Written By: Alejandra Zamora
Happy Black History Month! Historically recognized in February, this month celebrates Black history and heritage of both the past and the present, including educating people on the often forgotten, veiled experiences and figures who shaped various industries. At Common Threads, we recognize and value the cultural roots in which much of our food is rooted in, with many of our recipes stemming from Caribbean, African and Southern cuisines. Iconic names like Sunny Anderson, Marcus Samuelsson and Edna Lewis may come to mind when thinking about prominent Black chefs in the industry, but what about the unfamiliar figures who paved the way for Black inclusion in the food world? In this blog post, we’re spotlighting three trailblazers you may not have heard of who’ve made profound impacts on the culinary world.
James Hemings (1765-1801)
Crème brûlée, meringues, ice cream and French fries may have James Hemings to thank for their popularity in America.
Born into a well-known enslaved family, Hemings himself was an enslaved person for most of his life: At the age of 8, he became the property of Thomas Jefferson through his wife’s inheritance, despite being the former president’s half-brother. Prior to Jefferson’s presidency, however, Hemings accompanied the then-commerce minister to France overseas to Le Havre so he could train in the art of French cuisine, making him the first American to do so. Hemings quickly moved up the culinary ranks while in France, from completing training at the famous Chateau Chantilly— today’s equivalent of a Michelin five-star restaurant — to becoming the chef de cuisine at the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson’s private residence and the first American diplomatic embassy. Throughout his culinary career, Hemings cooked for international royalty and famous names in American history, including having prepared the famous reconciliation dinner between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
French-fusion cooking and many of the recipes it inspired would be nowhere without the remarkable innovations and progress made by this master chef.
Make one of Hemings most famous dishes, “snow eggs,” by clicking this link.
Abby Fisher (1831-19??)
Pickles and preserves put famed culinary innovator Abby Fisher on the map after she took home two medals for them at the 15th Annual San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair.
Moving all around the South before eventually settling in San Francisco in 1877, Fisher, a former enslaved person, and her husband started a pickle and preserves manufacturing business under the name “Mrs. Abby Fisher & Co.” Cooking for her family and in her business endeavors not only led her to earning more awards for her sensational soul food recipes, but it also led her to publish “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” one of the first cookbooks written by a Black woman.
Full of traditional Southern recipes like gumbo, cornbread and fried chicken, Fisher’s cookbook paved the way for the Southern food chefs that followed her, with it being the original source for many innovative culinary techniques still used in the cuisine decades later. It remains a relic revered by countless historians and other pioneers of the industry, all of whom quickly realized that Mrs. Fisher, in fact, knew everything about old Southern cooking.
For a link to Fisher’s original cookbook, click here.
Zephyr Wright (1914-1988)
Over 100 years later, when time and legislation had shifted a considerable amount, Washington, D.C. saw another prominent Black culinary icon rise to fame, but this chef did more than just prepare food. In addition to holding various kitchen utensils, White House cook Zephyr Wright also held the pen that endorsed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Born in Texas in 1914, Wright experienced her own fair share of discriminatory acts throughout her life, but it was her activist professor, Melvin Tolson, at Wiley College who inspired her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement and make a name for herself. Studying home economics in college, she did more for herself than simply obtain an education: Wright was one of the university’s best students, being so highly recognized that she was recommended by the university president to work for then-representative Lyndon B. Johnson’s family as a chef in 1942.
Many biographical accounts credit her time with the Johnsons as inspiring the former president to later sign the famous Civil Rights Act. Traveling together on their way back to Washington, Wright and the Johnsons found they couldn’t eat, use the restroom or find shelter at the same facilities together because Wright was Black.
The Johnson family quickly grew attached to Wright and her cooking, so much so that she became the official White House chef when Lyndon was elected president in 1963. According to the first lady, Wright was “an expert at spoon bread, homemade ice cream, and monumental Sunday breakfasts of deer sausage, home cured bacon, popovers, grits, scrambled eggs, homemade peach preserves and coffee.”
From her cooking to her famous signing of the Civil Rights Act, Wright left behind an influential legacy and impact on the Black culinary scene and American history as a whole.
Get the recipe for Wright’s shrimp curry here.
- “6 Black Chefs (and 1 Inventor) Who Changed the History of Food Black Chefs” (New York Times)
- The James Hemings Society
- “James Hemings” (Monticello)
- “Recipes from the President’s Kitchen” (NPR)
- “Zephyr Wright, White House Cook and President LBJ’s Conscience” (The Marshall News Messenger)
- “When the President and His Chef Feuded Over Cold Beans” (Atlas Obscura)
- “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking” (Internet Archive)
- “Celebrating Abby Fisher, One of the First African-American Cookbook Authors” (Atlas Obscura)