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How Hercules Posey, George Washington’s Chef, Helped Form American Delicacies

How Hercules Posey, George Washington’s Chef, Helped Form American Delicacies

Nowadays, presidential feasts and state dinners get all kinds of attention—for the guests in attendance and the food served alike—and the chefs whipping up the meals can become celebrities in their own right. But that wasn’t always the case.

In the late 1700s, George Washington’s chef was the enslaved Black man Hercules Posey, who has largely been lost to history. But a group of historians is trying to bring his story to light, and show further examples of how enslaved people shaped America and its foodways.

“Chef Hercules Posey holds a significant place in history,” Arthur Wilson, the chairman of the League of Descendants of Mount Vernon’s Enslaved Community, told The New York Times, “not only for descendants of the enslaved at Mount Vernon or because he was George Washington’s cook … He is a representative of a rich community of enslaved cooks whose contributions played a crucial role in shaping the city’s—and America’s—commerce, society and growth.”

Posey’s early life is still largely a mystery, but he became Washington’s property around the age of 20. In 1791, at 42 years old, he was brought to Philadelphia, then the country’s capital, to cook for Washington in the executive mansion, the Times noted. Over the next six years, he would create elaborate meals for all sorts of occasions, from weekly congressional dinners to socials held by Martha Washington to the president’s birthday dinners.

As the head chef, Posey worked 16-hour days and oversaw a kitchen staff of free and indentured white people. He would cook simple hoecakes, which were one of Washington’s favorite foods, as well as fancier dishes that hinted at the family’s wealth: Accounts from the time show that the Washingtons bought Portuguese and French wine, Italian olive oil, Indian mango pickles, Suriname coffee, Caribbean coconuts, pineapples, and other ingredients from abroad. The family’s cookbooks and other tomes also illuminate that Posey made complex sauces, molded ice creams, delicate pastries, and preserved and fresh vegetables, among other items.

“The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste,” George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s step-grandson, wrote in his memoir, “as highly proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.”

In 1797, Posey escaped from Mount Vernon and began his life as a free man. He first went to Philadelphia, before settling in Manhattan, where he worked as a laborer and a cook until his death in 1812. While his influence on American cuisine then went unspoken of for centuries, Posey is no longer just a footnote in U.S. history.

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Source: Robb Report

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