Jefferson’s Slave Cooks Bring French Cuisine To Cincinnati

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The portrait of Edith Fossett at Fossett’s in Keswick Hall.  In white chef’s toque she balances a bowl of apples on her lap, with the knife she’ll use to peel them.

There’s a restaurant called Fossett’s in Charlottsville, Virginia, near the Monticello estate of President Thomas Jefferson that has huge Cincinnati ties.  The restaurant sits in a high end golf resort called Keswick Hall.   It’s named after the President’s former slave cook, Edith Hern Fossett (1787-1854), who ‘jumped the broom’ with Joseph Fossett, Monticello’s enslaved blacksmith.    It was Edith who brought French cuisine to the Cincinnati elite.

Edith was separated from her husband when she accompanied Jefferson to the White House during his two-term Presidency (1801-1808), where she was to be one of his cooks. Joseph so missed Edith that he ran away from Monticello to D.C. to visit her and was beaten and returned.   So much for Jefferson’s ‘benevolent slave master’ reputation, but it does make a good love story.

It was in the capital that Edith learned the art of French cooking from Honore Julien, the former chef to President George Washington.   Jefferson had come back from his time in France as ambassador to the court of Louis XVI during the American Revolution, as a pure Francophile.   Under Julien and Jefferson’s White House butler, Etienne Lemaire, Edith learned how to cook Jefferson’s new favorite cuisine.   This was a technique that she passed on to her family, namely her two sons, Peter and William, who started Cincinnati’s most prominent catering businesses in antebellum Cincinnati, and used this influence to help hundreds of runaway slaves escape to freedom.

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Monticello’s kitchen, where Edith Fossett passed on her skills to sons Peter and William.

Recipes of Lemaire’s that survived into the Monticello kitchen and undoubtedly came to Cincinnati with Edith, were his Beef a la Mode, Boullion, Breast of Mutton, and Pancakes.       He was also famous for his desserts, among them petit fours and Savoy biscuits.   There was always ice cream served at Jefferson’s White House, and Lemaire hired an extra servant whose only job was to turn the crank on the ice cream machine.   One significant recipe of Chef Julien’s that made it to Monticello after the Presidency, was his cream cheese.   Another dish new to America that Chef Julien introduced to visitors at Jefferson’s White House was described by a visitor:
“a pie called macaroni which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable. Mr.Merriweather Lewis told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.”

Jefferson was so intent on keeping the French technique in his Monticello kitchen, he invited Chef Julien there in 1809 for a remedial cooking session for Edith and her half sister Fanny.

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A drawing of Peter Fossett as a young house boy at Jefferson’s Monticello, from his 1898 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer.

When Jefferson died, his will freed only a few of his slaves, generally those believed to be of his own blood. The rest were sold off, many family members of those he’d freed, to pay for his exorbitant debts.     One of the lucky ones freed was Joseph Fossett, who is believed to be a son of Jefferson through his mother, Mary Hemings. Mary was originally owned by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wyles, and he inherited Mary through his wife.     While Jefferson was away, Mary Hemings, was leased to Thomas Bell, a merchant of Charlottsville, who later bought and freed her, having two children by Bell.   Mary was the sister to Sally Hemings, who bore five children with Jefferson during her bondage to him.

Joseph Fossett spent years finally buying the freedom of his wife and seven children who were sold in the settlement of Monticello.     They came to Cincinnati between 1837 and 1843, where Joseph ran a blacksmith shop on Vine Street, and his wife Edith, used her fine cooking skills in the catering business, aided by her two sons.   Their high class French cooking techniques made them able to be the caterers to the rich and famous of Cincinnati.

William Bell Fossett learned the art of cooking working with his mother, and then was joined by his brother Peter in 1850, when he was bought and freed.     After the death of their mother Edith in 1854, William moved to New York, called by the Underground Railroad.   He married Dorothy Condol in Geneva, New York, and took a job as a waiter at the Cataract Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York, a known hotbed of Underground Railroad activity.    Dorothy’s father, William Condol, was a known abolitionist and some of the Condol family were subscription agents for Fredrick Douglas’ abolitionist newspapers.

Many of the workers at the Cataract Hotel were free African-Americans, or runaways, with family just across the border in Canada.   There were many accounts of slaves being abducted from their traveling parties and secreted across the border.     William’s wife’s sister, was married to L.B. F Hamilton, also a worker at the Cataract hotel, also a known manager of the Underground Railroad, and the owner of a dining hall and catering business.   Hamilton’s mother’s was a slave, Catherine Bell, and William’s half aunt was Sarah Bell Scott, wife of free mulatto Jesse Scott, who had bought his mother, himself and siblings Daniel and Isabella in the Monticello estate settlement in 1827 after Jefferson’s death. This connection is probably how William met his wife.   Having the connection at the last known stop on the Underground Railroad before Canada would have given the Fossetts and their Cincinnati Underground railroad colleagues a connection for helping slaves escape all the way to freedom after leaving their care.     Needless to say, any runaway slaves who were given aid by the Fossetts were fed well.

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The Cataract House in Niagara Falls, New York, where William Fossett aided fugitive slaves, burned to the ground in 1946.

William and Dorothy Fossett had two daughters during their stay in Niagara Falls, Mary and Edith, with whom they were living in Cincinnati by the census of 1870. William found work with his brother Peter’s catering business, when Peter bought the business of his former boss Kate Jonas after her death, and then opened his own catering business.   He was known to have catered two grand events in Cincinnati – the opening of the Southern Railway at Music Hall, and the Masonic banquet at the north wing of Music Hall., shortly after the burning of the Masonic Temple on Third and Walnut Streets. When the Masons bought the former Scottish Rite Cathedral, William Fossett was made their chief caterer.   William’s daughter Edith Fossett Miller, operated his catering business after his death in 1901, on the corner of Kemper Lane and Locust in Walnut Hills.

Many accounts of the quality of both Peter and William Fossett’s catering are documented in the Cincinnati newspapers.   At George and Annie Blinn’s 50th Anniversary celebration in Cumminsville, in 1878, the Enquirer reported, “The supper was from the culinary of Fossett, a novel caterer and connosseur of refined and delicate taste. No delicacy was omitted – all rich and rare.”

At the 1881 Colored Waiter’s Union Gala, at Wuebbler’s Hall on Freeman Street, the Enquirer reported, “This elegant and sumptuous menu was served by that popular and well known caterer, William Fossett and assistants. The menu consisted of sherry, stewed oysters a la American; saddle rock oysters, fried, claret; canardaux olives; jambon a la printanier, dines carnies a la emperial, salad de valaille a la mayonnaise; champagne, fruit; Neopolitan ice cream (a fave of Jeffersons) a la macedoine, café noir, cigars.”

Both brothers gave back many times over to the Cincinnati African-American community, learning the value and difficulty of freedom from their own family’s experience.   In addition to his Underground Railroad activities, William was the first president of the Sons of Liberty, founded in 1854, which helped many African- Americans before and after the Civil War.

Peter married Sarah Mayrant Walker, in Cincinnati in 1854.   She was a hairdresser from South Carolina, daughter of Rufus and Judith Mayrant, and came to Cincinnati under the care of Captain Gwynne, whose daughter became Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.   In Cincinnati, her techniques made her the hairdresser to the wealthy elite of Cincinnati.    Sarah was a benefactor and volunteer for the Cincinnati Colored Orphanage, and was also sort of our own Rosa Parks, suing the Cincinnati Street Railway in 1859 for refusing her a ride. She won the case, set the precedent for African American women to be allowed to ride on Cincinnati Streetcars.

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Peter and Sarah Fossett.

Peter and Sarah were very much involved in the Underground Railroad, and Peter selected as one of a handful of African-Americans as captain to lead Company F of the Second Regiment of the Cincinnati Black Brigade in the Civil War. He gave land to form the Cumminsville Baptist Church on Streng Street in 1870, where he was pastor until his death in 1901.   He worked without pay as minister, but his congregation gave him a trip in 1898 back to his Monticello birthplace for a last reminiscence of his childhood.    The congregation still exists today in tribute to Peter Fossett.

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A 1935 Homecoming photo on the steps of the First Baptist Church of Cumminsville, founded by Peter Fossett.

Peter and Sarah Fossett had one surviving daughter Martha who married John Kelley in 1882 and had two daughters, Bessie Kelly Curtis, and Isabelle Kelly Miller.   Martha did not get into the food business, but took up the profession of her mother, and was a hairdresser.

But, Peter Fossett’s granddaughter, Bessie Kelley Curtis, took up the family business and was still operating his catering business in the 1950s, with recipes passed on Edith.  She was also a long time member of the Cumminsville Baptist Church that her grandfather  founded.   Her husband Ira W. Curtis had been an auto repairman for many years at Davies Auto Repair on Spring Grove Avenue near their Streng Street home.

Peter and his family are buried at the Union Baptist Cemetery in Price Hill, and William is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery with his family.

With their Monticello legacy, the Fossett family spread the love for French cuisine and the new American novelties, ice cream and macaroni, in Cincinnati.   It’s no wonder that Cincinnati has been the only city in the U.S. that’s had three concurrent Michelin Five Star rated French Restaurants – the Maisonette, the Gourmet Room, and Pigall’s – from 1970-1973.     Food is the great equalizer, and it was food that allowed the Fossetts and their descendants help so many in their African-American community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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