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Today’s celebrity chefs who feature successful ‘farm to table’ menus are often rewarded with high praise and a steady rotation of hungry diners.
But the cooks and laborers who built the foundation of our country’s culinary traditions have often gone unnoticed throughout history.
At the Folger Shakespeare Library, the ‘First Chefs’ exhibit highlights the stories of America’s named and unnamed food heroes – including the plant-obsessed pirate William Hughes and the first paid woman food writer Hannah Woolley.
We’ll learn about these early chefs and the contributions they made to our local palate.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Amanda Herbert Curator, "First Chefs" exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library
- Claudio Foschi Chef, America Eats Tavern (Georgetown)
WILLIAM HUGHES’ HOT CHOCOLATE
¼ cup cocoa nibs
3 ½ oz/100 gram 70% dark chocolate bar, roughly chopped
½ cup cocoa powder
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup breadcrumbs or grated stale bread (optional for a thicker drink)
½ teaspoon chili flakes (substitute ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon for a less spicy drink)
Milk (1 cup to 3 tablespoons of finished mix)
Makes 2 cups of hot chocolate mix
Toast the cocoa nibs in shallow pan until they begin to look glossy and smell extra chocolatey. Combine all ingredients in a food processor. Blitz until ingredients are combined into a loose mix. Heat the milk in a pan on the stove or in a heatproof container in a microwave. Stir in three tablespoons of mix for each cup of heated milk.
Hughes lists many other ingredients that indigenous Caribbean people as well as Spanish colonizers added to their hot chocolate. Starting with a base of grated cacao, they thickened it with cassava bread, maize flour, eggs, and/or milk, and flavored it with nutmeg, saffron, almond oil, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, fennel seeds, anise seeds, lemon peel, cardamom, orange flower water, rum, brandy, and sherry. Adapt this hot chocolate to your taste by trying these other traditional flavorings.
Credits: Recipe adaptation by Marissa Nicosia (www.rarecooking.com), based on a recipe from William Hughes’s The American physitian. Photography by Teresa Wood.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Today's chefs are part of our celebrity culture heralded for their artistry and rewarded with accolades, but the cooks and laborers who build our regions culinary traditions have often gone unnoticed throughout history. At the Folger Shakespeare Library the "First Chefs" exhibit highlights stories of American's named and unnamed food heroes. Joining me now in studios Amanda Herbert. She is the curator of the "First Chefs" exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Amanda, thank you for joining us.
AMANDA HERBERTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThis exhibit is apparently trying to complicate our understanding of the local celebrity chef. Why?
HERBERTWell, we thought that it was really important to draw attention to the fact that in the past it took a lot of people to bring food from farm to the table just as it does today. And in this exhibition really we wanted to explore as you said the named and unnamed food workers of the early modern world.
NNAMDIThere might be listeners wondering, Wait a minute. What does this have to do with English literature? Was the Folger Shakespeare Library in a good position to take on this topic?
HERBERTWe were on the best position to take on this topic.
HERBERTThe Folger holds the largest collection of early modern British manuscript recipe books in the whole world. So hand written recipe books from Shakespeare's time. And we'd love to bring those books to the public and help people learn more about food in Shakespeare's world.
NNAMDIWell, let's get into some of the unnamed heroes that are featured in your exhibit. Who was Hannah Woolley?
HERBERTHannah Woolley is one of my favorite people in the exhibition. She was the first woman to make her living by her pen. She was a self-made person who was a chef and a kind of a home-style guru in early modern London. She taught cooking classes out of her home. And she also wrote a series of fabulously popular cooking books and domestic guides that were in fact so popular that they were stolen by predatory publishers, who reprinted her works under her name without her permission under other people's name also without her permission. So while she gained a lot of fame, she was never really able to enjoy it.
NNAMDIWhat kinds of dishes -- what kind of techniques did she write about?
HERBERTShe wrote about the kinds of things that middling and elite people would want to serve in their households, but her goal was to help people, who were like her. So she was an orphan, who came from a kind of lower middling background and she was hoping that people, who read her books would be able to use it in order to feed themselves and their families by working in elite households.
NNAMDIWho was Hercules?
HERBERTHercules was a man, who was enslaved by George and Martha Washington. And he first was working as a ferryman on the Mount Vernon estate and then moved into the kitchens. He became such a gifted culinarian and such an expert in the kitchen. And Washington valued his cooking skills so much that when Washington became president and moved up to Philadelphia for the first presidential house, he brought Hercules with him. At the time there was a law in Pennsylvania that allowed enslaved people to claim their freedom after six months of residency in the state -- continuous residency.
HERBERTThe Washingtons wanted to circumvent this law and so they would rotate the people that they claimed as slaves back and forth between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. Hercules was circled back to Mount Vernon in order to keep him bondage. And on one of these trips he was assigned not to his regular kitchen duties, but to labor in the gardens and brickyards at Mount Vernon.
HERBERTWe don't know what decisions drove him to claim his own freedom, but two months later he fled on Washington's birthday, I think. And he's been lost from the historical records since then. So he's another example of someone -- and this was part of the work that we did in the "First Chefs" exhibition to think about what it meant to be a celebrity chef in the period. Hercules was someone, who fled from fame in order to gain freedom.
NNAMDIBecause as far as he was concerned bondage was much more hurtful than fame was helpful.
NNAMDISo he decided to flee and as a result of that we don't know much more about him. What artifacts do you have in the exhibit to help visitors picture the kind of life that Hercules had?
HERBERTIt was really important to us to recognize all of the aspects of Hercules's life. So we wanted to show his culinary skill, his skill in the kitchen. We have a wooden bowl that we borrowed from Mount Vernon that has the knife marks that enslaved kitchen workers made in it. It's breathtaking to look at. But we also wanted to show the sides of Hercules's life that were not defined by his slave owners. That didn't just relate to the labor that he did for them. And so we have items that were excavated from what's called "The House for Families" at Mount Vernon, a child's marble, a piece of a pipe, a shoe buckle fragment, things that show us how enslaved people survived and lived.
NNAMDIWho was William Hughes?
HERBERTWilliam Hughes was a man who lived in the 17th century and we're calling him the pirate chocolatier in the exhibition. He was served aboard a pirate ship in the Caribbean, but he was obsessed with plants. His secret love was botany and when he decided to leave his seafaring days behind him he retired to England to work as a gardener on an estate. And he wrote a book about the flora and fauna that he encountered in the Caribbean. And he was the first person to bring an eye witness account of chocolate back to Britain.
NNAMDIFrom pillaging to chocolate. That's an interesting career.
HERBERT(laugh) Not a bad transition.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Claudio Foschi. Claudio is a chef at America Eats Tavern in Georgetown. Claudio, thank you very much for joining us.
CLAUDIO FOSCHIThank you for your invitation.
NNAMDIAmerica Eats Tavern worked with the Folger library to feature recipes based off the work of these pioneering "First Chefs." How did you do your research?
FOSCHIWell, for this particular project Jose got the invitation from the library and he loves all these projects that has to do with the history of America and telling the stories. So immediately he got all the team together. We went to the exhibition and then we started the collaboration there.
NNAMDISounds like Jose Andres to me. That's for sure.
NNAMDIWhich of these "First Chefs" were you most inspired by?
FOSCHIWell, definitely the story of Hercules, very very inspiring on how he was able to achieve greatness with the president. Unfortunately, we don't have records of recipes, but his story is very very inspiring. And I invite everybody to go to the exhibition and check it out. And then as far as the recipes from the exhibition, we selected some that for us it caught our attention. And that's how we decided to go about, you know, playing with those recipes.
NNAMDIWhat items on your menu are inspired by this exhibit?
FOSCHISo we selected four dishes. Our three dishes and one drink. One is a potato pudding that dates go back to 1640 recipe. And it's very interesting for us, because the technique is very French. It's basically a potato soufflé, but it doesn't call it like that. It calls it in a potato style. So we took that recipe and we tried it in America Eats in a different way. So it's served like cassoulet sort of like that traditional style with a lot of cheese on it. So it's very delicious.
NNAMDII also heard about your hot chocolate.
FOSCHIYeah. So the hot chocolate is a very funny story, because -- so imagine yourself back in that time when this recipe comes to America of this amazing drink. Hot chocolate and it's spicy and it's sweet. So the team, you know, got together and it's like, "How can we do this recipe not just like a straight up hot chocolate?" So we decided to it in a plate of dessert. So it's very in the style of, you know, the way Jose thinks about food, which is telling this story about this dish, but in a fun way. So when you get this dish, it looks like a hot chocolate, but your get your spoon into it and it has three different layers of ganache, a cake, and a cream. And it has all those flavors going back to the original recipe. So it has cinnamon and spice, got chilies. So it's great.
NNAMDIStop. I haven't had lunch yet.
HERBERTIt's really good.
NNAMDIThe America Eats Tavern is all about showcasing iconic American dishes. Claudio, what other items might be recognized on your menu that hearken back to an earlier time?
FOSCHIWell, as you know, the project started in 2011 when Jose was named chief culinary advisor to "What's Cooking Uncle Sam?" the exhibition on the National Archives. So that's when the project get started. And there was an extended research back then and we went back to these classic dishes, you know, ingredients or recipes that have been forgotten. So, you know, we still have some of those in our current menu like people's favorite, which is the mac and cheese.
FOSCHIAnd that shows the story of the original mac and cheese, which dates back to 1802 by Lewis Fresnaye. And it's just we use the same technique and the same sort of ingredients that he used on the first mac and cheese, but we bring it to today's -- you know, we make it a little contemporary. But it's based on the same ingredients, same recipe, same technique.
NNAMDIHow about the shrimp and grits? It's my understanding that shrimp and grits goes as far back as 1607.
FOSCHIYes. I think if you want to expand on that a little bit and then I'll talk about the dish.
HERBERTI just know from talking with Chef Claudio and the folks at America Eats that they worked with Jamestown down in Virginia in order to be inspired by and develop the shrimp and grits recipe. And in the exhibition we have a lot of artifacts from Jamestown that date to that same period. So it's a nice tie-in even if it was inadvertent.
FOSCHIYeah. It's very -- again, it goes back to telling the stories and, you know, for us when we first saw this recipe very exciting, because it's one of the first times when you see the integration of grits, which was something that the natives were using. Grounding hominy to make it into grits and then you have the mix of the shrimp and the spices that were coming from the different parts of the world. And that's when this dishes started to come along. So for us, we wanted to celebrate that and bring people back to that time, when these dishes were created.
NNAMDIAmanda, what local scholars did you partner with on the exhibit? And what did you learn from that?
HERBERTWe learned so much. So there were two scholar chefs that we worked with in particular. One is Michael Twitty, the James Beard Award winning author of "The Cooking Gene." And he helped us to reimagine a recipe that Hercules might have made for himself or for his own family or that would have come from his own tradition. Of course, we got lots of recipes from George and Martha Washington and Hercules surely prepared those. But we wanted something that was maybe his own. So we worked with Michael in order to creatively interpret and reimagine what that might be like. We also worked with Marissa Nicosia, who's an assistant professor in the English department at Penn State Abington and she runs a blog called "Cooking the Archives." And Marissa helped us to adapt other Folger recipes onto cards that people can take home so that they can prepare them in their own kitchens.
NNAMDIHow have people been responding to the exhibit this far?
HERBERTIt's been so exciting. So the recipe cards have been flying off the shelves. And one of the other things that's been great in terms of getting audience feedback, because we have a food memory wall where people can write about their own favorite recipes, the things that they make every year that have been passed down through their own generations. The things that they make that they don't even like, but they make it because that's what you make in your family on that day. And it's been wonderful to see the outpouring of memory and feeling that people have about food.
NNAMDIThe exhibit runs until March 31st.
NNAMDIAmanda Herbert is the curator of the "First Chefs" exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Thank you for joining us.
HERBERTThank you so much.
NNAMDIClaudio Foschi is chef at American Eats Tavern in Georgetown. Claudio, thank you for joining us.
FOSCHIThank you so much.
NNAMDIToday's conversation on "First Chefs" was produced by Ruth Tam. Our show about Esports was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, we'll air part of the conversation we had last night at our Kojo 20 Roadshow at Arena Stage. We talked all about the role artists play in rapidly gentrifying D.C. and what can be done to better support them. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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