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Culver City dinner series Hemings & Hercules is paying homage to the food of American slavery

Written by
Stephanie Breijo
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January 15, 2020 update: In honor of Black History Month, Hatchet Hall is reprising its Hemings & Hercules dinner series. Find chefs Brian Dunsmoor and Martin Draluck's thoughtful, reverent event inside the restaurant every Thursday in February, beginning February 6.

There were antler-topped tables, cups of boozy colonial punch and multiple fire-blasted courses that dove deep into the food of early America—and as it turns out, that was just the beginning. One of the best dinner series to hit Culver City in years wrapped up in May, but if you missed Hatchet Hall’s transportive Fuss & Feathers events, the restaurant’s hearth-powered kitchen is giving us a second chance with another thoughtful, limited-run culinary homage and it kicks off on Thursday night.

Much like the predecessor series—and the history of America—the topics that serve as touchstones for the menu aren’t always as easy to swallow as the food. Hatchet Hall chef de cuisine Martin Draluck and chef-owner Brian Dunsmoor know this, but it’s part of their mission statement: Shed light on America’s past, encourage conversation about it, celebrate the unsung heroes. And Hemings & Hercules, the new dinner series, is all about the unsung heroes: James Hemings and Hercules Caesar, chefs enslaved by presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, respectively.

“Because they were slaves, they didn’t keep or maintain records as well as other records [from the time],” says Draluck, the chef behind Hemings & Hercules. “But Jefferson is known as having been a foodie—there’s a lot of recipes that he’s credited for—and there’s a Martha Washington cookbook [and] I think we can assume she probably wasn’t cooking a lot of that food, so whoever was in the kitchen at that time should get the credit for those recipes.”

Chef de cuisine Martin Draluck
Photograph: Courtesy Hatchet Hall/Gari Askew

Dunsmoor and Draluck pored over historical documents and menus to bring Fuss & Feathers to life, and during their research, Draluck came across the stories of Hercules and Hemings, who could very well be considered some of our country’s earliest prominent chefs.

He dove into additional source material for the new series, consulting Adrian Miller’s book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas; Kelley Fanto Deetz’s Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine; the Jefferson and Washington cookbooks; and resources from Monticello, Jefferson’s estate, in order to realize recipes and stories that struck a chord.

“For me, being mixed, myself, and seeing James Hemings was also mixed—there’s not a ton of black chefs that I know personally or can name as a comparison to the Emerils or the Paula Deens,” says Draluck. “That these two were the first celebrity chefs, that was the story that needed to be told.”

Every Thursday now through August 29, Draluck is telling that story with what little we know about the chefs, pairing their limited accounts with seasonal context and other historical documents from the late 18th century.

Photograph: Courtesy Hatchet Hall/Pascal Shirley

Hemings was classically trained in France and Jefferson was an avid gardener, so French technique and seasonal vegetables will play a role in a dish such as stuffed tomato with sweet corn, corn milk, lime and breadcrumbs. Hercules, conversely, came up in Mid-Atlantic and Southern kitchens, so his early-culinary education might take the form of a cornmeal waffle with trout roe, smoked maple and serrano ham. 

Each dinner will seat 12 and involve eight courses, culminating in Hemings’s own recipe for custardy “snow eggs.” The menu isn’t limited to only recipes and accounts revolving around Hemings and Hercules—it’s also inspired by the works of their largely unknown contemporaries whose work in plantation kitchens has largely been lost to the centuries. But hopefully, not lost forever; Draluck hopes to uncover more and launch another installment in February for Black History Month, to expound on the topic even further.

Hemings & Hercules runs every Thursday from August 8 to August 29 at Hatchet Hall, located in Culver City at 12517 Washington Blvd. Tickets cost $85 per person or $125 with beverage pairings, and are on sale now.

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