Black Chefs in History: Hercules
Did you get a chance to check out last week’s blog?
If not, read it HERE. In it, I discussed the place of the African American cook/chef, and pointed out a few dishes rooted in African-American culture that are being passed off as the new “it” culinary specialties. During America’s celebration of Black History Month, I’d like to reflect a bit, giving honor and credit to some of the pioneers of the culinary game; their consummate skill and influence are both undeniable and largely unknown.
Let’s start our homage to Black chefs with a brief peek into Hercules.
When I think of the name Hercules, two images instantly pop into mind:
As a slave of George Washington, Hercules became Chef of the White House after the previous White chef was dismissed. According to Ramin Ganeshram, author of the essay George Washington’s Celebrity Chef: “Hercules first worked at Mt. Vernon (The Washington’s home), receiving his training from other slave cooks and then from New York city tavern owner Samuel Fraunces, a free man of color.”
What did our first POTUS eat for breakfast? According to several sources, it included “hoecakes” (yes, SOUL FOOD hoecakes). I have a recipe for that at the end of the post. It is said that Hercules ran the kitchen with an iron fist, demanding excellence from his staff (Black AND White).
Ganeshram quotes Washington’s step-grandson G.W. Park Custis as writing: “Under his iron discipline woe to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or desserts, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver…there was no arrest of punishment for judgment and execution went hand in hand…” He went on to say that he remembered Hercules as “highly accomplished and proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States.” He was also highly respected and well known around town, walking in & out of the front door at will (at a time where business owners weren’t allowed to do so) to gallivant his way through the Philadelphia streets. On Washington’s 65th birthday in 1797, Hercules left his son behind and escaped to freedom.
I HIGHLY suggest researching this guy a bit; his story is QUITE interesting.
Well, that’s this week’s look back at an influential Black chef. Come back next week for another helping. In the meantime, here’s that hoecake recipe I promised:
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt 2 cups boiling water (may need a little extra)
bacon fat (or use butter or high heat oil for frying)
Place water in a pot, and bring water to a boil. In a large bowl combine the cornmeal and salt. When the water boils, measure it in a metal or tempered-glass measuring cup and measure 2 full cups water. Pour the boiling water over the cornmeal and stir. The cornmeal will swell up, absorbing the water and making a very thick mash. Heat a very well-oiled large skillet over medium high heat, re-oiling the pan after each batch. Scoop out about ¼ cup of hot mash and shape into a patty. Fry the cakes in hot oily skillet until brown & crispy on both sides.
Chef Cordell passionately pursues educating others how to build healthy cooking and eating habits for life via cooking classes, grocery store tours, kitchen makeovers, public speaking, corporate wellness training, restaurant consulting, etc. Through his nonprofit work, he looks to offer community based solutions for education of, and access to, healthier food solutions.