Bringing to Light the Cuisine of Hercules Posey, George Washington’s Enslaved Chef

by 24USATVFeb. 20, 2024, 5 p.m. 32
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Exploring the details of Posey’s cooking is an important way to understand the American story, said Kelley Fanto Deetz, the author of “Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine.”

“Food is one of the most influential expressions of society and culture. When you add the power dynamics of enslavement and racism, tracing these expressions becomes a vital lens through which to understand the perseverance and creativity of the enslaved chefs,” Dr. Deetz said. “Their food is an essential element of our nation’s history.”

In addition to honoring their resilience, Mary V. Thompson, the historian emerita at Mount Vernon, wants people to realize the technical skill and talent of enslaved cooks, noting that some have questioned whether a chef like Posey would have been skilled enough to make complicated dishes. Ms. Thompson, the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret” about slavery at Mount Vernon, has spent the last four decades debunking this myth by piecing together evidence using family and period cookbooks, account books and financial and farm records showing ingredients, utensils, livestock and produce.

Although his birthplace is as yet unknown, Posey became Washington’s property — the bond on a forfeit loan — around the age of 20. Posey was likely apprenticed to older Mount Vernon cooks when he was a young man. He was 42 years old in 1791 when he was summoned to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, to cook for Washington in the executive mansion. He labored with eight other enslaved people. The Washingtons rotated their enslaved “servants” out of Pennsylvania multiple times a year to prevent them from benefiting from the state’s Gradual Abolition Law that freed enslaved persons living there for at least six months.

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