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Uncovering The Hidden Life of Hercules Posey, George Washington’s Enslaved Cook

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on stories about Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Ramin Ganeshram is a chef, cookbook author, and food historian. She is executive director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture and curator of the exhibit Remembered: The History of African-Americans in Westport. Ganeshram is also the author of The General’s Cook, a fictionalized account of the life of Hercules Posey, the enslaved cook of George Washington.

When I was in culinary school, I had a chef-instructor who, on a good day, looked like a furious Mr. Clean. He believed his job was not only training us to cook, but training us to handle the stress of the professional kitchen. To do this, he often stood behind us while we were working and barked like a drill sergeant, “Cook like someone is standing behind you holding a gun to your head!”

It was a ridiculous statement. Even the cuisine of the greatest chefs alive cooked for the most notable personages don’t come with the threat of physical harm. But for America’s first celebrity chef, a man who lived and worked more than two hundred years ago, that statement wasn’t far from the truth.

His name was Hercules, and he was enslaved by George Washington, who acquired him as the surety from a forfeited loan to his neighbor, the profligate John Posey. It’s unknown exactly when Hercules joined the Mount Vernon kitchen, but he surely trained under cooks Old Doll and Nathan, learning the trade in an age-old apprenticeship system that began with simple scullion duties and advanced over time.

The cooks began their day at 4 a.m. and ended after 8 p.m., preparing complex dishes in European high style along with simple colonial fare. Baking, confectionery, and food preservation like pickling, drying, and sugaring exhaustingly filled those hours not spent preparing daily multicourse meals.

‘The Kitchen at Mount Vernon,’ Eastman Johnson, 1864. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

By 1790, Hercules was accomplished enough in managing a kitchen on his own that Washington had him come to the President’s House in Philadelphia, then the national capital.

It was in Philadelphia that Hercules truly came into his greatness. George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, devoted several pages describing Hercules in a biography of his famous grandfather—Hercules’ exacting demeanor, his Gordon Ramsay-esque intolerance of ineptitude, and even his physical appearance and inclination to fashion. Custins called him “the veriest dandy,” a point confirmed from household accounts of his clothing expenditures.

Hercules’ kitchen turned out some of the most extravagant meals of the Early Republic. An everyday dinner was multiple courses with a variety of roast fish, fowl, and beast; vegetables prepared in a myriad of ways; sweet and savory pastries; pickles and condiments; breads and rolls; and wines and beer to accompany all. Congressmen, diplomats, and other dignitaries regularly dined with the Washingtons, feasting on Hercules’ unparalleled food which carefully married an array of imported delicacies and local fare, setting the tone for presidential feasting centuries hence.

Referring to Hercules as a “culinary artiste” and “great master spirit,” Custis paints a picture of a chef we would recognize today—the general of his kitchen, a man with limitless self-possession.

But what is unsaid in Custis’ account is what’s most important. Hercules did not, in fact, possess himself. Not only did Washington own Hercules, but he took great pains to keep him and the other enslaved people in the household in that condition by flouting Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law. That law allowed any enslaved person who remained in the state for more than six months to petition for their freedom. To retain their human chattel, the Washingtons engaged in a system of rotating them out of Philadelphia before six months passed—either back to Virginia or across the river to New Jersey, a slave state—thereby “resetting” their bondage.

Somehow, Hercules convinced the Washingtons to let him overstay six months in 1791, thereby securing a trump card in a game rigged against him. He also convinced them to let him sell the kitchen slops, earning about $200 a year—twice the average working man’s salary at the time.

In his character sketch, Custis writes of “underlings” flying to Hercules’ command. It’s an image of an executive chef to which modern line cooks can relate. But it’s an image that deserves a closer look, because those underlings were white. Unlike Hercules, they were free or, at worst, indentured servants, their freedom deferred for only a time.

By all accounts, Washington’s relationship with Hercules was unusual for a slaveowner. In addition to managing white staff and selling the kitchen slops, Washington allowed the cook to come and go from the President’s House as long as he returned at night. When a Massachusetts Congressman arrived late for the weekly presidential dinner, Washington flouted etiquette and commenced the meal without him, admonishing him coldly, “My cook asks not whether the guests have arrived, but whether the hour has come.”

Underlying it all was the barely concealed threat of real violence. Washington could beat, maim, or kill Hercules at will should he choose. As a younger man, the first president had a heavy hand with those he enslaved. He readily sold off those who “offended” him to worse hardships in the Caribbean—in one case hanging the man’s dog for good measure. Hercules worked with the equivalent of a loaded gun always pointed at the back of his head.

If any enslaved person managed to escape, Washington hunted them down. Even knowing this, Hercules emancipated himself from Mount Vernon on Washington’s birthday in 1797. He’d been forced to remain at the plantation the previous summer because Washington believed escape was on Hercules’ mind.

Washington set the actual and figurative hounds after his cook, but did not succeed in apprehending him. Hercules was seen only once more, in New York City in 1801—two years after Washington’s death. For the next 218 years his memory remained in a portrait that hung in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Spain, entitled Presumed Portrait of George Washington’s Cook, until that painting was discovered to be both misattributed to the wrong artist and not actually a depiction of Hercules (or even of a cook).

Cover of Ramin Ganeshram’s ‘The General’s Cook,’ a fictionalized account of the life of Hercules Posey. The painting, long thought to depict Hercules, was recently discovered to be misattributed and not actually depicting Hercules or a cook at all.

In 1976, I visited Philadelphia and Washington’s Mount Vernon to celebrate the American Bicentennial with my Trinidadian father. As young as I was, I could sense my father was moved as we stood on a long line to see the Liberty Bell. We didn’t know it, but as we waited, we stood on the buried remains of the President’s House where Hercules had lived.

No one talked about the enslaved Africans in the city of independence. It would be decades before the President’s House site was excavated as an open-air exhibit honoring them. It was a week later while visiting George Washington’s Virginia home that I began to viscerally sense this omission, although I was too young to name it. Instead, I sensed it in how my father’s mood changed, how he asked the tour guides about the enslaved people of the house and the field, and how his questions were deflected with twittering Southern charm. Later he brooded a long time at the slave quarters and the kitchen—Hercules’ kitchen. When I asked what was wrong, he just shook his head darkly. For years after, even the mention of Mount Vernon gave me a shifting sense of unease.

It would be another 30 years before I actually heard Hercules name aloud while I was writing The Pass It Down Cookbook, and food historian Adrian Miller told me about Hercules in the context of Black presidential cooks.

So began a decade-long obsession to ferret out the tantalizing shreds of Hercules’ story and share it with the world. With each minute bit of information, drawn from the letters and household ledger books of George Washington, I could feel him stepping forward from the shadows with urgency. Chasing ghosts, I spent nearly ten years researching and writing his story in my novel, The General’s Cook, as well as in a picture book.

Hercules spoke to me. At first he spoke in whispers, and then in a roar when the public outcry over the picture book publisher’s offensive illustrations and edits—over which I had no control—temporarily derailed our journey. I remain determined to tell his story, both in the novel and eventually in an appropriate format for young readers.

My obsession is tied up in that memory of my father at Mount Vernon, simmering with rage at the erasure of those held violently captive there. My father was the grandson of at least three East Indian indentured laborers. I was born when my father was almost 50 years old. He was born when his own father was nearly the same age, and my great-grandfather was pushing 60 when my grandfather was born. Because only three generations in my family spanned more than one hundred years, my father had direct contact with grandparents whose forced immigration in the 1850s to plantations in Trinidad continued a system of enriching the white man on the backbreaking work of Black and brown people.

My father, who this year would have been 97, recounted the stories of those who had sickened and died on the voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and up the African Coast to cross the Middle Passage. Or those who had instead sickened and died in the fields. Of women raped under the cover of tall sugar cane by white overseers. Of children like my aunts who learned to tend cookfires and mind one another from the time they were five years old.

He only told these stories when he cooked and I hovered near, enticed by the aromas of the kitchen and compelled by his memories. At the stove, he entered an almost trance-like state and the tales poured forth—tales of a thousand indignities through which we ultimately prevailed.

I don’t think my father knew about Hercules, but I like to think he’d have been empathetic to his story. He’d have certainly delighted in the calculated message in Hercules’ escape, and triumphed at his success. He would have appreciated his skill as a cook, although I know that it was not a profession he wanted for me—he considered cooking a menial job that no longer had to be forced on our kind. My choice to cook for those outside my own family would have confounded him.

Whatever the reason, my obsession with Hercules has continued after The General’s Cook was published. Through a series of odd coincidences relating to the famed portrait, and with the help of a colleague at the history museum where I’m director, I was able to solve the mystery of Hercules’ life after his self-emancipation.

Taking the surname of his original owner, John Posey, Hercules lived in New York City working as a cook—one successful enough to buy into the city directories listing his name and profession. He lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in various locations including in Orange Street, today Baxter Street in Chinatown. His long-destroyed home was behind Lung Moon Bakery, a lifelong favorite of mine that sadly closed this year in the pandemic.

Although I could not know it as I wrote, Hercules Posey’s real life turned out not so different from what I imagined for him in The General’s Cook.

When he died of tuberculosis on May 15, 1812, at age 65, Hercules was buried at the 2nd African Burial Ground in Chrystie Street. The cemetery was overflowing its boundaries by the time of Hercules’ death. He, along with others, was likely buried under what is now pavement and roadway. When the cemetery was disinterred in the 19th century and moved to Cypress Hills in Brooklyn, some were left behind. I believe Hercules was among them.

When I first visited the site in 2019, I looked around Chrystie Street with fresh eyes, seeking clues about Hercules. Seeing none, I spoke to him in my mind as I often do, for we have come a long way together. I brooded as I walked. If only I had a sign that I was on the right track. Stopping for a light at a cross-street, I looked at the curb ahead of me and saw a small white van with Hercules Dry Cleaning emblazoned on its side. I pressed on.

The former burial ground is now a private lot with an apartment building. At the southern end of Chrystie street hulks the Manhattan Bridge. Across the street is a public park where I have been encouraging New York City’s parks department to place a commemorative plaque for the Burial Ground, the once-thriving Free Black community, and for Hercules Posey—who was America’s first celebrity chef and so much more.