As we celebrate Black History Month we need to again turn the pages of history to encounter a most amazing man.
It’s a testament to both Hercules’s charisma and culinary skills that historians remain as enchanted with him today as his peers in the 18th century were. In recent years, a renewed focus on early African-American cuisine has revived interest in the story of a man who, while enslaved by the Washington family between 1770 and 1797, bested cruel, capricious treatment to become one of the most famous chefs in the early American republic.
Hercules seems to have run an orderly, sanitary kitchen. Though mild-mannered outside the workplace, he quickly rebuked anyone in the executive mansion who failed to meet his exacting standards. “Under his iron discipline,” Custis wrote, “wo[e] 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.”
According to Custis, Hercules especially shone during the dinners Washington hosted for members of Congress. These events were crowded and often hectic, but under Hercules, “it was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in such bustling a scene,” he wrote. “[Hercules’s] 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.”