Chef James Hemings was the first American classically trained in French cuisine. He is the founder of Mac and Cheese, but his owner, Thomas Jefferson, took the credit for it. Yes, that Jefferson. pic.twitter.com/Rt9nebCALW
— Asani Charles remembers Breonna Taylor’s name. (@Asani) February 2, 2022
The tweet featured a painting of a Black man in a chef’s uniform to the left, and a photograph of baked macaroni and cheese to the right. It read:
Chef James Hemings was the first American classically trained in French cuisine. He is the founder of Mac and Cheese, but his owner, Thomas Jefferson, took the credit for it. Yes, that Jefferson.
James Hemings was the subject of a biography on the website of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It substantiated the claim that Hemings — brother to Sally Hemings — was classically trained in French cuisine, subsequently detailing his experience in Paris:
James Hemings (1765-1801) was a chef, trained in Paris, yet he was born into slavery and lived much of his life enslaved. At thirty years of age, he negotiated for legal manumission and began his life as a free man. He traveled and pursued his career as a chef, but unfortunately his career and life in freedom were short due to his tragic and untimely death at age thirty-six.
While in Paris, James Hemings was trained in the art of French cooking. He studied first with the caterer and restaurateur, Monsieur Combeaux, apprenticed with pastry chefs and then with a cook in the household of the Prince de Condé. After three years of study he became the head chef at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson’s residence that functioned also as the American embassy. Here his dishes were served to international guests, statesmen, authors, scientists, and European aristocrats. His wages of twenty-four livres a month were a regular income (and more than the occasional gratuity he received in the United States, but that salary was half of what Jefferson paid his previous chef cuisinier.
Prior to the circulation of the Twitter screenshot, digital outlet The Afro published a May 2021 article, “Mac and Cheese is truly the pinnacle of Black American dishes, culture.” It was a broader look at the significance of macaroni and cheese to the Black community, and it began:
While Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing macaroni and cheese to the Americas, it was the work of his enslaved chef, James Hemings, that put the dish on the proverbial map and made it the truly celebrated dish of Americans to this day. For Black people, macaroni and cheese is more than a savory delight, it represents overcoming trials, celebrating achievements and is a unifying factor for families across the race.
When Jefferson visited Europe in the 1780s, he first encountered and fell in love with the dish. He took detailed notes and even shipped a macaroni extruder to Virginia to bring the dish to the Americas. Jefferson hosted dinners featuring macaroni and cheese, garnering rave reviews, and the rest is sort of American history- as told by White people. However, it wasn’t Jefferson cooking the dish, but rather his slave and chef, Hemings, who was able to warm the hearts and fill the stomachs of the former president’s guests.
An initial search for “James Hemings” and “mac and cheese” returned more than 30,000 results. But restricting results to those published before February 2021 narrowed the results considerably (to 148 in total). A rather sudden appearance of a volume of new results hinted at a piece of culinary history that was likely uncovered or brought to widespread attention in 2021.
Likewise, a Google search for “who invented mac and cheese” on February 9 2022 returned a Google Highlight and a snippet reading:
The dish was primarily reserved for the upper classes until the Industrial Revolution made pasta production easier. Amateur historians have often credited Thomas Jefferson with introducing macaroni and cheese to the United States. [Nov 8, 2021]
Readers could reasonably infer from Google’s selection of the highlight that Jefferson was the “inventor” of macaroni and cheese. That highlight didn’t include the text which immediately followed (also inadvertently highlighting a major problem with that feature) and it added:
But this is wrong. Jefferson wasn’t the first to introduce macaroni (with or without cheese) to America, nor did he invent the recipe. It is possible that he helped popularize macaroni and cheese, though, because he likely served it to dinner guests while president. But it was Jefferson’s enslaved Black chef James Hemmings who perfected the recipe.
Hemings warranted a single mention on the Wikipedia entry for macaroni and cheese:
The US president Thomas Jefferson and James Hemings, his slave, encountered macaroni in Paris and brought the recipe back to Monticello. Jefferson drew a sketch of the pasta and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process. In 1793, he commissioned the US ambassador to France William Short to purchase a machine for making it. Evidently, the machine was not suitable, as Jefferson later imported both macaroni and Parmesan cheese for his use at Monticello. In 1802, Jefferson served “a pie called macaroni” at a state dinner. The menu of the dinner was reported by Reverend Manasseh Cutler, who apparently was not fond of the cheesy macaroni casserole. Nevertheless, since that time, baked macaroni and cheese has remained popular in the United States.
On Twitter, the verified account for Borden Dairy tweeted about Hemings and macaroni and cheese in February 2021:
(cont.) and is credited with popularizing the recipes of these three beloved dishes to the United States. A slave, Hemings went to France with Thomas Jefferson prior to his presidency to learn the art of French cooking.
— Borden Dairy (@BordenDairy) February 9, 2021
Back in 2018, a SmithsonianMag.com piece on the dish did not mention Hemings; it featured a subheading that read: “Popularized by Thomas Jefferson, this versatile dish fulfills our nation’s quest for the ‘cheapest protein possible.'”
A long-form December 2019 article, “The History of Slavery in the Cultivation of Mac & Cheese,” began by explaining:
Though Thomas Jefferson is praised for “putting mac and cheese on the South’s radar” (Biro)—after bringing the recipe from Europe to Virginia in the late 1700s—the underlying, often discounted narrative lies in Jefferson’s enslaved chefs preparing the meal, often adding their own culinary influences from Africa.
In particular, Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, remains “a ghost in America’s kitchen” (McElveen), overshadowed and “still enslaved to the narrative that gives Thomas Jefferson credit” (McElveen) for introducing such foods to the nation.
Overall, my research aims to do three things: 1) explore the history of mac and cheese in the Southern sphere, 2) debunk theories that only credit Jefferson with popularizing the dish, and 3) emphasize its newfound cultural and culinary importance in black culture today.
In November 2018, a Newsweek.com article, “Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson’s Slave, Who Brought Mac and Cheese to America, Discovered at Monticello Plantation,” addressed Hemings’ contribution in the context of archeology at Jefferson’s plantation:
After more than 50 years being denied access to a cellar on Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, archaeologists finally allowed on the premises have discovered the remains of stoves where James Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved chef, prepared meals … James Hemings was born in 1765 and legally became Jefferson’s property in 1774, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. An immensely talented chef, he was responsible for the spread of French cuisine to America, including creme brulee, merengues, whipped cream and macaroni and cheese.
“His trajectory was pretty extraordinary,” Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology at Monticello, told Live Science. “[This is one of the] really rare instances where we can associate a workspace and artifact with a particular enslaved individual whose name we know.”
The earliest relatively current link we located between Hemings and the introduction of macaroni and cheese was in the New York Times. Not in an article, however, but a letter to the editor in February 2016.
Ashbell McElveen, chef and founder of the James Hemings Foundation, wrote:
“Beyond Labels” (Food section, Jan. 27 ), about a new generation of black chefs, inspired and annoyed me equally, for it does not go back far enough in America’s food history. The greatest specter among the “invisible” chefs referred to in the article was James Hemings — valet, chauffeur and chef to Thomas Jefferson, who granted him his freedom 220 years ago this week.
Hemings trained under chefs at the famed Château de Chantilly, the “five-star” kitchen of 18th-century France whose culinary creations outshined those served the royal family at Versailles. Technically free in France, Hemings was paid a wage to helm the kitchen at Jefferson’s residence in Paris. There he supervised a large French-speaking staff for Jefferson’s extravagant dinners for royalty and the most discerning palates in Paris.
Hemings returned to slavery in America, bringing with him revolutionary changes to traditional colonial hearth cooking. Meringues, crème brulée, French-style crème Chantilly (whipped cream) and continental European-style macaroni and cheese can all be traced back to his training in Paris.
McElveen’s letter (worth reading in its entirety) concluded:
James Hemings has been a ghost in America’s kitchen, overshadowed and still enslaved to the narrative that gives Thomas Jefferson credit for introducing gourmet cuisine to the nation. I dream of a day when Hemings is no longer left out of media stories on the origins of fine food in America.
I’ve started the James Hemings Foundation to celebrate not only Hemings but also the thousands of blacks who were linchpins in creating American cooking.
A viral Facebook screenshot of a February 2022 tweet asserted that Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved cook James Hemings invented macaroni and cheese (or at least developed and introduced it to American palates), not Jefferson. Information about Hemings’ link to to mac and cheese came to widespread notice in 2021, but was referenced by reference material and culinary researchers earlier. The first instance we located was a February 2016 letter to the editor by Ashbell McElveen in the New York Times; McElveen founded the James Hemings society, in part to ensure that “Hemings is no longer left out of media stories on the origins of fine food in America.”