
Black hands — enslaved and free — wove the fabric of social life in the nation’s capital, and black people, widely considered by whites as inherently bred for servitude, were integral to cementing a white family’s social status as an elite household. Our presidential families were no exception, which means that slave labor powered the White House kitchen and nourished our presidents.
That power might have been strongest with Hercules (nicknamed “Uncle Harkles”), the enslaved cook for President George Washington and the first example of what I have dubbed the president’s Kitchen Cabinet, a series of African Americans who have worked in food service for every First Family since.
After experimenting with a couple of white cooks, President Washington summoned Hercules from Mount Vernon and installed him as his presidential cook in Philadelphia. George Washington’s stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Custis, did history a great service by paying some attention to Hercules’s culinary skill, professionalism, resourcefulness and personality at a time when enslaved people were generally ignored. Some researchers and writers, most recently and notably food critic Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, use Custis’s historical sketch as a starting point and have provided additional details to paint a more complete picture of Hercules’s life.
Hercules, because of his name, may have been a big child when he was born circa 1753. Custis wrote of Hercules in his memoirs, “He was a dark brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.” Being named after the strong man in the center of Greek and Roman mythology wasn’t unusual for the times because American elites were going through a deep wave of neoclassical nostalgia for ancient Rome and Athens. There’s another interesting cultural confluence. As slavery historian Peter H. Wood explains, “The most frequent biblical and classical names accepted among slaves will reveal that they often resemble African words. . . . One reason that the name Hercules — often pronounced and spelled Hekles — was applied to strong slaves may well be the fact that heke in Sierra Leone was the Mende noun meaning ‘a large wild animal.’” Thus, the “Uncle Harkles” nickname could have been less a bad pronunciation of the name Hercules and more about the appropriation of an African word.
Washington purchased a teenage Hercules in 1767 while the latter worked as a ferryman. When Hercules arrived at Mount Vernon, Washington had several home improvement projects underway. Washington added Hercules to his workforce that included slaves he had inherited from his father, slaves he had acquired when he married Martha Dandridge, slaves he had purchased and slaves loaned to him from neighboring slave owners. At some point, Washington transferred Hercules from ferrying boats to cooking in the Mount Vernon kitchen under the direction of Old Doll, the plantation’s chief cook, a slave he had acquired when he married Martha.
It’s not clear when he got promoted, but Hercules eventually took Old Doll’s place in the kitchen. By the time that Hercules took over, the kitchen had been fully renovated and updated. Using what appeared to be the latest cooking equipment and technology and an abundant larder from the surrounding countryside, Hercules honed his culinary skills and unwittingly prepared for his presidential moment.
Hercules was 36 when he arrived in Philadelphia to cook in the Executive Mansion. He worked with a team of eight people: presidential steward Samuel Fraunces, some assistant cooks (including his own enslaved teenage son Richmond), and several waiters. He cooked in a large hearth, a fireplace filled with cooking equipment. That involved starting and tending a fire, operating equipment that was either suspended over the fire or on the floor in front of the fire, or sometimes cooking food in the ashes. Such cooking is difficult and dangerous, but, according to Custis, Hercules excelled at it. He “was, at the period of the first presidency, as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States,” Custis wrote.
No recipes known to be attributable to Hercules survive, and there are few descriptions of the meals that he made for Washington during his time in Philadelphia from 1791 to 1797 — a curious fact given Washington’s celebrity status. Fortunately, one Washington biographer found this reference to one of those meals: “Bradbury gives the menu of a dinner at which he was, where ‘there was an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkey, ducks, fowls, hams, &c.; puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punches.”
If one needs further evidence of culinary prowess, note that President Washington allowed Hercules a unique opportunity to earn additional income. As LaBan notes, “Most telling . . . was allowing Hercules the right to sell the kitchen ‘slops’ — the remaining animal skins, used tea leaves, and rendered tallow that would have been compost on the plantation. In the city, these were lucrative leftovers, an income-producing perk traditionally bestowed on top chefs. . . . For Hercules that meant annual earnings of up to $200, if Custis is accurate, as much as the Washingtons paid hired chefs.” That would be about $5,000 in today’s dollars. Hercules used some of the money to acquire a spectacular wardrobe, and almost every day he walked the Philadelphia streets wearing “a blue coat with a velvet collar, a pair of fancy knee-breeches, and shoes with extravagant silver buckles. Thus attired, with a cocked hat upon his head and a gold-headed cane in his hand, he strutted up and down among the beaux and belles until the stroke of the clock reminded him that he must hurry off to the kitchen and prepare the evening meal.”
Those who watch cooking competition shows and reality shows about restaurants on television probably think of a professional kitchen as a place where arrogant, self-absorbed chefs terrorize line cooks with abusive language and impossible demands. It appears that Hercules was that kind of chef. Custis observed, “The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his discipline, wo [sic] to his underlings if a speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.” Evidently, Hercules ran a very tight ship: “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.” What made Hercules so demanding? Was it his natural temperament? Was he reacting to a stressful environment? Perhaps it was just learned behavior from Washington, who had a very bad temper, or a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, Hercules had the perfect personality to be a demanding chef.
Though the Washingtons were pleased with Hercules’s cooking, having an enslaved chef in Pennsylvania created political and logistical headaches as well as a potential public relations nightmare for them. Annoyingly for Washington, prior to him taking residence in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania state legislature had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. This law freed any enslaved person who stayed on Pennsylvania soil for longer than six continuous months. To skirt the law, Washington decided to send all of his slaves back to Mount Vernon every time the six-month deadline was about to toll. They would stay at the plantation for a few weeks and then return to Philadelphia to restart the “freedom clock.” Washington surmised that his slaves, especially Hercules, were well aware of the law, and at one point late in his second presidential term, he accused Hercules of plotting to escape. According to Tobias Lear, Hercules was visibly upset that Washington would even suspect him of such betrayal.
It’s puzzling that Washington would be concerned about Hercules’s possible flight, since he had previously granted him some limited freedoms. In addition to Hercules’s off-the-clock excursions, the president’s expense reports also show that Hercules and other slaves were allowed to go to the circus and the theater by themselves. Hercules certainly could have attempted to get away at any point during these activities but chose not to. Perhaps he refrained because he was aware that the president had signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which would have forced his return if he escaped and was recaptured anywhere on American soil. Hercules knew he would have only one chance to abscond, if he decided to do so, and he had to make it count.
As Washington’s second term came to a close, he prepared for permanent retirement at Mount Vernon. Hercules was growing more desirous for freedom and must have known that the window to escape was closing. He may have been buoyed by the successful flight of Martha Washington’s longtime enslaved maid Oney Judge in April 1796 as well as of a couple of other of Washington’s slaves. However, the fact that some slaves had successfully made their getaway meant that Hercules was being more closely watched. In fact, Washington sought to minimize the risk of Hercules’s escape by moving him back to Mount Vernon ahead of schedule. As LaBan wrote, “The once-trusted chef, also noted for the fine silk clothes of his evening promenades in Philadelphia, suddenly found himself that November in the coarse linens and woolens of a field slave. Hercules was relegated to hard labor alongside others, digging clay for 100,000 bricks, spreading dung, grubbing bushes, and smashing stones into sand to coat the houses on the property, according to farm reports and a November memo from Washington to his farm manager.”
In early 1797, Hercules dashed for freedom. The conventional wisdom held that he had escaped in Philadelphia before Washington left the city and returned to private life at Mount Vernon. However, some recent historical detective work has caused researchers to reassess that timeline. In reality, Hercules made the gutsy move to leave on Washington’s birthday! Hercules must have shrewdly calculated that all of the activity surrounding the birthday festivities at Mount Vernon would distract others from noticing his absence.
The president’s reaction to Hercules’s escape played out for nearly a year, and he refused to accept that this master-slave relationship had ended. In November 1797, nine months after Hercules had absconded, a still-seething Washington fired off a letter to George Lewis. He wrote, “The running off of my Cook, has been a most inconvenient thing to this family; and what renders it more disagreeable, is, that I had resolved never to become the Master of another Slave by purchase; but this resolution I fear I must break. I have endeavored to hire, a black or white, but am not yet supplied.” This letter makes Hercules sound indispensable to the Mount Vernon kitchen, but clearly the Washingtons had gone without his cooking before. Recall that Washington had Hercules working in the fields in the weeks prior to his flight. This suggests that the hard labor was temporary punishment to “teach Hercules a lesson” for thinking about escape while in Philadelphia. In addition, Washington had numerous slaves that he could have forced to cook. Apparently, spite motivated the man whose presidency was a fading memory; running a slave-operated plantation was apparently now his primary occupation.
Where did Hercules go?
One thing we know for certain is that Hercules never came back to Mount Vernon. Louis-Philippe, a French nobleman and future king of France, visited Mount Vernon a few months after the former chef’s flight. Upon meeting Hercules’s daughter Delia, he wrote in his travel diary, “The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin [Louis-Philippe’s valet] ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, Oh! sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.” Hercules’s heart must have ached from being separated from the four children he left behind — especially given that we know that his wife had died 10 years earlier — but the risk of recapture was greater for an entire family than it was for one person.
Perhaps Hercules didn’t go that far after all. In 1801, New York City’s mayor, Col. Richard Varick, who happened to be Washington’s former recording secretary, is on record as having spotted Hercules walking around town. Perhaps Hercules, who had not worked for Washington during his time in New York City, thought living there was much safer than hanging out in Philadelphia, where he would more likely be recognized. Varick immediately wrote to Martha Washington to apprise her of his discovery. The Fugitive Slave Act was still the law of the land, and Mrs. Washington could easily have forced Hercules’s return. But she declined because, by this point, she had already freed his slaves. Hercules had likely gotten news of President Washington’s death and, like the other Mount Vernon slaves, knew that Washington had desired to free them once he died.
Varick’s report is the last eyewitness account that exists of Hercules. Yet the chef’s memory lived on in those who ate his food. In 1850, Margaret Conkling wrote in her memoirs of the Washington dinners that she attended: “Hercules, the colored cook, was one of the most finished and renowned dandies of the age in which he flourished, as well as a highly accomplished adept in the mysteries of the important art he so long and so diligently practiced.” I like to imagine that Hercules vanished while at the top of his game to acquire something he desired more than fame — his freedom.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Martha Washington had freed her slaves by the time George Washington died. She had freed his slaves upon his death.
Miller is the James Beard award-winning author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” He lives in Denver.
He will speak about “Kitchen Cabinet” at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, on Feb. 25 at 3:30 p.m.