The General’s Cook by Ramin Ganeshram tells the true story the George Washington’s head cook, Hercules, in Philadelphia during the first presidency. Hercules is a complex and formidable figure, enjoying the benefits of his “station” as the President’s head cook, while at the same time still, in reality, an enslaved man. Although he is treated with a certain amount of prestige among the market vendors and other enslaved peoples, and even lower class whites, Hercules at first seems to not dwell too much on his bondage. However, Hercules soon realizes that he does not exist and live in a vacuum. He sees the plight of the enslaved people in the President’s household, of his daughters still toiling the plantation of Mount Vernon, of his own conflicted son Richmond, and his chef assistant and protege, Nate. It it through Nate’s idealism that Hercules recognizes the same within himself: the desire to read. Both Nate and Hercules know, as many enslaved people knew, that the ability to read and write was a step toward autonomy and eventual freedom. With the help of an abolitionist group of free blacks in Philadelphia, Hercules begins gearing up for the hardest task of his life. In turn, he also helps those around him–namely the famous Oney Judge, the subject of Never Caught.
An author of cookbooks, Ramin Ganeshram’s knowledge of food and food history shines. The decadent dishes of the late 18th century are described in delicious detail, each dish prepared to absolute perfection by Hercules and his assistants. It is through his food that Hercules’ complexity comes through even more–for although he is enslaved, he seems to take great pride in his work and accomplishments. But his accomplishments in bondage are nothing more than facade given the hardships of those around him, as well as his own lack of complete freedom. What’s more, the dichotomy of Washington himself is of course discussed in that although he may treat Hercules and those in his household “kind,” they are still enslaved. The Washingtons even knowingly circumvented the emancipation laws in Philadelphia by rotating their enslaved people out to Mount Vernon and back every six months in order to retain their “status.”
However, at times I felt the prose to be clunky and awkward. A few characters were painted too thinly with the exception of Hercules.
On another interesting note, the cover of The General’s Cook is thought to be a painting of Hercules himself by famous 18th century painter Gilbert Stuart, although this point is contested among historians. To learn more about the research behind this book, I interviewed Ramin Ganeshram for the Journal of the American Revolution.