Interview with Ramin Ganeshram, author of The General’s Cook: A Novel


November 5, 2018
by Nichole Louise Also by this Author


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JAR: In a nutshell, can you give us a basic overview of The General’s Cook?

RG: The General’s Cook is about George Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules, a man who was known in his own time for his skills in the kitchen. I often call him America’s first celebrity chef. By period accounts, he was something like an eighteenth century Gordon Ramsay—which is quite remarkable given his status as an enslaved person. The book follows Hercules’ life in Washington’s presidential household in Philadelphia with multiple intrigues, the most important of which is laying the ground for a covert bid for freedom.

JAR: What initially drew you to the eighteenth century period and Hercules as a historical figure?

Ramin Ganeshram. (Jean Paul Vellotti)

RG: I can honestly say I’ve been fascinated with the eighteenth century since my parents took me to Philadelphia when I was eight to celebrate the American Bicentennial. At the same time, it didn’t truly feel that the stories that so fascinated me represented me or people like me. I felt that although I am an American they weren’t my stories. I’ve always wondered about the people behind the scenes—the people whose stories got ignored: women, people of color, native people. When I first learned about Hercules from soul food historian Adrian Millerback in 2010, it was the first time anyone spoke to me about a real person of color from the time who didn’t fit any theretofore accepted narrative but was still larger than life. I became obsessed pretty quickly.

JAR: How did you approach the research process?

RG: Being a journalist by training I am unafraid to ask anybody pretty much anything and that is usually the starting point. My first step in any research process is to ask myself: who has the answers to my questions? When I figure that out, the first question is always: where is the information I want? Once I get enough information about where to start, I dive in. Part of my process is to realize that you can find gold where you wouldn’t expect to find it. In this case, even a few words about a person who has been forced into the shadows of history are as valuable as an encyclopedic tome. Actually visiting sites I am researching is incredibly important. Those visits spark ideas for new pathways to research every time.

JAR: Were you satisfied with the information that was available? If not, what were you hoping to learn that just didn’t seem to be available?


RG: Considering that Hercules was an enslaved person there was a remarkable amount of information to be garnered about him—beginning with Washington’s step-grandson’s biographical sketch in his book Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington.The rest of the information was culled painstakingly from short mentions in letters or account books. I do wish that I could have found material definitely placing Hercules in the sphere of James Hemmings, the enslaved cook of Thomas Jefferson. The men lived within a block of one another and lived virtually identical lives. It was also impossible to determine factually when the presumptive Gilbert Stuart painting of Hercules might have been painted. In fact, art historians still refuse to authenticate the subject of the work as most definitely being Hercules.

JAR: What resources—books, manuscript collections, people—did you find most helpful or useful?

RG: The most useful information came from George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. Custis was Washington’s step-grandson and in this biography he gives a detailed description of Hercules spanning more than a page. This provided my first clue into Hercules’ physical appearance, his skill in the kitchen, and his importance—it wasn’t usual for enslaved people to be immortalized in this way. Steven Decatur’s Private Affairs of George Washington contained household accounts for the cook’s time in Philadelphia which were enormously useful for its mentions of expenditures by and for Hercules.  The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series were incredibly useful as were a number of books like The Lower Sort: Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750–1800 and Life in Early Philadelphia: Documents from the Revolutionary and Early National Periods as well as Gary B. Nash’s Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840.  There are many more too numerous to mention here, but they can be seen in the Historical Notes at the end of The General’s Cook.Anna Coxe Toogood, a historian at the National Park Service in Philadelphia, was my lifeline to Hercules in Philadelphia while Mary Thompson, a historian at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, kept me connected to him at that site.

JAR: Were there any interesting historical facts about Hercules that you found during your research, but could not work into the plot?

RG: Hercules received tickets from the Washingtons for the theater and the circus during his time in Philadelphia and those are intriguing details that I couldn’t find a way to use.

 JAR: Could you talk about what Hercules was doing during the American Revolution? Was he bound to the plantation or was he sent to fight in the place of his owner like many enslaved people were of that time?

RG: It’s hard to say based on the evidence we have from Mount Vernon. Hercules first appears on the tithables (taxable property) list there in 1771, and again in 1772, 1773, and 1774. He doesn’t appear again until 1786. However, we know that General Washington’s camp cooks were well documented and Hercules does not appear on any of those rolls. I imagine he likely remained at Mount Vernon during that time.

JAR: If you could interview Hercules, who was quite a complex figure, what would you ask him?

RG: I’d love to know what he was doing during the Revolution for sure, but most of all I’d like to know where he went and what he really did after his escape. In The General’s Cook, I try to create a plausible narrative based on known facts, but I wish I knew the truth. Also, his children and their descendants eventually disappear from the historical record. It would be a dream for me to be able to find his family.

JAR: Do you have any plans for further work dealing with this time period?

RG: Colonial America, the Revolutionary War and Early Republic are endlessly fascinating to me and I never get tired of it. I’m currently working on two more novels—one that takes place during Washington’s occupation of Manhattan during the summer of 1776 and another that spans the mid eighteenth century through to its end.


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