Portrait of James Hemings Photo courtesy of The Scribe

By Logan Langlois

NASHVILLE, TN — One famous dish during Thanksgiving, macaroni and cheese, is an often-forgotten contribution of Black Americans. It was James Hemings who would bring the dish to America from Paris in the 18th century while enslaved by the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. During his enslavement, Heming would be sent to France and bring back with him a phenomenon. 

According to the historic house’s website, Heming would be brought to Monticello as a part of the Wayles estate, which came into Jefferson’s possession as a portion of his wife’s inheritance while Heming was just nine. Heming came with his mother and several siblings, and was the half-brother of Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles Jefferson, as her father John Wayles had fathered six children with his mother Elizabeth Hemings. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson was elected as wartime governor of Virginia, and Hemings, now a teenager, and his brother Robert, would be sent to Williamsburg and then Richmond to serve as his personal attendants. 

While Jefferson was away, Hemmings was allowed to hire himself out and keep his wages, though this did not change Hemmings’ enslavement as the direction of his life was still not his to decide. Jefferson would elect to take the now 19-year-old Hemings with him on his travels to France to “train in the art of French cooking,” after Jefferson had been appointed by an American minister to the French court. After three years of apprenticeship under various chefs, Hemings became the head chef at the Jefferson’s house which also functioned as the American embassy, Hotel de Langeac.

Hemings’ wages were 25 livres a month, half the salary Jefferson paid his previous chef, some of which Hemings used to hire a French tutor. It was during this time Hemings learned how to make a dish he called macaroni pie, which would later be renamed “macaroni and cheese” by legacy when he brought the dish back to America. He would use a mixture of milk and boiling water and place a “sharp American cheese in between layers of butter and milk-coated macaroni. Then baked in a Dutch oven over an open-hearth fireplace stove and hot coals placed on the pot’s lid to bake.” 

Now speaking French, Hemings was able to easily work amongst French kitchens with French staff until he returned to America with Jefferson in October 1789 during the early days of the French Revolution. In late 1790, Hemings was brought by Jefferson to Philadelphia where he prepared dinners. He was paid a wage of $7 a month, equal to that of the free staff, as well as being allotted “market money.” 

The mention of market money indicated he circulated among free and enslaved tradesmen, and likely learned he could proclaim his freedom in Philadelphia if he stayed for six months. Hemings’ several extended stays, such as the period between October 22, 1791, to July 13, 1792. However, he never tried for freedom, and speculation has arisen that he and Jefferson made a deal in exchange for his future emancipation.

Hemings would continue to serve Jefferson as his chef until Jefferson drafted up a manumission or release from slavery, which detailed Hemmings could train a “good cook” to take his place. Jefferson chose Peter Hemmings, and approximately two years after returning to Monticello, James Hemings was released from slavery on February 5, 1796. Despite earning his freedom in an incredibly uneven world, James Heming would die just five years later in a suspected suicide, however, the details of which are not known. 

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