Reading: The General’s Cook


I’ve always had an interest in local history.  I remember in high school discovering Doran Green’s “History of Bristol” and  “A History of Old Homes on Radcliffe Street.”  I’d walk around town and up Radcliffe looking at the neighborhood or houses in connection with what I read in the books.  In the 1980s after taking a National Endowment course in Local History I became addicted — Yardley, Bucks County, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania books came to dominate my library.  I began to teach a course in local history.

Several recent Coronavirus “stay at home” reads fall into the local history category.  “The General’s Cook,” by Ramon Ganeshram, although a novel contains lots of history and a local Philadelphia connection.  The cook is Hercules, one of George Washington’s slaves.  I first learned about Hercules when in 2006-07,  the President’s House was the site of an archaeological dig due to the construction of a new building for the Liberty Bell.


“The archaeologists found foundations of the kitchen. No documentary evidence indicated that the kitchen, originally built as a one-story building, had a basement, so it was an unexpected find. It was here that Hercules, an enslaved African and renowned chef, worked and prepared the food for the President’s household and for dignitaries. Hercules escaped into the darkness from this house, and there is no historic record of what became of him.” (Internet: Archaeology at the President’s House).


Hercules and the eight other slaves Washington brought from Mount Vernon became the subject of controversy.  Would the Park Service include their story in the interpretation of the site?  How would they comment on our founding father’s keeping of slaves.  More controversial was the fact that Washington would take Hercules and the other slaves back to Mount Vernon periodically since PA law would set them free if they remained in the state for 6 months.

Hercules is a colorful character.  Washington allowed him to sell “slops” from the kitchen.  With money in his pocket, he dressed well and was known around town.  There are various Philadelphia references in the novel.  Some are factual; others fiction.  In the book, Hercules meets Gilbert Stuart, right around the time Stuart was painting Washington.  Stuart wants to paint Hercules.  Factually there is a famous painting, part of the book’s jacket, thought to be Hercules painted by Stuart, in chef’s hat and coat.  Recent scholarship indicates it’s probably not a Stuart and not Hercules.

”Due to his culinary prowess, Hercules was able to bring his son Richmond, to Philadelphia. He was also given other special privileges not entitled to most of Washington’s slaves. According to Custis (Washington’s step grandson), Hercules accrued a salary of “one to two hundred dollars a year,” by selling leftovers, known as slops, from the presidential kitchen. Hercules was a “celebrated dandy,” in the words of Custis, and the chef kept an equally meticulous kitchen: “Under his iron discipline, wo[e] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver.” (Internet: Washington’s Mount Vernon)


There are many historical traces in “The General’s Cook.” Hercules wanders familiar Philadelphia streets past landmarks like the State House and Dock Creek.  He shops in the market, the author uses the real names of market people.  Hercules has contact with James Heming (Jefferson’s chef), Richard Allen ( founder of Bethel AME Church), Samuel Faunces (tavern keeper in NYC and Philadelphia) and the Chew Family.  His white fictional mistress, Thelma, works for a daughter of Benjamin Chew.  George and Martha Washington play minor roles; this is the story of the downstairs not upstairs. There are some interesting details true or false about Washington like toothless “old Sam” who claimed he sold his teeth to the President or George’s love of Hercules’s hoecakes.


Oney Judge, Martha’s maid is another named Mount Vernon slave.  Oney would run away when Martha proposed to give her away. In the novel, Hercules helps her. Washington attempted to have her captured but failed.  Hers is another interesting story.

It was believed that Hercules ran away from Philadelphia.  But the novel and recent scholarship points to Hercules being returned to Mount Vernon. He was put to hard work.  It was from Mount Vernon that he ran away.

“Washington was angered and confused by the decision to run away, believing that Hercules lived a privileged life, having even received three bottles of  rum from  Martha to “bury his wife” in September of 1787. On March 10, 1797, Washington expressed to Tobias Lear that he wanted Hercules to be found and returned to Mount Vernon, as soon as possible. Washington was so distressed by the absence of the family chef that he even wrote to Major George Lewis on November 13, 1797, about buying a slave in Fredericksburg who was reputed to be an excellent chef. Washington stated that while he “had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase,” because of Hercules’ absence, “this resolution I fear I must break.

Washington’s last will and testament , written in July 1799 before his death that December, provided for the eventual emancipation, care, and education of his slaves, following the death of Martha Washington. However, he had no legal control over whether the Custis family dower slaves would gain their freedom. As a result, Hercules’ children remained enslaved, even after Martha Washington’s death in May 1802.” (Internet: Washington’s Mount Vernon)

“The General’s Chef “ was a good read.  I particularly enjoyed the local history.  I do wish there was more time in the kitchen, devoted to food and cooking.  One of my other interests.





Coronavirus: second post

We’ve been home bound since early March.  Approaching three months.  It’s been an amazing time.  And although states have begun to “open up” there is a spike in infections and some return to lock down.  Social distancing, masks, and hand washing could continue for months.  Being retired our lives have changed but no where as drastically as for the millions of unemployed, those in poverty, homeless, in nursing homes. Their conditions and stories are tragic, frightening.

The national political divide is increasingly disturbing.  I want to turn off the news but feel obligated to stay somewhat informed and aware of what’s happening.  The Trump administration’s response from my perspective has been inadequate and at times ridiculous. I sometimes try to pull back and not be so critical but then Trump will do or say something that I find absurd.  His behavior and decisions are consistently driven by his vision of re-election in November.  I’ll avoid the specifics.


Our lifestyle change does make us appreciate the basics.  It was  a chilly wet spring, so building a fire in the wood stove Continued to be a treat,  not just in February and March but as late as May.  When it’s warm and the sun shine I totally enjoy my walks on the canal.  Just sitting on the deck, the back yard or front porch is a delight.  The chirping birds and budding trees. It’s not easy but I am trying to keep up with the garden.  There are more greens from seed than we can eat.   Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are growing big.  I was hoping Paul who cuts the grass would weed the back garden.  He did and I sowed cucumber, bean and squash seed.

Mornings until about one when we have lunch (lots of garden salads now) are devoted to the daily routines, laundry, cleaning up a bit, walking, minor projects, sometimes cooking.  In the afternoon I read, several books each month.  I’ve blogged some but not all weeks.   I do find writing, if only for myself,  a release.  Anxiety and minor depression has been limited, usually associated with the news or my feeling of helplessness.  I don’t like to be out of control.  I have read that it’s on the rise.

APTOPIX Minneapolis Police Death

Coronavirus news this past month was outpaced by the protests, rioting and looting in cities across the country over the death of Floyd George in Minneapolis.  The protests started there but spread rapidly. Philadelphia was a battleground of personal interest.  I remember the aftermath of the King assassination here.  The current pattern seemed to be that peaceful protests in the afternoon and early evening turn violent later when there were been curfews and strong police action.  There were suspicions that the right or left wing (Trump accused Antifa) was responsible for the violence.  We may never know?  So much of this recalls the 1960s and early 1970s when one tragedy, crisis, frightening and saddening event followed another.  The protests seemed to be youth, in some cities Whites  (even more)  and Blacks.  Combine outrage against police brutality, our long history of racism. the lock down, unemployment, poverty and hunger and our current nightly news hasn’t been much of a surprise. Trump’s response to the protests became increasingly militant.  Enough said.


Its sometimes hard to believe it’s July.  Retired for six years.  Some have been better than others. It’s hard to predict what lies ahead.  Jenny decided to keep the Cape Cod reservations.  If things seem totally safe maybe we will go but as of now that doesn’t seem a strong possibility. This may be the first year we spend the total summer in Yardley.  There is plenty of cleaning, organizing, and getting rid of stuff that we need to do. We can take day trips, enjoy sitting on the deck and yard.  I do need to break from the current routine.  The beauty of summer has always been the break with routine.  I’m thinking but don’t have a good plan yet.  As Thoreau wrote, “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity.”

I’ll try to get out of the rut and find that mix of tradition and change, the old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, that has characterized my better days, best summers and most exciting trips.  A bit of serendipity never hurt.