What is believed to be a portrait of George Washington's Chef, Hercules.
"After a long day in president George Washington’s executive kitchen, chef Hercules hit the streets of Philadelphia with sartorial flair and a keen eye for late-18th century fashion. Atop his head, the enslaved cook wore a voguish tricorn hat. Bright metal buttons held together his blue velvet-collared coat, a pair of shiny buckles dominated his fastidiously polished shoes, and a long watch-chain dangled from the side of his black silken pants."
This fashion Friday will have but one picture because the subject in question was a slave and there are not that many portraits of slaves. The painting above is assumed to be of Hercules, but no one alive today can be certain. Sadly, we have no portraits of him dressed to the nines in his blue velvet and polished buttons and buckles. We will have to use our imagination for that.
I type this on February 28th, the last day of Black History month, a month full of ambivalence for me since black history is our history. To relagate it to one month is a form of segregation and denial.
Hercules, was George Washington's favorite chef. He also was George Washington's slave. When he became President, Hercules spent 6 months of the year here in Philadelphia and six months back in Mount Vernon. Washington didn't make this sacrifice willingly. There was a law in Pennsylvania that said that any slave who lived within it's borders for more than 6 months would be freed and, to quote the Memory Palace, George Washington was not above the law. When Hercules was back in Virginia, there was no reason for him to work the in kitchen since his master was not home. As a large, strong, capable man, he was then delegated to hard labor and work the fields.
This must have been a stark contrast and difficult position for him to be in. When he was in Philadelphia, he walked about like a free man and was shown respect that he could never receive in Virginia. He's considered to be our first "Celebrity Chef" and was able to sell his left overs, earning himself an income that kept him in a style that he was not accustomed to on the plantation.
To quote George Washinton's adopted son years after his father's death:
“Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out the front door... a gold-headed cane firmly in hand, Hercules would then proceed up Market Street, (which was, in the 1790s, where fashionable people did most congregate.) There, he drew considerable attention. While strangers gawked, those who knew him bowed, hoping, to receive in return a salute of one of the most polished gentlemen and the veriest dandy of nearly sixty years ago.”
Needless to say, this taste of freedom, respect and luxury, paved the way to his escape in 1797. We don't know much about Hercules after he found his way to freedom, but we do know that where ever and when ever he died, he died a free man. We do not know if he was able to maintain his lifestyle as the "most polished gentlemen," but it would seem to be unlikely that an escaped slave could continue to dress like the dandy, both due to expense, but also since it would draw attention.
We do know that his former master continued to look for his favorite chef and that he once wrote, “The running off of my Cook has been a most inconvenient thing to this family."
If you'd like to learn more about Hercules, there is a novel which is a historical fiction of his life, and two of my favorite Podcasts, the Memory Palace and the Kitchen Sisters, had Episodes featuring Hercules. Click on the links if you'd like to listen.
As always, please feel free to comment on my below and share with friends.
See you next Friday. I'm planning to talk about the color green.