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.