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 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings

 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ice Age Artists Used Charcoal Over 10,000 Years to Create Europe's Oldest Cave Paintings
C. Fritz/MC
C. Fritz/MC

Tiny bits of charcoal found in a cave in France are providing new clues into how our prehistoric ancestors lived some 35,000 years ago.

The samples were taken from the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in southern France, whose wall paintings are the oldest in Europe and among the oldest in the world. Few people have ever been inside the cave, which was discovered only in 1994 and remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time—but some might recognize it from Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The results of the charcoal analysis, published today in the April issue of the journal Antiquity, enabled researchers to paint a picture of how humans created art in the Ice Age, as well as the bitter climactic conditions of that time.

Researchers collected 171 samples of charcoal from hearths and torch marks in the cave. Other bits of charcoal were found directly beneath the animal paintings, which have been preserved in incredible detail after being sealed off by a rockfall thousands of years ago.

A drawing of rhinos inside the Chauvet cave
C. Fritz/MC

The analysis revealed that all but one of the charcoal samples came from burnt pine trees; the remaining one came from buckthorn. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that some of these drawings were created nearly 10,000 years apart, during two different Ice Age periods. Put differently, for millennia, humans chose to use the same material for the sole purpose of creating art.

Researchers concluded that while other types of wood could have been used, the artists who created these cave paintings continued to choose pine, likely due to the availability of fallen branches as well as its combustion properties. But more remarkably, researchers believe these early artists selected it because it was the perfect medium for their art, ideal "for the smudging and blending techniques used in cave paintings," according to the study.

Over the years, the paintings have been praised for their artistic merit and use of motion. As Herzog commented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one artist's rendering of a bison with eight legs suggested movement—"almost a form of proto-cinema."

These findings also reveal what the climate was like during that time, and it was anything but balmy. The researchers write:

"Pine is a pioneer taxon [group] with an affinity for mountainous environments and survived in refuges during the coldest periods of the last ice age. As such, it attests, first and foremost, to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed during the various occupations of the cave."

To preserve the cave paintings, only researchers are allowed inside the Chauvet Cave. However, a replica of the cave was built in France's Ardèche region and remains open to tourists.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Uncover What's Believed to Be the Oldest Shipwreck in Lake Erie
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iStock

In the fall of 1829, a ship had departed from Put-in-Bay, Ohio, but failed to reach its final destination. Now, researchers believe they have finally found its remains, which would make it the oldest shipwreck ever recorded in Lake Erie, if their theory is confirmed.

Remote sensors detected the wreckage three years ago, and the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio, has been working to identify the ship ever since then, according to The Blade newspaper in Toledo. Experts believe they have narrowed down their search from 200 possible shipwrecks to three. The museum is now raising money via Indiegogo to fund an underwater survey and partial excavation of the ship.

Strong evidence suggests that the wreckage belongs to one particular schooner—a sailing vessel with at least two masts—that was built in Cleveland in 1821. It was named the Lake Serpent in reference to a carving of a sea serpent on its bowsprit, according to the museum. In the fall of 1829, it left from Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, where crews loaded limestone onto the ship. It's unknown what happened after that, but we do know that the ship never reached its final destination. Local newspapers reported that the bodies of the captain and other crew members washed ashore in Lorain County, located about 25 miles from Cleveland, the ship’s intended destination.

It’s a wonder that the shipwreck was even detected at all. Tom Kowalczk, director of remote sensing for the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, which has a partnership with the Toledo museum, nearly wrote off the wreckage as a “small, barely noticeable anomaly” when he first detected it in 2015.

“The target was so small it was almost dismissed as a natural artifact,” Kowalczk wrote in a discovery report. “We were looking for shipwrecks! Curiosity got the upper hand and the boat was turned for a second look.”

Museum officials hope this finding will reveal unknown details about the design of early 19th-century ships from that region. Shipwreck hunters continue their search for another schooner called Lexington, which sank in the 1840s.

[h/t The Blade]

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