Meringues. Its silky and billowy texture calls out to the palates of all. The principle of the snowlike texture that is obtained by beating egg whites was discovered as early as the sixth century by the Byzantine physician Anthime. But it was not until the Renaissance that this snow like meringue was used in candies or as a dessert.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the French word is of unknown origin. It is sure nevertheless that the name meringue for this confection first appeared in print in François Massialot’s cookbook of 1692. The word meringue first appeared in English in 1706 in an English translation of Massialot’s book. Two considerably earlier seventeenth-century English manuscript books of recipes give instructions for confections that are recognizable as meringue, though called “white biskit bread” in the book of recipes started in 1604 by Lady Elinor Poole Fettiplace (c.1570 – c.1647) of Gloucestershire and called “pets” in the manuscript of collected recipes written by Lady Rachel Fane (1612/13–1680) of Knole, Kent. Slowly baked meringues are still referred to as “pets” in the Loire region of France due to their light and fluffy texture.
Meringues were traditionally shaped between two large quenelle spoons, as they are generally done by chefs and home cooks alike, today. Meringue piped through a pastry bag was introduced by Antonin Carême.
Meringue and crème anglaise actually make up the base for the quintessential French dessert, Oeufs a la Neige.
So how did this very French dessert find it’s way to America ?
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the 3rd President of the United States, receives a great deal of credit for introducing French cuisine to America, but that is not completely deserved. While Jefferson’s contributions to food and drink in America are significant, all the work and cooking at his home was done by enslaved African Americans. Politicians, socialites, diplomats, neighbors and curious strangers often sat at Thomas Jefferson’s table. Many remarked not just on the amicable conversation that they shared with Jefferson, but also on the sophisticated cuisine.
The Washington socialite Margaret Bayard Smith described the dinners in the Jefferson White House as “republican simplicity …united to Epicurean delicacy.” At Monticello, Bostonian George Ticknor wrote that the “dinner was always choice, and served in the French style.”However, most of the French cooking that Jefferson enjoyed was not prepared by French chefs but instead by several remarkably talented enslaved cooks —all of whom remained invisible to the guests who shared Jefferson’s table. Many of the recipes accredited to Jefferson were those of his slaves including James Hemings, chef de cuisine.
Jefferson was sent to Paris by President George Washington and Congress to join American Ministers Plenipotentiary Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in 1784. When Franklin returned to America in 1785, Jefferson succeeded him as the U.S. Minister of Commerce to France. Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris from August 1784 to September 1789: five years that were, according to Lucia Stanton and Douglas Wilson, “arguably the most memorable of his life. Paris—with its music, its architecture, its savants and salons, its learning and enlightenment, not to mention its elegant social life and the cuisine … had worked its enchantments on this rigidly self-controlled Virginia gentleman, and had stimulated him to say and do and write remarkable things.”
In contrast, James Hemings (1765-1801) was a chef de cuisine, trained in Paris, yet he was born into slavery and lived much of his life enslaved.Hemings arrived at Monticello as a nine year old boy, along with other of his siblings and their mother Elizabeth Hemings. They were a part of the Wayles estate, and among the many enslaved people who came into Thomas Jefferson’s possession through his wife’s inheritance. Six of Elizabeth Hemings’ children were fathered by John Wayles, making James a younger half-brother to Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. This family would prove to be extremely capable, intelligent, and resourceful.His last name may be familiar, because James Hemings’s sister was Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved mistress and mother to many of Jefferson’s children. James Hemings was also the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. Quite entrenched in the complex Jefferson family, in May 1784 James Hemings received a summons to join Jefferson in Philadelphia. From there they would be traveling to Paris. Jefferson planned for Hemings to learn French cuisine while abroad, making Hemings the first American to be trained as a French chef.
While in Paris, 19 year old James Hemings was trained in the art of French cooking. He trained and studied with a number of accomplished French cooks: first with the caterer and restaurateur, Monsieur Combeaux. Combeaux was hired to provide Jefferson’s meal service during the first year of his stay in Paris. Hemings also subsequently apprenticed under Jefferson’s female French cuisinière, while simultaneously taking classes from a master pastry chef.
Hemings most important training was under the chef of the Prince de Condé, in the kitchen at Chateau Chantilly made famous by legendary chef François Vatel. Chateau Chantilly was today’s equivalent of a Michelin five-star kitchen, its cooking considered superior to the food at Versailles. Many dishes like foie gras, whipped cream, French fries, ice cream and meringues while not created in this kitchen, became famous for being made there, and later adopted by the bourgeoisie.
After three years of apprenticeship, in 1787 Hemings became the head chef at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson’s private residence on the Champ Elysées that functioned also as the American embassy. Hemings effortlessly supervised a large French kitchen staff, having mastered the language.It was at Langeac where Hemings developed his signature style of half-Virginia half-French cuisine. Most likely his was one of the oldest examples of French fusion cooking, excluding New Orleans. Here his dishes were served to international guests, statesmen, authors, scientists, and European aristocrats, including Duc de La Rochefoucauld and the Princess Lubomirska of Poland.
Hemings’ style and recipes greatly influenced Virginia plantation cooking and fine food preparation that spread from the kitchen at Monticello to Jefferson’s other plantations. It soon spread to the Mid Atlantic region and was adopted in kitchens north and south.
His wages of 24 livres a month was a regular income and more than the occasional gratuity, but was half of what Jefferson paid his previous chef cuisinier.
Hemings applied some of his earnings toward engaging a tutor to teach him the French language. With his immersion in French kitchens, working among a French-speaking staff, then with the more formal training of a tutor, he developed an excellent command of the language. The importance of language skills would have been evident to him upon his initial arrival in France. From the port of Le Havre, Jefferson had sent Hemings ahead to Rouen to arrange their lodging, where he proved resourceful, as he was able to return half of the 72 francs Jefferson had given him for expenses.
Hemings ease with the language would bode well for his work in the kitchen and his experience of the French culture around him. It was a time of political unrest in France that contained talk of rights and liberty. His familiarity of the language likely made him aware of the French law that allowed a slave, even one brought in from another country, to petition the courts for freedom. His wages as chef de cuisine made retaining a lawyer a possibility. Hemings — who was considered a free man on French soil, due to the “Freedom Principle” and lived in a city where many black men were successful businessmen, he chose not pursue that option and left Paris with Jefferson in October 1789 to return to the United States an enslaved man.The reason, many historians believe, was that he wanted to be with family.
His negotiations for freedom would come later.
Upon his return to America, Hemmings brought his knowledge of sophisticated recipes like crème brulee, meringues and “macaroni” with him.
Hemings, once again became Jefferson’s chef while the statesman served in George Washington’s cabinet as the Secretary of State. Hemings organized his first American kitchen in a small house at 57 Maiden Lane in New York City following their arrival there in March 1790. While still enslaved to Jefferson, Hemings served sumptuous dishes like capon stuffed with Virginia ham and boeuf à la mode to political allies and even enemies like Alexander Hamilton.
The stay in New York was brief. The seat of the U. S. government moved to Philadelphia in December 1790. In Philadelphia Hemings would be called upon to prepare dinners for European diplomats, the president, Jefferson’s fellow cabinet members, congressmen, and many national and international visitors. His wage of seven dollars monthly was the same as that paid Jefferson’s free staff, Gustavus, Francis Sayes, and Joseph. Only Petit, Jefferson’s French butler and manager of the household fared better. Hemings was often allotted “market money,” indicating that he was out making purchases for the kitchen and circulating among other free and enslaved working people and tradesman. Surely he would have learned that in Philadelphia he could lawfully become a free man.
Pennsylvania law stated that, “If a slave is brought into the State and continues therein for the space of six months, he may claim his freedom ….” There were instances when Hemings was in Philadelphia over six months, such as the period from October 22, 1791, to July 13, 1792, when his name appears regularly in Jefferson’s accounting records as doing much of the marketing.
According to Pennsylvania law, he could have become a free man at this point but obviously chose to wait.
In 1793, reluctant to return to Monticello after nearly a decades-long absence, Hemings struck a bargain with Jefferson. Hemings would pass on the “art of cookery” to other Monticello slaves in exchange for his freedom.
The manumission agreement drawn up by Jefferson as he prepared to leave the office of Secretary of State at the end of 1793 and retire to Monticello. The agreement reads:
Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this 15th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.
There was an obvious trust on the part of Hemings. He was to teach the person of Jefferson’s choice to be “a good cook.” Jefferson’s choice was James’s brother Peter Hemings, but the manumission agreement held the caveat that he must first train his replacement to Jefferson’s satisfaction. The agreement could have gone on interminably.For nearly two years, Hemings, trained assisted by his brother Peter, producing meals in the kitchen in the cellar of the South Pavilion for the
On February 5, 1796, approximately two years following their return to Monticello, Jefferson drew up the document that discharged Hemings “of all duties and claims of servitude.”
The Deed of Manumission of James Hemings, as written by Thomas Jefferson, 1796.
1801 and Jefferson’s election to the presidency, Hemings was working in a tavern in Baltimore, Maryland.
Jefferson held the impression that Hemings would be willing to come and work for him again as a free man and to become the chef de cuisine for the President’s House. Once Jefferson began setting up his presidential household in Washington, he sent an inquiry to Baltimore, requesting that Hemings join him. Jefferson heard back through an intermediary that Hemings was working at a tavern in Baltimore and did not feel he could leave immediately. Hemings suggested that Jefferson should write to him directly. Jefferson received similar information from a former employee, Francis Sayes, who had worked with Hemings when they were in New York and in Philadelphia. Sayes reported, “I have spoke to James according to your Desire he has made mention again as he did before that he was willing to serve you before any other man in the Union but sence he understands that he would have to be among strange servants he would be very much obliged to you if you would send him a few lines of engagement and on what conditions and what wages you would please to give him with your own hand wreiting.”Jefferson did not write and reasoned that he did not want to “urge him against inclination.” He found a replacement for Hemings, a native French chef recommended by the French consul Phillippe de Letombe of the French delegation living in Philadelphia, Jefferson instead hired French chef Honoré Julien to serve as the White House chef de cuisine .
From the surviving correspondences, it seems that Hemings felt he was “summoned” rather than “invited.” Jefferson likely knew that Hemings request for direct correspondence was about more than a piece of paper. It was about being treated as a free man by his former owner. Jefferson refused to acknowledge his freedom in this capacity and as a result, Hemings refused to acquiesce to Jefferson’s request.
While Hemings turned down Jefferson’s request, miscommunications must have been resolved when Hemings did return to Monticello to cook in August and September of that year while Jefferson was in residence and received $30 for a month and a half wages for his work in the Monticello kitchen.
Just two months later Jefferson, then in Washington, heard a disturbing rumor. He wrote an acquaintance in Baltimore to learn the truth—had James Hemings committed suicide? Within days he received confirmation that Hemings had taken his life.
To Thomas Jefferson from William Evans, 5 November 1801
Baltimore Novr. 5th. 1801
I received your favour of the 1st Instant, and am sorry to inform you that the report respecting James Hennings Having commited an act of Suicide is true. I made every enquiry at the time this melancholy circumstance took place, the result of which was, that he had been delirious for Some days previous to his having commited the act, and it was the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause, I am Sir
Your obedient Servant
At thirty years of age, Hemings had negotiated for legal manumission and began his life as a free man. He traveled and pursued his career as a chef, but unfortunately his career and life in freedom were short due to his tragic and untimely death at the age of thirty-six.
This leaves many questions about James Hemings unanswered. Nevertheless, he left an important legacy in culinary history. He – along with the highly trained enslaved individuals who succeeded him in Washington and at Monticello – serves as inspiration to modern-day chefs and culinary historians alike. Hemings created a Virginian fusion-style of cooking, which is second only to New Orleans cuisine. He is now being credited with introducing Americans to meringue, crème brulée, ice cream, and French fries.
Four of Hemings’ recipes survive today, one for “Snow Eggs” and three for dessert creams. But many food historians believe many of his recipes survived and were published by Mary Randolph (1762-1828) who was well known for writing The Virginia House-Wife; Or, Methodical Cook in 1824. Mary Randolph was the cousin and sister-in-law to Martha Jefferson, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson. Randolph’s book became one of the most influential housekeeping and cook books of the 19th century.
The snow eggs recipe was preserved by the Jefferson Family and can be found among the papers of Thomas Jefferson in the Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library. It called for the creation of flavored meringues to be poached in boiling milk and for the result to be served with custard, more than likely a product of James Hemings’ culinary training in French Cuisine during his time in Paris, as it closely resembles the quintessential French dessert, Oeufs a la Neige.
Take 10 eggs, separate the
yolks from the whites and beat
the whites as you do for the savoy
cake, till you can turn the
vessel bottom upward without
their leaving it; when they are
well beaten put in 2 spoonfuls
of powdered sugar and a little
orange flower water or rose
water if you prefer it. Put a
pint of milk in a saucepan
with 6 oz sugar and orange
flower or rose water; when
your milk boils, take the
whites, spoonful by spoonful and
do them in the boiling milk;
when sufficiently poached, take
them out and lay them on a sieve.
take out a part of the milk, ac-
cording to the thickness you
wish to give the custard beat
– right page –
up the yolks and stir them in
the remainder; as soon as it
thickens take the mixture
from the fire; strain it through
a sieve; dish up your whites
and pour the custard over them.
A little wine stirred in is a
James, cook at Monticello.
Alcock, Barry (2003). Jeremy, Caroline (ed.). Green & Black’s Chocolate Recipes. Kyle Cathie Ltd. p. 101.
A Sweet History”James Hemings Snow Eggs”. (2017).
Barry, Michael (1995). Old English Recipes. Jarrod (archived at the Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent). p. 64f.
Fettiplace, Eleanor Poole (1994). Hilary Spurling (ed.). Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. Translated by John Spurling. Bristol: Stuart Press noted by Muster.
Breen,T.H. (2016). George Washington’s Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 232.
Goody, Maria. (2015). Behind the Founding Foodies, A French-trained Chef Bound By Slavery,” Maria Goody. NPR, October 17, 2015.
Gordon-Reed, Annette(2008). The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 132-33.
James Hemings Foundation.“James Hemings: 1765-1801.”
Monticello.org. “James Hemings.”
Jefferson, Isaac Granger (1951). Rayford W. Logan (ed.).Memoirs of a Monticello Slave. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. p. 15.
Kelly, Ian (2003). Cooking for Kings: the life of Antonin Carême, the first celebrity chef. pp. 60, 225.
Massialot (1692). “XXVIII: Des Meringues & Macarons”. Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liqueurs et les fruits (in French). Paris: Charles de Sercy. pp. 186–188noted by Muster .
Stanton, Lucia 1993. “The Research File: From Plantation Fare to French Cuisine.” Monticello Newsletter vol. 4, no. 2 (1993): 3.
Stanton, Lucia (2000). “Those Who Labor for my Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Stanton,Lucia (2000). Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation. p. 170.
Stanton,Lucia (2005). “How Were the Monticello Cooks Trained,” in Dining at Monticello, Damon Lee Fowler(ed.). Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation. p. 40.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Getting Word: The African American Families of Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.
University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation Transcripts and Letters:
Jefferson to William Short, May 7, 1784, in PTJ, 7:229 (transcription available at Founders Online); “art of cookery” in Jefferson, “Agreement with James Hemings,” September 15, 1793, in PTJ, 27:119 (transcription available at Founders Online).
Jefferson to Short, May 7, 1784, in PTJ, 7:229. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Martin to Jefferson, May 15, 1784, in PTJ, 7:259. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Short to Jefferson, May 14, 1784, in PTJ, 7:255. Transcription available at Founders Online.
MB, 1:554. Transcription available at Founders Online.
MB, 1:681, 1:681n8. Transcription available at Founders Online.
MB, 1:556-57. Transcription available at Founders Online.
MB, 2:750-65, 2:750n21. Transcription available at Founders Online.
MB, 2:836-75. Transcriptions for 1791 and 1792 available at Founders Online.
“Agreement with James Hemings,” September 15, 1793, in PTJ, 27:119-20. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Deed of Manumission for James Hemings, February 5, 1796, in PTJ, 28:605. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Jefferson to Mary Jefferson, May 25, 1797, in PTJ, 29:399. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Jefferson to William Evans, February 22, 1801, in PTJ, 33:39. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Evans to Jefferson, February 27, 1801, in PTJ, 33:91-92. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Francis Say (Sayes) to Jefferson, February 23, 1801, in PTJ, 33:53. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Jefferson to Evans, March 31, 1801, in PTJ, 33:505. Transcription available at Founders Online.
MB, 2:1051. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Jefferson to Evans, November 1, 1801, in PTJ, 35:542 (transcription available at Founders Online); Evans to Jefferson, November 5, 1801, in PTJ, 35:569 (transcription available at Founders Online).
MB, 1:343. Transcription available at Founders Online.
PTJ, 7:229. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Letter not found but entry for letter found in Jefferson’s “Summary Journal of Letters.” See PTJ, 7:228. Entry available at Founders Online.
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