My husband and I are “foodies.” We love to try various cuisines from hidden mama and papa dives to food trucks and even fine dining. We know our Chefs, and I am a Food Network, “junkie.” However, before the time of Wolf Gang Puck, Anthony Bourdain, James Beard, Marcus Samuelsson or even B. Smith, there was Chef, Hercules is also known as “Hercules” or “Uncle Harkless” or “Hercules Posey.” Hercules was the first celebrity chef in America. He was not just any cook. He was a black slave who gained fame as a “Chef of fine French cuisine” and “simple Frontier cooking” for President George Washington at his Mount Vernon home, in the 1780s, and his Philadelphia home, in the early 1790s.
George Washington is believed to have purchased him in 1767 when Hercules was a 13-year-old ferryman as collateral for an unpaid loan given to his neighbor John Posey, Hercules’ original owner. He worked in the kitchen learning under the first lady, Martha Washington’s longtime slave cook, Old Doll, and her daughter Lucy. They prepared hoecakes and smoked hams and started “British fusion cooking,” which includes more than 1,000 years of English, Irish, Welsh, & Scottish cooking and a hint of Roman influence. They incorporated Native cooking traditions, seasoning it with African spice, flavor, and ingenuity, creating the basis of colonial Virginian cookery. Hercules also had a culinary mentor by the name of “Samuel Fraunces.” Historians at this time do not know what race Samuel was.
James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s chef, learned to fuse this new Virginian cookery with fine French Cuisine which he learned while in Paris. That became another level to Southern cuisine. It was the new James Hemings fusion that was preferred by both Washington and Jefferson. Hercules must have learned a thing or two from James Hemings for him to have to title of “Chef of fine French cuisine” and “simple Frontier cooking.” Jefferson’s residence in Philadelphia was just down Market Street from the President’s house.
Hercules was about 36, when he moved from the kitchen at Mount Vernon, to the kitchen in Philadelphia in about 1790. A White Chef, “Chef John Vicar,” has been dismissed from his duties as Head Chef and Hercules. Washington preferred Virginia plantation cooking by enslaved cooks to that of Frances Tavern in New York City. He worked with a team of eight people including presidential steward Samuel Fraunces, some assistant cooks (including his own enslaved teenage son Richmond), and several waiters. He cooked in a large hearth, a fireplace filled with cooking equipment. Annoyingly for Washington, before him taking residence in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania state legislature had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. This law freed any enslaved person who stayed on Pennsylvania soil for longer than six continuous months. To skirt the law, Washington decided to send all of his slaves back to Mount Vernon every time the six-month deadline was about to toll. They would stay at the plantation for a few weeks and then return to Philadelphia to restart the “freedom clock.”
Mount Vernon The kitchen in Mount Vernon (pictured) where Hercules used to cook for George Washington
Hercules was born in 1733 in Washington. He had married a dower slave, Lame Alice, a seamstress at Mount Vernon, and they had three children, Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). Alice died in 1787, leaving Hercules to raise the young children.
George Washington’s step-grandson and others in the family would call him Uncle Heckless. George Washington Parke Custis even wrote about him:
“The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless.
Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency [Philadelphia 1789-1797], as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.
He was a dark brown man, little, if any, above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.
Craig LaBan, Philadelphia Inquirer This painting was long believed to be a portrait of chef Hercules, supposedly painted by Gilbert Stuart. Those attributions have recently been dismissed by experts, and both subject and painter are now unknown.
The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline, wo [woe] 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. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.
The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with much respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.
It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet, he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.
When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, “the labors of Hercules” ceased.
While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His perquisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptionable whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat, and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the President’s kitchen.
Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, [Philadelphia] attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables,”
– Parke Curtis
The Washington family appreciated Hercules’s expertise as a cook, and he had special privileges. He made “from one to two hundred dollars a year” by selling the leftovers from the presidential kitchen. Hercules, unlike other Slaves, would enter and exit through the “front entrance” in Pres. Washington’s Philadelphia home. It is believed, that Hercules, though still a Slave, would have enjoyed occasional company with Black Freemen, including Thomas Jefferson’s Cook James Hemings’ Not your average slave, Hercules would have been seen walking in the streets of Philadelphia, sporting a velvet waistcoat and gold-handled cane.
“Chef Hercules was a very proud and confident man, whose culinary skills and status were recognized throughout the nation, he demanded perfection from his staff in the presidential kitchen, and he commanded attention and respect from the public as well—something unheard of for enslaved laborers of his period.” According to historian Kelley Fanto Deetz, author of Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine.
In 1796, his son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a visitor’s saddlebags. Washington was immediately suspicious because slaves didn’t have money, but don’t forget Hercules made about $200 a year selling leftovers that the President approved of. Hercules felt it was time to escape with his son. On President George Washington`s 65th birthday- 2/22/1797, Hercules decided to escape Slavery and leaving son Richmond and the other children behind, and he did.
However, in the Mount Vernon farm report, it established new facts: Hercules did not escape from his privileged post in Philadelphia in early March, as had been widely believed. He fled Washington’s Virginia plantation, where he had been transferred and put on hard labor – and his disappearance was discovered on his master’s 65th birthday.