Macaroni and cheese, also called mac and cheese in the United States, is a dish of cooked macaroni pasta and a cheese sauce. One of the most beloved dishes in the U.S., mac and cheese has been around for years and was first “cooked up during the 14th century in its original form by way of Italy,” according to blackamericaweb.
The mac and cheese Americans know today is often credited to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S. However, the dish was actually created by Jefferson’s enslaved Black chef James Hemings.
Some historians say that Jefferson, before becoming president, first tried a European version of macaroni pasta and cheese while traveling in Europe in the late 1700s. He then brought the recipe back when he came back to Virginia. But what those historians did not include is that an enslaved man traveled with Jefferson. That enslaved man, Hemings, was his chef. It was Hemings who introduced the version of mac and cheese Americans know today. But Jefferson and his wife, Martha, took the credit, with the recipe eventually being included in America’s first cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, by White House cook Mary Rudolph in 1874.
With superstar chefs who always bring the heat to the kitchen with brilliant cooking methods and flavors, America’s cuisine has experienced great transformation. In recent times, influential Black cooks like B. Smith, Ron Duprat and Carla Hall, who have greatly influenced America’s food game, have been getting the credit they deserve.
But before these big names were Hemings and his brother Peter, who were slaves of Jefferson and who are believed to be America’s first Black celebrity chefs.
Hemings, who would pass on his culinary knowledge to his younger brother Peter, prepared lavish meals for America’s founding fathers at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia plantation. Essentially, the two brothers worked for very famous men, having been related to them.
Born into slavery before the Revolutionary War, the brothers, along with their sister Sally (who became Jefferson’s enslaved mistress) were members of a family sired by the father of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, who had died in 1782. The Hemingses were therefore related to Jefferson’s wife and this allowed them to enjoy special status in the enslaved community at Monticello. Instead of working in the fields or in the nail factory in the community, they did household chores, according to records.
When Jefferson was appointed United States Minister to France in 1784, Hemings, who was then his enslaved cook, traveled with him to France where for five years, he learned the art of French cooking.
At the time, it was illegal for French citizens to own slaves, and anyone who visited the country with slaves ought to register them. Jefferson never registered Hemings. Realizing he was technically a free man, Hemings knew he could sue for his freedom under French law and stay behind. But not wanting to be separated from his family members at Monticello back home, he struck a deal with Jefferson – that he would be granted his freedom in Virginia as soon as he taught someone else how to cook. That person would be Peter, who eventually became an equally competent chef.
“Peter Hemings was 24-years-old when his older brother, James, taught him how to cook in the French style he learned while serving Jefferson in Paris,” said Gayle Jessup White, public relations officer for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation who traces her lineage back to both Sally Hemings and Jefferson.
Peter, who was a tailor, learned macaroni and cheese and crème brûlée, among other novelties Hemings brought back to America from France in 1794.
Indeed, it was while Hemings was with Jefferson in France in 1784 that he learned the mac and cheese recipe and taught it to his brother Peter who served it at a state dinner at the White House hosted by Jefferson. This helped introduce mac and cheese to America’s elite, according to How Stuff Works. Peter would subsequently become Monticello’s principal enslaved cook, a position he occupied from 1796 until 1809.
Training his brother as a replacement and achieving true freedom in February 1796, Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore and died there in 1801 at the age of 36.
To culinary historian Adrian Miller, the Hemings brothers are important “because they show African American contributions to American cuisine that’s counter to the typical narrative you often heard about black cooks before the 20th century, that black people were natural cooks, so what that did was it took away some of the dimensions of professional training and how they were dedicated to a craft.”